John Paul Cooper necklace
Like many antiques collectors and dealers I spend a lot of my time searching through on line auction sites looking for the “emerald in a mountain of coal”. On this occasion a silver necklace caught my eye and looked strangely familiar. Some quick research suggested I may be on to something. To my surprise there was very little competition at auction and when I received the piece I knew it was something special.
I now know that the silver necklace was made by John Paul Cooper in January of 1906. Furthermore, it was made for his sister-in-law as a present which gives it a great family connection. It’s currently not for sale as my wife liked it so much we have agreed to keep it for a while.
When I first saw the necklace there were certain design characteristics that I thought I had seen before in John Paul Cooper’s work. I am lucky enough to own a copy of the excellent book on John Paul Cooper by N. Natasha Kusmanovic. I remembered seeing both jewellery and silver work by Cooper with very similar design elements, in particular the shells, the circular discs with stylized motifs and the delicate wire-work.
John Paul Cooper started making jewellery in 1900. Between 1902 and 1906 he was based in Birmingham and his output was mainly jewellery, although he was also starting to move more towards more ambitious silver items. This was considered his first “design” phase where his work was quite “stripped back” and he chose to employ only the basic decorative motifs and silversmithing techniques.
Cooper taught at the Birmingham Municipal School of Art between 1901 and 1906 but his personal output grew over this period and by 1905 he employed three skilled craftsmen. Fortunately he kept very detailed records during this period in his stock books. The stock books are part of the Cooper family archive and I believe are held by the V&A museum. The stock books aren’t available to view by the general public. Although I was convinced the necklace was an early piece by Cooper but knew that the challenge would be proving it. I was resigned to simply attributing the piece to him.
The breakthrough came courtesy of the very well known Tadema Gallery. I was very aware of the “Kingfisher” necklace by John Paul Cooper that was on their website. I had looked at it many times during my research but had never scrolled through the full set of images. When I looked at the last image I nearly fell off my chair. The image showed the page from the Cooper stock book that has a sketch of the Kingfisher pendant. Directly below it was a sketch of the silver necklace. After 15 minutes of excited jumping around I took a closer look at the details in the stock book. The necklace was design number 240 and described as “Silver necklace with fish drops”. It cost about £5 to make. Interestingly there was also a note to say that this piece had been made as a present for “Joan Oliver”.
I guessed this was a family member and after a quick bit of research figured out that this was the sister of Cooper’s wife, May. May Morgan Oliver (1876-1954) started working for Cooper in his workshops in 1899. A talented artist and handicraft worker, May married Cooper in 1901. She had two sisters, Joan and Dorothy. Joan was 3 years younger than May. This piece had been specially made for her as gift. May and her two sisters are pictured in the John Paul Cooper book (page 29) and it’s lovely to be able to see the person that would have worn this piece.
I am delighted to have given this important family piece back it’s full history.. it’s what I love to do.