Family of Lake District artists
Three generations of a family have captured one of England’s most evocative landscapes in their own styles
In the valleys and on the fellsides of the Lake District, newborn lambs play in the early sunshine. On the mountaintops above, the last snows of winter linger in crevasses and shady crags. Scafell Pike stands immensely over all, testament to the enduring nature of its ancient volcanic rock faces and steep slopes. Beloved of walkers and climbers, England’s highest peak Scafell Pike and its neighbour Scafell have inspired artists for centuries. Among them, one family stands out for the simple fact that three generations of its men have each captured its wild beauty in their own individual ways. Between them, Alfred Heaton Cooper, his son William and grandson Julian Cooper have depicted England’s Lakeland for more than 120 years. Their methods and styles differ, but their inspiration remains the same. It is the 885sq miles of mountains, water and valleys that make up England’s Lake District.
Fascination with landscape
Alfred Heaton Cooper was born in 1863 in Manchester. His mill-worker parents worked hard to ensure their six children had an education. Alfred’s first job was as a council clerk, but his mother was aware of her son’s love of art. She encouraged him to submit drawings and paintings to colleges with a view to gaining a scholarship. He was successful. In 1884 at the age of 20 he began studying art in London under George Clausen. Alfred was inspired by Clausen’s work which depicted landscapes hand in hand with peasant life. He was also fascinated by the countryside depictions of Constable and Turner. His own interpretations of mountain and water often featured locals working the land. A versatile painter, he could turn his hand to landscape and portraiture, in both watercolour and oil. His work in the latter medium was considered comparable to post-impressionistic French painters of the time. Initially he travelled widely in Britain and abroad with the intention of making a living from his painting. His work was sufficiently accomplished to illustrate guidebooks. However, he failed to earn enough to live on and continue to travel. In 1894, he finally returned to England, settling in Coniston in the southern Lakes with his wife Mathilde. His aim was to sell his landscapes to the Victorian tourists who were starting to flock to the area. He was never wealthy, but made a living from his paintings and travel guide illustrations until his death in 1929.
Going into the mountains
In the 20 years he painted the fells around his adopted home, Alfred’s output was considerable. Much was of the tranquil views desired by visitors. One such painting is his vision of Ullswater in spring. The scene is quintessential Lake District, with the expanse of water, the delicate colour
of fresh spring edging it. Frowning mountains, still with a mantle of snow, stand above the lake, winter-brown heather glowing bronze on their slopes as it waits for summer to revive it. Alfred specialised in mountain scenes, often featuring figures in context, walking, hunting or working the land. He also found merit in mundane rural affairs that spoke of relationships between people and the landscape. These include scenes of charcoal burning, the meagre interiors of cottages, as well as shepherds and hunters at work in the mountains. His paintings, however, had a critical point of difference to even the most illustrious of his contemporary artists. Turner and the painters of the Romantic movement often sought out pleasing vantage points. This was not enough for Alfred and he became the first artist to venture into the mountains themselves. He went off-path with his easel and painted deep in the inhospitable terrain. From high-tucked valleys and summits, he captured scenes in watercolour and occasionally oil that had not been seen by even those living nearby. His intention was always to depict the simple, rural ways and scenes he had witnessed in varying forms on his travels. But there was darkness too. His views of the harder, higher mountains of the Lake District captured a place of dramatic, natural brutality at odds with the more comely wider view. Black peaks sit with mist-furred buttresses coloured by bursts of light.
The next generation
In 1903, seven years after the Heaton Coopers settled in the Lake District, William was born. He would represent the family’s next generation of artists. The family had by now relocated to nearby Ambleside where the trade was richer. William gained a scholarship to London’s Royal Academy Schools in 1922. He was 19, a year younger than his father had been when he began his own formal artistic education. Though born a Cumbrian and influenced from a young age by his father, William did not initially intend to follow Alfred’s artistic footsteps into the mountains. Instead he spent seven years in London painting people and situations. On his father’s death in 1929, William returned to the Lake District to build on the foundations Alfred had laid. Initially working in the original Ambleside studio, by 1938 his reputation and influence eclipsed that of his father. William now established a home and a new studio in Grasmere. The studio is still operating today. William’s style took on a marked shift from that of his father. Alfred’s detailed, classically pretty Victorian style was eschewed in favour of graphic, clean lines and a brighter, more minimalist composition. Few of his paintings featured figures. The message that leaps from William’s paintings is spontaneity, something evident in his choice of watercolour on paper as opposed to oil. This allowed him to capture images with speed, compared with the more considered development required by
oils. He compared the difference as being like “diving rather than swimming”. This was articulated through his paintings as the rough energy of a captured moment of light, shadow and weather. It is also evident in what he singled out as his favourite image, Dawn over the Scafells. This grew from a simple pencil sketch captured at a camp in a wild, high spot just after dawn, “pure line, just shapes of mountains,” as he later described it. Seven years later, and after the death of his wife Ophelia who had shared that camp with him, he developed the essence of this sketch into a painting.
William would be accorded a commercial success and acclaim his father never knew. After the Second World War, he developed new techniques to mass produce his work. This led to the creation of high-quality prints and brought him enormous success. Tourists to the Lake District bought his work in droves. The sheer number of reproductions he sold makes him possibly one of the best-selling artists of all time. His appreciation of the mountains never wavered. In later life, he became one of the leading authorities on the landscape and lore of the Lake District. “It’s one part of England where people are still free to walk high up and see space and light,” he said in 1987, aged 84. “When you get up to 2,000 feet, it’s almost like entering another dimension. All through I’ve tried to reveal the inner spirit of the landscape, and at the same time to paint it in a recognisable way.” Like his father, he would travel into the mountains to make his paintings. Often he camped amid them, frequently he climbed them. He went equipped with stool and easel to produce the basic details of his paintings in pencil or biro on half-imperial paper in “spontaneous thrill”. Often he completed them in his Grasmere studio. He would also sketch crags on site for climbing guidebooks. Sometimes he undertook the routes themselves with the authors of the books to get an idea of the form of the climb.
Getting in close
William died in 1995 at the age of 91. His son Julian Cooper was 48 and already an acclaimed artist. Like his father before him, Julian was determined to forge his own way as an artist in London. Eventually, however, the mountains he had visited with his father lured him back. Today he lives in Cockermouth where he, too, paints the fells. He eschews the double-barrelled name of his father and grandfather before him, and goes simply by the surname Cooper.
“There’s no point in living here without getting into the mountains as a subject matter,” says Julian. “As a painter, there was about 20 years where mountains didn’t figure. I was in London and involved with figurative work. When I was a kid, I was influenced by my dad. But when I was at art school in London, it was the abstract guys, the Jackson Pollock and Willem De Kooning stuff with the big canvases… and I’ve never lost that.” The fusion of his father and grandfather’s love of the mountains and of spontaneity is evident in Julian’s mountain imagery. His studio is floored with barnacles of oil paint, the air thick with the smell of turps. But the shift in style and method is stark. He works with giant canvases, layering oils onto them over time until they resemble things of relief he analogises to mountains themselves. His subjects are details, rather than scenes. Buttresses, faces, ridges, compressed perspectives entirely comprised of rock fill huge, wall-sized works of startling texture and relief. “My sort of painting is all about the surface of the canvas. It becomes an object in itself,” he says. “Once you cut off the summit of a mountain, it enriches it. By treating the mountain as a sort of big arena but with no edges, no sky or anything, you can really concentrate on the structure, the goings-on.”
Alfred left the security of the lakesides and climbed the mountains to paint. William changed the medium of delivery to the world. Julian too breaks the script, not just with his father and grandfather, but with all the Lakeland painters looking to simply reiterate a scene. His way is considered, aided by photographic aide memoirs as well as on-the-ground canvases. His preference is for the north and western lakes over the southern lakes. “All of a sudden there are these swooping shapes, and there’s Crummock Water, Ennerdale, the Scafells,” he says. He sees the shift between the two areas as taking place over Dunmail Raise above Grasmere. It is in the comparatively more muscular fells of the Western Lakes where perhaps the clearest examples of the family’s work can be admired and contrasted. All three have worked in the high ground above Ennerdale and Wasdale, in the shadow of England’s highest mountain, Scafell Pike. Perhaps the most obvious comparison comes from the three generations’ rendering of some of the highest ground in the land. Scafell and Scafell Pike form a great twin-headed massif rising above Wasdale. Alfred’s image is from the shore of Wastwater. It is an atmospheric watercolour of the entire mountain, faithful but raw, from ground level. William’s image is of Scafell from a high gap near the summit, deep in shadow, sequestered in the rafters of the mountain. Julian’s lacks any skyline, and is instead a textured image of a buttress, complete with climbers in ascent. “We all look at things differently,” says Julian. “Each generation has a different way of taking things in.” Through the paintings of the different generations, the viewer creeps closer and higher into the mountain. It is the same subject, but with significant differences of perspective. The result is a body of work that reflects the Lake District’s rugged beauty in ways that speak to the changing attitudes of visitors to this wild landscape as little else can.
Ullswater in spring, painted by Alfred Heaton Cooper. It was wild daffodils growing on the shores of the lake that inspired Wordsworth’s famous poem. Alfred Heaton Cooper, his son William and grandson Julian Cooper (left to right).
Alfred’s painting of Church Beck, Coniston. Alfred captured scenes of rural Lake District life in many of his paintings, including this one of charcoal burning.
William Heaton Cooper’s depiction of a tranquil Crummock Water. His father, Alfred, once described the view down this lake as “one of the happiest places I know in the world”.
Julian Cooper’s 1995 oil painting of Rannerdale Beck in the Western Lakes near Crummock Water.ContaCtwww.heatoncooper.co.uk www.juliancooper.co.uk