Emma Cooper Key


Emma Cooper-Key has been painting since 1989. Heavily pregnant with her first child, she decided to learn to draw at Brewery Arts in Cirencester and produced a series of bold still lives in charcoal and ink, the foundation for her subsequent career as an artist.


After her daughter, Elspeth, was born in 1990, she took painting lessons with Prue Pardue in Oxford. ‘Prue taught me about oil and how to mix it,’ says Emma. ‘She taught me all the basic rules of painting like the Golden Section and how important it is to have emotion behind each stroke and not to be timid.’ From Prue, she learnt to mix her palette from just five primary colours. ‘I learnt to use a little bit of a colour in each mix so my palette has unity. Prue insisted that I never try and take a short cut when mixing. It’s absolutely essential to do this properly and take time and care as the palette is the starting point.’


A group show in Cork Street soon followed and, encouraged by the gallery, Emma took up painting in earnest from her studio at home in Gloucestershire. A solo show followed at Merriscourt in 2002.   ‘I had 75 paintings, mainly of Venice and several nudes, and I pretty much sold the lot,’ says Emma. Her distinctive style was emerging, a multi-layered canvas, pulsating with colour, comprising textured daubs, often delineated by scarlet. ‘I treat my canvas with gesso so I’ve already transformed that pure white flat surface to make it more interesting and challenging.  I’ll often then paint the entire canvas in red and then I start to mix, a process that can take three or four hours. My method is to put a layer on then scratch off and repeat. I’m not fragile with the canvas, I’ve learnt to be robust with it and to embrace mistakes.’


The new work in her current exhibition, a series of flower paintings in oil, was initially inspired by a bunch of blue hydrangeas sent to her mother’s funeral last July: ‘They were so beautiful and I wanted to capture a sense of them. I don’t think you can improve on reality so I don’t try and copy it but I couldn’t stop interpreting the flowers – I became obsessed. I wanted to paint them again and again and again.’


Apart from the big flower paintings (ranging in size from 1.51 x 1.22 metres to 30 x 30 cms), the exhibition also includes a series of ten nudes, How Do I Look? ‘I work with models at the Tabernacle and the Royal Academy then paint from those life drawings back at my Scrubs Lane studio. I wanted a humorous and spontaneous interpretation of the nude,’ explains Emma. ‘Despite their stillness, life models radiate vitality, personality and energy and a need to flaunt their inner being, despite being self-conscious in their nudity. I wanted to capture that sense of life and the turbulent combination of insecurity and pride about body image.’


Finally, Weligama 2015, is a series of 24 small 13 x 13 cm oils, inspired by a trip to Sri Lanka. ‘I was in Tabrobane, Geoffrey Dobbs’s private island off Galle. I was having lunch in his home and saw six portraits of Japanese geisha girls. I loved the tension between showing off and hiding behind a headdress. I loved the way the girls were so defined by their dome-like wigs. I’ve tried to depict the humour that sometimes arises from lavish headgear, reminiscent of fashion shows or the sort of absurd baroque splendour that comes from a towering, powdered and bejewelled Madame Pompadour wig.’


In 2011 Emma went on a four-day jewellery course at the Central School of Jewellery in Hatton Garden. ‘I was immediately under its spell and got the bug,’ enthuses Emma. Emma continues to make jewellery in Hatton Garden and works to commission. Her work varies from fine 18-carat gold necklaces with precious and semi-precious stones to large, gold-plated, signature pieces that are designed to double as decorative objects when not being worn.


Emma has exhibited in Warwickshire (Stour Gallery), Gloucestershire (Merriscourt) and Cornwall (Padstow Fine Art) as well as London (Cork Street, Cadogan Contemporary and Great Western Studios). Her most recent show was at the Tabernacle in Notting Hill in 2012.


Charlotte Metcalfe

For more information, please contact Emma Cooper Key.