One day in late summer, 1939, a gypsy flower seller visited a house in Thundersly Essex. A young pregnant woman came to the door. After a short exchange, the gypsy on leaving remarked ”Your child will be a genius!”. Whatever the word may or may not signify, this anecdote is included here, because like the contents of this story, it happened.
Eric John Cooper was born in 1939 in Southend on Sea, Essex, into a multitalented and versatile family of Huguenot origin; Grandfather; Clock and watchmaker-Jeweller. Father: Thames sailing bargeman, Shipwright, Woodcarver, Joiner, Model, puzzle and toymaker, Inventor, restorer, Musician. Mother: Founder and Director of a large celebrated dancing academy with an unmatched reputation for tuition and 1st class entertainment and fundraising displays across the country for over 60years.
Thus did this boy find nothing odd in growing up in an incessant, jumping power house, continually packed with people of all ages, intent on pursuing perfection in their chosen fashion and discipline for some deadline or another, quietly ruled over by a mother who never seemed to go to bed and a father who never seemed to stop making things! In addition, this scenario was set to music, it never ceased. Eric’s lullaby was pounding feet, dramatic delivery and singing. This child woke up if any of it stopped. Since Eric possessed a silvery treble voice, until it broke, plus a flair for acting, he frequently found himself thrust through the thick, heavy curtains during performance intervals, in choirboy’s surplice and ruff, to calm a restive audience, hidden and invisible in the inky void beyond the blinding arc of lights.
The indelible effects of such a childhood are not to be underrate; amongst the first things he saw were his fathers drawings, tools, models, then the real thing in the shipyard. Along with the hypnotic ticking of wondrous time-pieces in his grandfathers workshop, his visual cortex was surely programmed to resonate with wave, hull and geometric precision for the tension and resolution of these is continually apparent in all his creative work, whatever the materials, his archetypes are detected in those sublime enigmatic traces of vanished civilizations, unequalled, yet fluent evidence of a universal, eternal aesthetic which transcends all culture yet unifies and speaks humanity’s common language. He would like to think that his most valid work articulates the ceaseless transfiguration of the blackest of human nature with a blinding light. Post war children raised in such a busy household were expected to work their passage. This boys duties combined care of livestock - goats and poultry – firewood and coal collection and storage, shoes and clothes repairs, hedges cut, vegetable garden maintained, lawns mown, fireplace iron and brass cleaned and polished, fires laid, floors scrubbed, paper round before school and in Eric’s case, meals prepared and cooked.
Due to his mothers Saturday dancing classes held in their house, it fell to him to feed the family at midday. This added task was to have a profound effect on this lads life. Starting with the lowly ‘spotted dog’ and custard, boiled in a cloth, he soon became famous for his feather light steamed orange and lemon sponges topped with aromatic glazes with crème anglaise. Very quickly, his baking exploits reached a high point; he conquered the girls’ domestic science class at school and walked off with first prize for Madeira fruit cake. This, plus his continuing passion for lampooning teachers and events with satirical drawing, (now appearing in the local press) revealed a flair for decorating cakes with icing and spun sugar which he pursued to wedding cake standard and sowed the seeds of the idea for a career combining art and gastronomy. Thus inspired, on leaving school, he took on full-time City and Guilds training for cookery, hotel and restaurant management. After acquiring those qualifications he set off to gain unrivalled 1st class continental experience in famous establishments, in Paris, Nice and Wiesbaden and also learn the languages, which would be an advantage when he presided over his Mayfair culinary sensation.
Unfortunately, fate was having none of this for his dream began to seriously unravel whilst serving and observing the eminent, famous, wealthy and powerful glitterati at close quarters in their own habitat. Disenchantment, even contempt set in, especially whilst working as a floor waiter in one of Germany’s most noted hotels. Equally, close contact and conversation with celebrated artists, musicians and renowned international figures forcibly convinced him that his ambitions needed upgrading. The prospect of a life as obsequious public servant, even to these, lost its allure.
Eric began to heed his companions’ advice that he was wasting his talent as an artist. Only by now he realised he wasn’t an artist – he couldn’t even draw. This wake up call led in one direction, he took it, jumped ship at night, confided in one close friend, abandoned his culinary fantasy and fled back home.
On the strength of his accumulated scribblings, he was accepted and enrolled on a 3 year foundation and diploma course in painting, stained glass, drawing, sculpture, graphic design and lithography along with various academic subjects. Having successfully completing this hurdle and thoroughly entranced by stained glass in St Chapelle and Chartres, in an act, which felt like bravado, submitted a folder of work to the Royal College of Art department of Stained glass, which to his astonishment, accepted him for a 3 year degree course. His amazement was timely for, fate was having none of this either. At 25years of age, after a vivid childhood, 3 years of life enhancing and transforming experience abroad, then following a 4 year intensive academic study and concentrated artistic practice and much else, if he’d learned only one thing in all that time, it was that art without honesty is not art at all, but deceit. That all the tricks, skills and techniques in the world do not make an artist.He also realised with alarm that he had nothing honest, of any importance to say to anyone about himself, about others, about humanity, the planet, the universe, about the mystery of being alive…nothing! His quest had reached a dead end. His vision had cleared but the horizon had receded, his point vanished. Worse; these reflections didn’t appear to have any fellow students, or staff, around him.
It became intolerable. Whatever he hungered for it was not to be found in this royal hothouse for the aesthetic elite. He needed fresh air or he would suffocate.. There was only one way out and he took it. To much consternation, he resigned and found a job as a lorry driver to support his wife and young daughter, but fate was having none of this either and put an end to his artistic ‘retirement’ by suddenly inspiring him to design, make and sell a whole range of unique and captivating lampshades, which flew off the shelves of shops and then major London stores.
Eric may have decided that he had nothing of value to say but his lampshades said it for him. Becoming a major source of income for many years, a cottage industry which rapidly outgrew itself into a large house south of the river, which began to resemble Eric’s childhood home. Ceaseless activity, children everywhere, thousands of lampshades being made on the kitchen table with the little Coopers all underneath, cutting their creative teeth, absorbing skills which have become vital to them all in their professional artistic lives.
This form of childhood osmosis is not to be underestimated for when the Edwardian house fabric began to need desperate repairs, Eric suddenly found he had acquired his fathers many skills with wood and many other materials. So, working in partnership with his landlord, maintained the property for over 20 years. Living in such an affluent area, it was not long before his reputation as ‘General Household Surgeon’ ensured an endless queue of patients at his door. After all, if you remake chimneystacks or windows, advertising ceases to be an issue. Very soon he was dealing with all manner of local problems: windows, doors, gates, walls, staircases, brickwork, plastering, plumbing, electrics, kitchens, bathrooms, drains, interior and exterior modifications and décor. In short a general factotum with artistic tendencies, which he applied to sign writing, signage and exhibition design, children’s furniture, prototypes, wood, carving, gilding, heraldry. Plus he gilded two glad panels for the Queen. He also specialised in antique, ceramic glass and wood restoration.
In order to cope with this demand, the Cooper household went into overdrive, literally underpinned by his wife Jennifer’s passion for fabrics, embroidery, wall hangings, quilts, hats, clothes and soft furnishings and all the while those little eyes were watching, little hands helping, creating, learning skills which would never desert them. In the late 80’s Eric’s landlord died and the house was put up for auction. So faced with the prospect of eviction, he followed the advise of friends and encouraged and funded by the local Barclays bank manager, he bought the property and embarked on a major programme of restoration to transform the decayed Edwardian building into something extremely special. This work carried out solely by the Coopers and friends, under Eric’s direction and monitored by the bank, boasted numerous striking features including an additional top studio floor with glass roof, split level balcony served by a spiral stair case, a new main roof of welsh slate with hand worked rafters which resembled the inverted hull of a ship, an added conservatory, an illuminated glass arch, a massive hardwood venetian window overlooking the garden. Fitted kitchen, 2nd bath/shower room, new electrics, plumbing, central heating and drains.
This work took 2 ½ years, happily funded by the bank. £100,00was spent on materials alone. Then in 1990, when Eric and Jennifer, alarmed at the national economic meltdown, tried to alter course, the bank refused, telling them to complete the project. Then several weeks later they foreclose, evicted the family and forced the sale of the property for a fraction of its value. This act of financial treachery effectively put the whole family on the streets. Until very recently, Eric and Jennifer, with their possessions in boxes, had been living like refugees, from pillar to post, surviving on their wits and resilience. At least their children were in their late teens, have survived and grown stronger in the process. The bar was raised and they flew over it.
In 1995, as busy as ever, Eric, somewhat out of character, or just exhausted, actually considered slowing down and catching sight of a curiously enigmatic advertisement in the local paper, applied for an interview and suddenly found himself vetted and employed as steward and guide in the state apartments at Hampton Court Palace which is about as far removed from current insanity as feasibly possible, for a weary man in desperate need of refuge.
This sprawling majestic time capsule, furnished with exquisite contents, works of art, staffed by a curiously cultures company of often eccentric misfits and various ghosts, this surreal time warp became for Eric a secluded sanctuary, a place of reflection and learning where freedom from financial crises, he could devote himself to the passing creative commission at leisure. He had discovered equilibrium and if this wasn’t heaven on earth, it was close.
But wait! Fate wasn’t done yet! His idyllic sabbatical was doomed. A close friend who worked in admin at St Paul’s boys’ school, Hammersmith, got wind of a vacancy for a new Art and Drama Technician and blew his cover. So with some reservation he attended the interview and was offered the post, which on closer examination proved to be an offer he couldn’t sensibly refuse. Apart from the financial benefits, it was one of the most prestigious schools in the land. As old as Hampton Court Palace (1509). Its old Pauline’s include John Milton-Halley, GK Chesterton and Field Marshal Montgomery. Also, as he was to discover, inside its gates, excellence was the norm, outside mediocrity and worse was ‘Derigueur’. This, plus his own scholastic inclination and the prospect of working with the boys to realise their artistic potential, plus the sheer hard graft of stage and set design and construction proved irresistible. He accepted the position and, close to tears, quit the palace and began 6 of the most memorable years of his career. His responsibilities encompassed not only the smooth running of the art dept, 2nd to none, but dealing with continual exhibitions in the Gallery and meeting the testing demands of the extremely adventurous drama productions. All this began to feel just like home again.
Then when the bursar discovered he had a stained glass expert on the premises, Eric found himself in the eye of a storm. He was taken to a remote store on the school grounds and there, buried under rubbish and old furniture, they found 3 dozen exceptional Edwardian stained glass panels, portraying the coats of arms of notable old Pauline’s, rescued from the main assembly hall of the now vanished old school which stood in Hammersmith, of which little survives. Most of these extraordinary examples of the vitrial art were cracked and smashed, with holes trodden through them. When Eric pointed out their quality and value, the bursar immediately put the money aside and commissioned him to cost, restore and install them around the building, especially the new music school, which, being under construction at the time, had its windows specially designed exactly to Eric’s specifications and where the finest examples can now be seen by the stairs to the atrium balcony, where can also be seen an example of Eric’s skill in gilded wood carving.
This whole project lasted for 3 years in tandem with his school duties and paved the way for he and Jennifer being commissioned to gild the Colet Memorial, a huge bronze contraption cum birdcage tribute to the school’s founder, which dominates the entrance. This work, requiring scaffolding, took all of summer 2001 and was in addition to the annual frenzy of increasingly sophisticated examination work, plus continual theatrical productions, one of which ‘On The Town’ included dancers from the Royal Ballet, full orchestra and a life size articulated dinosaur.
It was about this time that things started to get out of hand, never short of their private work Eric and Jennifer received a church commission for a large rose window. This, in addition to increasing unpaid work at St Paul’s, gave Eric no realistic alternative but to resign or go mad. So, with many enduring regrets (again), he turned his back on academia and one more ploughed his own furrow. If there was any comfort in this it was knowing that 2 people were required to replace him and now, 12 years later, his abilities are still needed there.
The St Osmond’s Church rose window commission in Barnes, unique in that its filled with blinding, hand cut and polished Swarovski grade crystal which, on sunny afternoons, fills the building with rainbows. This epic, completed after 3 years, was promptly followed by yet another tour de force, which rode on the back of the St Paul’s restoration and involved 15 large, unknown William Morris/Burne Jones windows. Originally made for and hidden away in the Whiteland’s Girls College, Gilbert Scott Chapel at Putney. The commission was to remove, restore and reinstate them when the college moved to its new campus, where placed at eye level, their superb painted details can be appreciated fully for the first time at close quarters in new frames, designed and supplied by Eric, made from elegant, unpainted ash and are displayed in the gracious 17th century mansion ‘Parkstead House’, which from a great height has unrestricted views over Richmond Park.
At present, apart from stained glass, Ericlightwizard and his wizardess are engaged in making large decorative wall panels for a restaurant, using antique, coloured, textured silvered glasses and in ‘quiet’ moments, the complex restoration of ancient carved oak Tudor panelling. They see no reason to forsake what they have generated together. With 6 children of their own, all talented and 17 grandchildren, all gifted in surprising ways, it will be in safe hands long after they have disappeared.
N.B: Their eldest daughter and archivist has created this web overview of their accomplishments together over 50 years, at least up to 2013.