‘We are there with our noses pressed up against the snow and rock and ice.’
Ben Tufnell – Tate Britain
‘When it is going well,’ Julian Cooper says of his craft, ‘the physical act of painting moves at the same pace as the thinking process … This is very satisfying but it does not always happen. Often it is a grinding struggle to get it right.’
Julian has grafted to take his place among the most accomplished of mountain painters. His approach is distinctly that of a climber. ‘You’re handling raw material,’ he has said in the past, ‘dealing with a vertical surface. A vertical crag is just like a huge abstract painting, processed by time.’
It was not always so simple. At Goldsmiths College between 1964 and 1969 he began by creating abstract work. Then, awarded the Boise Travelling scholarship by the Slade School of Art the following year, he immersed himself in European culture, and grand elements of the Italian Baroque began to appear in his, still abstract, work.
Returning home to the Lake District via London, he began to realise that he needed a subject in order to create an image that interested him. It was to be a partnership, his career, between himself and the materials that made up the world. Years later, to a Goldsmiths contemporary, he described his work with breathtaking, off-the-cuff insight as ‘trying to borrow the authority of the mountain.’
More than any other early painting, his Piece of Ground (1975) hinted at what was to come. It was created in the mid-1970s, during a spell in Vence, near Nice, France. As obvious, stunning views of the Mediterranean stretched themselves out behind his back, Julian chose a patch of wasteland as his subject.
The influence of human beings was not far away: the ground was covered with pieces of broken concrete. He was introducing the abstract to the figurative in his work. They were to marry. It has been a sometimes uneasy but always productive and stimulating union – and an enduring one.
By the 1990s, it was becoming important to Julian to find a way of painting that incorporated his experiences as a rock climber. He was going to make paintings that transcended the merely visual. And Peru was the place where he was going to do it. For two months he stayed high up in the Cordillera Blanca, making large (150cm x 210cm or 5ft x 7ft) paintings on site.
This approach was fraught with difficulty and danger, but had its advantages. Paintings might blow over precipices taking their creator with them, and there was simply too much information to record while the light was good; but painting en plein air suggested to Julian strategies for dealing with the information in front of him. Now he takes photographs and a stock of smaller canvases into the mountains and makes the final painting in the studio.
More recently he has turned his attention to Honister Crag in Cumbria and the Eiger, in the Alps. The fact that each has, in its way, been ground down by man – the former by mountaineers, the latter by slate miners – is central to Julian.
Yet the influence of abstraction is never far away either. In Peru he began to cut the summits off his mountains and minimise the amount of sky. For Julian it is all about the experience of a mountain rather than the description of it. He paints with long-handled brushes, so that creating the picture is a rigorous physical process with the maximum amount of power behind it, like climbing a mountain – or creating one.