Thursday 19 September 2019

From Brazil to Ballinskelligs: Elizabeth Cope and Phoebe

Elizabeth Cope and her daughter Phoebe's vibrant paintings reflect the colourful lives they both lead

Elizabeth Cope and her daughter Phoebe are holding a joint exhibition together of paintings they made from Brazil to Ballinskelligs
Elizabeth Cope and her daughter Phoebe are holding a joint exhibition together of paintings they made from Brazil to Ballinskelligs

Andrea Smith

By her own admission, artist Elizabeth Cope isn't sentimental, even when it comes to her own family. "I think the best thing you can do for your children is to get rid of them," she laughs. "My own mother used to throw us all out the back door when we became adults."

This is in response to a query about whether she missed her older daughter Phoebe, when she went to Oxford at 18 to study fine art?

"My relationship with Phoebe has always been excellent," she adds. "Everyone loves her, as she is so sweet and bright. She was a real joy as a child, and we had to convince her to go out and let her hair down because she was so focused on school. I have a painting she did when she was seven and it's beautiful. She wrote, 'My mummy is my best friend' on it."

Elizabeth was born in Ballitore, Kildare, in 1952, where her father, Michael Lawler, had a small dairy farm, and her mother Dora had a grocery store. There were nine children in her family, and at nine, she was seduced by the smell of the oil paints her sister Phil brought home from au pairing in Paris.

After school, Elizabeth attended the National College of Art and Design part-time, and then moved to London at 19, which she adored, because she could go to concerts, operas and ballets for very little money. She taught art at a boy's prep school in Kensington for two years, and studied at Whitechapel School of Art and the Chelsea School of Art.

"On my first day, we had to do a painting of a naked model, who was in her seventies, and I remember going beetroot," she says. "I had part-time jobs, and painted pictures of people on the streets. I lived on very little but I got by."

The colourful Elizabeth came back to Ireland after six years, and started teaching evening classes. She met her husband Geoffrey, a farmer by inheritance and artist by nature, when he was one of her pupils, and she liked his intelligence and sensitivity. "He is shorter than me, so I told my sister that there was a lovely little guy in the class who would suit her down to the ground," she laughs. "He had the most expensive brushes, and I only use cheap ones, but we made an impression on each other. He went home and wrote in his diary, 'I think she will marry me...for my brushes.'"

They did marry and bought their family home, the historic Shankill Castle in Kilkenny, in 1991, which is open to the public. They have three children, Phoebe, a painter and sculptor, Reuben, an artist and film-maker, and Sybil ("the only one in the family with any common sense") who is doing a PhD in agricultural science and is an event manager. Elizabeth continued painting, and her award-winning work has been exhibited in galleries all over the world.

Now 33, Phoebe says that growing up on a mixed farm was bliss. She remembers her mum being very protective - mostly against cold weather - and always wanted the best possible for those she loves. There was no shortage of materials, books or praise in her studio. Phoebe's love for art started by being in an environment where creativity was an everyday thing.

After Oxford, Phoebe went to The Prince's Drawing School, and began exhibiting widely in both Ireland and the UK. Now living in rural Scotland, she was selected as artist-in-residence and winner of the Moritz-Heyman award at Pignano in Italy in March.

Phoebe met her artist husband, Mungo McCosh, in London at a fancy dress party. They were married in 2012 in Carlow, with the reception at Shankhill.

"Phoebe's wedding was a big celebration," says Elizabeth. "She got married in St Laserian's Cathedral, Old Leighlin, which is Church of Ireland, so it was a nice amalgamation, because she is Catholic and Mungo is Presbyterian. She and I went to a designer to look at wedding dresses, and she only had one available, It was perfect for Phoebe, so she gave it to us in exchange for a painting."

The effervescent and forthright Elizabeth says that, in some ways, she and Phoebe are like Edina and her more sensible daughter Saffy from Absolutely Fabulous.

"You have to have an edge," she says. "I like a sense of daring and excitement so I don't want to do safe things. You can see different series I have done on the website, like my menopausal series. People don't want to go there or talk about it, but you can't improve unless you can push the boundaries. Phoebe's work represents her and her sweetness. She has been to every museum and gallery, and is so knowledgeable about the history of art."

Last December, Elizabeth took herself off to Brazil to paint for ten weeks, and also had an exhibition at the Instituto Volusiano. She met some amazing Brazilian artists there, and put some of their work in an exhibition at Shankill Castle during Kilkenny Arts week.

"It takes a lot of physical work to keep Shankill going, which is why I have to go away sometimes to paint," she says. "I was away for Christmas, so Geoffrey had to feed 18 people on Christmas Day. I took a 17 hour bus ride down to Iguassu Falls, near Argentina, to paint, and then went to Rio, which was lovely."

Earlier this year, Elizabeth and Phoebe went to Cill Rialaig Artists' Retreat, which they loved, and as a result, their joint exhibition of gorgeous, colourful paintings and sculpture is currently running at the Origin Gallery. It was opened by the Brazilian ambassador, Afonso Jose Sena Cardoso.

"Our work seems to hang sympathetically together," says Phoebe, who confesses that what drives her mad about her mum is that she squeezes so much paint on her palette, it gets everywhere in the house and on everyone's clothes. "Mum's art is just like how I would describe her - vibrant, energetic, and full of variety. And a hard act to follow!"

'From Brazil to Ballinskelligs' runs at Origin Gallery, 37 Fitzwilliam Street Upper, until November 30. www.elizabethcope.com, www.phoebecope.com

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