Norman Cope – Stoke-on-Trent artist (1925-1943)
Norman Cope, born 29 June 1925, was a young Potteries artist tragically killed in 1943 after a fall on the staircase of Burslem School of Art. He was considered by his peers to be the most talented of the pupils – high praise given that his classmates included Arthur Berry and John Shelton. The drawing which Cope produced for his entrance examination to the School of Art unsettled Berry to the extent that he felt that he would not make the cut himself.
Dissatisfied with his job as an apprentice designer at Spode Copeland, Cope argued with his friend Berry over the latter’s admiration of Lowry, Cope believing Lowry’s work to be too naïve and provincial. He believed that the great masters of the twentieth century were Picasso, Kandinsky and surrealist painter de Chirico. He progressed from the Junior Art Department in 1940 after which he started to produce savage and expressionist oil paintings and drawings – his drawings of drunken soldiers reflected his revulsion to the violence of the war.
Cope was admitted into Edinburgh College of Art in October 1943 after being awarded the Andrew Grant (Entrance) Scholarship of £60 (5 years) the previous June. The Andrew Grant Bequest Entrance Scholarships were designed to enable students of merit, who did not qualify for any other source of funding, to attend Edinburgh College of Art. John Shelton noted that he himself had “won a place at Slade after failing to get in at Edinburgh (took Copey instead!)”. Berry and Shelton visited Cope in Edinburgh where he was lodging in Bread Street. His room had his latest pen and ink drawings – almost completely non-figurative – on display, in contrast to the more figurative works by Cope which are held in the National Collection. Cope had been impressed by a teacher in Edinburgh called Maxwell1, [presumably the same “Maxwell (The Edinboro’ lad)” who had a piece in the collection of Peter Watson2] with Cope subsequently starting to venture into the realms of surrealism.
Cope had by now embraced his image as an artist, dressing in a dark suit and tie with his dark hair centre-parted. Berry noted that he looked like the self-portrait by de Chirico, a comment which inspired Cope to work on his own surrealist painting “The endless monotony of existence”. Berry admired Cope’s self-containment which allowed him to focus on his art. This was in stark contrast to Berry’s own pre-occupation with girlfriends which was much to Cope’s amusement.
A ferocious graffiti image of a man – the eye of whom was centred around a hole gouged into the door and with the accompanying words “I am Nobody” – caught the imagination of both Arthur Berry and Norman Cope after the former spotted it on a toilet door in Edinburgh Salvation Army Hostel. Cope copied it to his notebook to take back to Stoke to show Berry during the fateful Christmas of 1943. Berry later feared that the picture had somehow been a jinx.
In a letter dated 1st December, 1943, Shelton wrote to his friend “I shall be looking forward to seeing you on the 16th. I wonder if Berry will be coming home too.” The three men – Cope, Shelton and Berry – were to be reunited at the fateful Burslem School of Arts Ball. Norman lost his grip on the handrail and fell down the stairs. Shelton recollected that the only mark on Norman was a slight line on his temple. Norman Cope spent the night on the firewatching mattresses at the School of Art. The next morning, Berry awoke to find that his friend had died during the night.
Two of Norman Cope’s works can be found in the recent BBC Your Paintings project. They are in the collection of the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery. The above article was collated from the pages of A Three and Sevenpence Halfpenny Man – Arthur Berry (Kermase Editions, 1986), from the diaries of John Shelton (1923-1993) and from information supplied by Michael Cope and Helen Jones. Images of Norman Cope’s work are reproduced with the kind permission of his family. There will be an exhibition in October 2012 of Norman Cope’s work – alongside that of his fellow students Arthur Berry and John Shelton – entitled The Burslem Boys.
REFERENCES AND ADDENDUM
1Edinburgh College of Art note [e-mail correspondence] that John Maxwell taught General Drawing and Still Life in The School of Drawing and Painting and was on the College staff from c1929/30.
2Letter from Robert MacBryde to his former tutor Ian Fleming as cited in Roger Bristow’s ‘The Last Bohemians’ (p.93)