Opening this Thursday (4 March) with a 3D walkthrough online, Eileen Cooper’s exhibition Nights at the Circus will continue on until the 15th of May at Sims Reed Gallery in London.
The celebrated artist created a new body of work inspired by the late Angela Carter’s novel of the same name. First published in 1984 the novel artfully melds feminism, post-modernism and Magic Realism together. The artist immediately connected with the book and was fascinated by the circus, aspects of performance along with the wonderful female characters, their journeys and personal evolution.
The exhibition features 20 works new unique collages, monoprints and a linocut — Each artwork combines motifs inspired by the literary work and ideas drawn from her own imagination and tells a personal interpretation of the story through the eyes of the artist.
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.
Cooper has produced works which bring the fictional characters to life including Sophie Fevvers (seen left) the cockney virgin aerialiste hatching from an egg with giant feather wings.
She recently spoke to London Magazine which I came across last week and thought I would share with my readers—read below as she speaks about her inspiration in creating this new body of work and works of fiction that inspired her from an early age.
London Magazine: I read Nights at the Circus about ten years ago and found myself marvelling at the fictive world Carter created, and your interpretations of the characters in the book are something akin to the ones I saw in my mind’s eye. Can you tell me the process by which you realised them?
Eileen Cooper: I’m pleased to hear my illustrations resonate with your memory of the book. I have not studied a book in this way since I was a schoolgirl, however I found this to be a very enjoyable process.
The book has a huge number of characters, so out of necessity, I selected a few that I felt most connected to. Also, I was drawn to particular events in the story which I concentrated on and used in my illustrations.
LM: Sophie Fevvers was a particular favourite of mine. That she is a cockney virgin, hatched from an egg and aerialiste was an extraordinary concoction. What did you make of her? And what do you think she represents in the book, and to you personally?
EC: I adore Fevvers, her bawdy, larger than life personality and extreme physical characteristics, including of course a pair of wings. One can sense Angela Carter’s sheer enjoyment in writing about Fevvers and her journey. I think she’s a touchstone for everyone who feels they don’t fit in, while at the same time, she’s liberated by this. In the time the book is set, and still relevant when Carter was writing it (and now perhaps) feminist freedom and the escape from oppression, must be seen to be a key aspect of Fevvers and the other female characters.
LM: Artists taking works of modern fiction to inspire a body of work is as far as I know quite rare. Do you think this is because the characters are too fully realised on the page, and because of that it becomes too restrictive?
EC: This is an interesting point. I know I’m in the territory of the illustrator by taking this project on and there are wonderfully gifted illustrators that could have done a fine job. However, I think it’s clever and daring of the Folio Society to commission an artist with little track record as an illustrator. Inevitably, I brought with me a wealth of my own imagery and interests.
I think if more opportunities arose, then certainly some artists would relish the prospect, as I did.
LM: Angela Carter was a true innovator, and this book artfully melds feminism, post-modernism and Magic Realism together. Do you think it was this that drew you to it?
EC: I immediately connected with the book. The circus, the aspects of performance and of course the wonderful female characters and their journeys and personal evolution all fascinated me. The book works on so many levels, and I’m sure I’ve only just excavated the surface. There are serious scholars who really do understand the breadth and depth of this book. At the same time, anyone would find it accessible, the narrative itself carries you along.
LM: Are there any works of fiction or non-fiction that have had an influence on your work?
EC: From childhood particularly, fairy tales (hence the connection to Angela Carter), fables, Greek myths, CS Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. Later, as a student the transformation stories in Ovid’s Metamorphoses.
LM: Have you read any books recently that you recommend?
EC: I’ve been reading so much in the past year, always fiction. I recently discovered the books of Junichiro Tanizaki, I loved both, A Cat, a man and Two Women and the Makioka Sisters. I’m always on the look out for the new Michael Connelly for my ‘crime’ fix. Rose Tremain, Islands of Mercy, Elena Ferrante, The Lying Life of Adults. I’ve enjoyed the whole series of books by Mick Herron and Phillip Kerr…both feature compelling anti-heroes. Finally, Delia Owens, Where the Crawdads Sing, and Sebastian Barry, A Thousand Moons.
Eileen Cooper: Nights at the Circus
4 March — 15 May 2021
The exhibition will open with a 3D walkthrough available online this Thursday and visitors will be welcomed back into the gallery as of 12 April in accordance with government guidelines.
Sims Reed Gallery
43A Duke Street, St. James’s
London SW1Y 6DD
t: +44 (0) 20 79 30 51 11
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