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Carl Cooper

1912 – 1966

Carl Cooper (1912-1966), ceramic decorator, contracted poliomyelitis in his twenties. Although he lived in Murrumbeena, he met the Boyd family through John Perceval, who also had polio and whom he had met in hospital. In 1941, Arthur Boyd painted him in his wheelchair, pushed by David Boyd, in a work called Progression which was bought by John Reed. Living close to the AMB pottery established by Arthur Merric Boyd and John Perceval in the mid-1940s, Cooper became interested in making pots himself. Boyd’s biographer Darleen Bungey provides a vivid account, based on Boyd’s recollections, of what he was like to be around: ‘His ambitions had been thwarted. Initially he had wanted to be a pilot, or, if not a pilot, then a steward for BOAC, the British airline. Polio grounded him, hitting him harder than Perceval and sentencing him to life in a wheelchair. These two men together made Arthur’s life a misery: “John and Carl . . . it was like living with a cat and a mouse . . . . constantly fighting, constantly brawling . . . and it came back to rest on us”. If Carl wasn’t creating chaos at the pottery, he was disrupting Open Country: “He used to wind himself around to our house . . . he’d have terrible fights with people . . . throw things and lash out at anyone at the nearest point to him.” Arthur’s description of Carl Cooper, “dissatisfied, fierce, crushed”, is confirmed in a series of portraits. In each painting he seems both mentally and physically uncomfortable. His head is held stiffly, his neck set at a rigid angle. The only movement in one work comes from the loose rendering of his jacket, suggesting the momentum of wildly spinning arms.’ Cooper lived with the orphan Barry Gordon, who pushed him up to the pottery each day. Gordon mixed the clay and Boyd and Perceval threw pots for Cooper to decorate until Cooper’s ‘explosive, jealous, possessive’ personality led to brawls, usually with Perceval. Cooper’s pieces were characteristically functional earthenware, incised or painted in designs influenced by Aboriginal bark paintings he had seen reproduced in Art in Australia. Sometime after 1945, Cooper set up his own studio. He was often too ill to work and eventually ceased production in 1963. The National Gallery of Australia has nine of his pieces. There is a same-size portrait of Cooper by Boyd in the collection of the National Gallery of Australia, as well as two drawings of Cooper by Boyd.

Updated 2018