Eileen Cooper: Nights at the Circus

Sims Reed Gallery is delighted to present Nights at the Circus, an exhibition of new work by the celebrated British artist Eileen Cooper, opening on 4th March 2020.

In the Dressing Room, Collage with linocut, monoprint, pastel, conte and watercolour, 2019, 38 x 25.5cm | © Eileen Cooper 2021

Comprised of twenty works on paper of unique collages, monoprints and a linocut, plus a new woodcut edition to be launched by the gallery, this is Cooper’s second show with Sims Reed. The presentation takes its title from Angela Carter’s seminal novel, Nights at the Circus, from which Cooper developed the featured works. Published in 1984, the book incorporates multiple categories of fiction, referencing fairy tales and weaving them into magical realism — themes that frequently appear in Cooper’s work.

The opportunity to visit Nights at the Circus arose with The Folio Society commissioning Cooper to create illustrations for a new edition of Carter’s novel. Revisiting the novel elicited deep connections that tied Carter’s characters with imagery in Eileen’s work and subconscious. The result reveals a new body of work on paper which combines motifs inspired by the literary work and ideas drawn from her own imagination. A very personal interpretation of the story is told through Eileen’s eyes.

Pig (Blue Moon), Linocut printed in colours, 2020, 24 x 31cm | © Eileen Cooper 2021

A colour palette is first established and paves the way for Eileen to create handmade, monoprinted papers, which are then torn, cut, layered and assembled as ‘backdrops’ or ‘stage lighting’ for the composition. This unique way of working involves a mixture of printmaking, flat expanses of colour and drawing, collaged together to produce unique works. This has become a new way of working for Eileen, a process that began when she was creating work for her 2019 exhibition Short Stories at Sims Reed Gallery. Vibrant red, blue and ochre tones form the colour palette for the exhibition. These colours resonate with her personal memories of the circus and create a visual ambience for the story’s setting.

She adds: ‘After I had a good idea of the images I wanted to use and where they fitted in the text, I established a colour palette. I prepared a large number of monoprinted flat colour backgrounds, which would be my collage material. Then I cut numerous lino blocks, printing, drawing, painting and eventually collaging it all together. It became the most incredibly flexible way to work, both physical and joyful, imagery and technique developing together.’

The Ring Master, Collage with linocut, monoprint, screenprint and gouache, 2019, 38 x 25.5cm | © Eileen Cooper 2021
The Ring Master, Collage with linocut, monoprint, screenprint and gouache, 2019, 38 x 25.5cm | © Eileen Cooper 2021

Angela Carter’s feminism mythology appealed to Cooper, and she was particularly drawn to the protagonist Sophie Fevvers: ‘the celebrated Aerialiste, a cockney Virgin, hatched from an egg and ready to develop fully-fledged wings’. Many of the female characters – including Sophie’s motherly figure Lizzie, Mignon, the Princess of Abyssinia and Sybil the pet pig – resonated with Eileen. Together with their developing love stories, these elements wove their way into her work. Both her previous show (Short Stories) and the exhibition celebrate a female heroine and the theme of performance.

Whilst in Short Stories Eileen focused on Giselle, here she follows the adventures and exploits of Fevvers. The subjects of the Princess of Abyssinia and the tigers, Walser and the Bear, and Fevvers with her wings, all touch upon themes already present in her work over many years. Eileen’s engagement with the literary work allowed many pre-existing themes in her work to resurface and the result is a colourful new group of collages and prints in Nights at the Circus.

The exhibition includes twenty works on paper comprised of unique collages, monoprints, a linocut and a woodcut. A new woodcut edition, Blue Moon, will be launched. Prices range from £600 (prints) to £1,500 (collages). The exhibition coincides with the launch of a new Folio Society edition of Angela Carter’s Nights at the Circus.

The Folio Society edition of Angela Carter’s Nights at the Circus illustrated by Eileen Cooper and introduced by Sarah Waters is exclusively available from 1st March 2021 at foliosociety.com/circus

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