Fam­ily of Lake Dis­trict artists

Landscape (UK) - - Life At Nature’s Pace - Words Si­mon In­gram Images courtesy of Heaton Cooper Stu­dio, Gras­mere and Ju­lian Cooper

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.

Pop­u­lar prints

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.”

Dif­fer­ing in­ter­pre­ta­tions

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

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