Art in the field

The art of the Soper fam­ily pro­vided a back­drop to our child­hoods. Joy Baker tells Janet Men­zies why she has fought to save the col­lec­tion

The Field - - Opening Shots -

The most in­ter­est­ing fea­ture of the as­sem­bly hall at my ur­ban pri­mary school was a poster of a horse plough­ing a field, sur­rounded by gulls dip­ping down out of a blue and clouded sky. “We plough the fields and scat­ter…” was the cap­tion. I had never seen a ploughed field and had only the hazi­est idea of what scat­ter­ing might en­tail, but I was so cap­ti­vated by the pic­ture that I made up my mind to work just as hard as it took to get where I could plough, and pos­si­bly even scat­ter.

A life­time later, I have dis­cov­ered that the iconic im­age was cre­ated by artist Ge­orge Soper, the fore­most pain­ter of work­ing horses around the pe­riod of the First World War, a time when Britain was still de­pen­dent on horse­power. Soper, and then his two daugh­ters, eva and eileen, pro­duced a mas­sive body of work de­pict­ing the na­ture and wildlife of the coun­try­side in the early and mid 20th cen­tury. eileen’s work is even more in­spi­ra­tional than her fa­ther’s, as she il­lus­trated enid Bly­ton’s Fa­mous Five sto­ries, along with many other ed­u­ca­tional and nat­u­ral his­tory works. Be­tween them, the Soper fam­ily in­flu­enced a whole gen­er­a­tion, in­spir­ing peo­ple to love and re­spect the ru­ral world and to as­pire to be part of it. Yet few of us have any idea how this po­tent and now nos­tal­gic work came about.

Joy Baker has made it her mis­sion to cre­ate The Soper her­itage Art Gallery and ed­u­ca­tion Cen­tre to in­spire a whole new gen­er­a­tion. She ex­plains: “So many peo­ple were af­fected by their work. One of our spon­sors, Robin Bai­ley, chair­man of Sud­bury Cham­ber of Com­merce, de­scribed ex­actly the same ex­pe­ri­ence as you. It took him straight back to the class­room and eileen’s il­lus­tra­tion of fish un­der wa­ter, and how he had wanted to dis­cover all about it.”

Baker and her late hus­band, John, fell in love with the art of Ge­orge Soper and his daugh­ters back in the 1990s when the work be­gan to be sold af­ter the hos­pi­tal­i­sa­tion and death of Soper’s daugh­ters. Baker says: “When John first saw the work­ing horse paint­ings he felt it was tragic that the col­lec­tion was be­ing bro­ken up. Their art and so­cial his­tory, the col­lab­o­ra­tion be­tween horses and man that had made eng­land – and was so im­por­tant in the First World War – the work that they did and the re­la­tion­ship over all these years, is a story that must be told. So we bought a few paint­ings. And then we dis­cov­ered eileen and eva and wanted to buy their work as well, but we didn’t know what to do about money. So John said, ‘Let’s take out a mort­gage.’ We both felt it was im­per­a­tive that as much of the fam­ily’s work as pos­si­ble should be kept to­gether. When my hus­band died of mesothe­lioma con­tracted dur­ing his war ser­vice, this be­came my mis­sion. A ma­jor sale of the Sop­ers’ work came up and I had to do my best to es­tab­lish the col­lec­tion. But I had no money. So I asked the dealer if he would take a post­dated cheque and he said yes. even so, I had no idea how I was go­ing to man­age, but I was de­ter­mined.”

Fi­nally, Baker has al­most ar­rived at her goal. “We have found a 17th-cen­tury barn just out­side Laven­ham, which is the per­fect site for the gallery and ed­u­ca­tion cen­tre. So we have taken the plunge and put down a de­posit on the site – but by 20 Novem­ber we have to find the money to com­plete the pur­chase. For the past 25 years all I have done is con­cen­trate on this and it has been so worth­while. Now the work has got to be seen by the pub­lic. I know how you can change a child’s life by open­ing their eyes. To­day espe­cially, with so many young peo­ple in such trou­bled sit­u­a­tions, it is vi­tal to be able to in­spire them.”

Could a Face­book-gen­er­a­tion child be cap­ti­vated by the Sop­ers’ im­agery in the way that we were? Look­ing back, we may cast a rosy glow of nos­tal­gia and ide­al­i­sa­tion over il­lus­tra­tions of chil­dren on ad­ven­tures, or bad­gers emerg­ing from their setts af­ter hi­ber­na­tion. In fact, the Sop­ers’ work is earthy – both lit­er­ally and metaphor­i­cally. “Their art is true,” says Baker. “It is representational art. It is to­tally true. There is no self. And to­day is about self, and it is not au­then­tic de­pic­tion.”

When I was first ex­posed, al­most sub­lim­i­nally, to the work of the Sop­ers, I was ev­ery bit as far from a horse or a badger as chil­dren are to­day. I think any child, of any time, wants the chance to hug a horse or be more badger. To do­nate ur­gently needed funds or find out more about the project, go to: www.the­sop­er­col­lec­tion.org

You can change a child’s life by open­ing their eyes… it is vi­tal to be able to in­spire them

Above: Har­row­ing, by Ge­orge SoperRight (from left to right): Red squir­rel by Eileen Soper; a king­fisher by Eva Soper for Royal Worces­ter; Enid Bly­ton’s Five on a Trea­sure Is­land, il­lus­trated by Eileen Soper

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