In the centre of Grasmere village, right opposite the village green, and in the very heart of the Lake District, stands a low whitewashed building. The word ‘STUDIO’ is set in bronze lettering above a wooden door. There is solidity to the building, an element of timelessness. This is a Grasmere institution- everyone knows the name of Heaton Cooper. A family of artists- three generations now- have lived and worked here. Their name is synonymous with the Lake District; their representations of the hills and lakes have become iconic images of the place.
It was 1938 when William Heaton Cooper acquired the deeds to a plot of land which had formerly been part of the Undercrag estate. The mortgage was £1400. At the age of thirty five, he had made the decision that he must build himself “a good stone house, studio and gallery in the middle of Grasmere”. His mother and sister were already renting a residential property in this pretty Lakeland village, which was, at that time, considered a cut above its nearest neighbour (Ambleside). The move had been prompted by Heaton’s younger sister Una, who preferred the delights of playing tennis and sipping cocktails with the upper echelons of society to working in her father’s Ambleside gallery. Ambleside was then very much both a working town and tourist honey-pot; whereas Grasmere was full of retired diplomats and distinguished gentlefolk who had taken up residence in the large country houses that are scattered around the valley.
William’s father, Alfred Heaton Cooper, whose work had become well known through his illustrations for A&C Black’s guide books, had opened his first gallery in Coniston in 1904. This was a canny move on Alfred’s part, for many artists were painting the lakes for the tourist market at that time, but few others had the foresight to promote their work from their own premises. Alfred’s studio was a somewhat incongruous but eye-catching Norwegian log cabin, imported as a kit house from his wife’s native country. When the railway connection put Windermere firmly on the tourist map, Alfred decided to move the gallery to a more profitable location in Ambleside (the building is now ‘The Log House’ restaurant on Ambleside’s Lake Road). William knew that the only way for him to continue to pursue his career as a painter, and for the family to survive financially, was to continue the tradition of selling paintings of the Lake District. But now he needed to relocate the studio to Grasmere, so that he could leave the everyday running of the business to his mother, while he produced the paintings that the studio would sell.
And so the “small plot of land adjoining the village green” was acquired. With the income generated by the sales of his first book, ‘The Hills of Lakeland’, which he had written, illustrated and published the year before, William was able to employ the architect Brian Bannantyne Lewis (who also designed Bowns Wood near Brockhole, and later became Professor of Architecture at the University of Melbourne) to design the studio complex. Work on the building began.
The gallery was the first part to be finished, and Heaton “quickly hung up paintings on the wall and sold them in order to keep the men at work completing the next part”. This was the living accommodation, designed to have the solidity of a vernacular Lakeland cottage, combined with the simplicity of a modern 1930’s house. It was attached to the studio and accessed by a door in the back of the gallery that led straight into the living space. Now William’s mother could listen out for visitors to the gallery and come through to serve them. However, within two years the business was able to support its first shop manager, and the pressure to sell was replaced by the need to produce the paintings that would fill the gallery walls.
William Heaton Cooper was a man of great energy and passion. Having grown up in the Lakes, and having worked alongside his father, often walking many miles over the hills to reach the desired location, he knew the Lake District fells intimately. He worked from the most advantageous viewpoints, and would often camp out on the hills overnight so that he could capture in his paintings the special light of morning and evening. He was also a climber, and drew the crags with a combination of precision and flair which earned him commissions to illustrate the official fell and rock climbing club guide books. His love of the fells, coupled with his skill as a watercolourist, combined to give his paintings a unique appeal. The pictures sold well, and it was difficult to turn out enough to meet demand. In another stroke of genius, he began to produce good quality prints of his own and his father’s work, the first being “Wind and sun, Wastwater”, produced in 1940. The prints were an immediate success, making high quality artwork accessible to an even wider number of people, and also giving Heaton the opportunity ‘more and more to paint “from the heart”’. The sale of prints of Alfred and William’s work financed the future development of both the business and its site, so that over the years two more gallery spaces and a new studio were added. By 1985 the building had reached its current dimensions and the establishment had become part of Grasmere’s cultural heritage.
In the same year that work on the new studio started and was completed, William met his future wife, Ophelia Gordon Bell, a sculptor from London whose family had Lake District connections. William asked her to come and help him plant some young birches and rowans in the garden at the new studio and, like the trees, their relationship blossomed. Two years later they were married, and in 1943 their first child, Talia, was born. The following year brought a son, John Christian; and by 1949 the family was completed by the addition of another son and daughter, Julian and Clare. The Croft was their home, the place where Heaton and Ophelia lived and raised their young family. Heaton worked on his paintings, Ophelia produced sculptures. A relief of ‘The Ride of the Valkyries’ can still be seen in the garden, while the stone sculpture of Shepherd and Lamb sits by the side entrance to the new studio. William’s own watercolour shows the family out on the verandah, where three round slate-built columns support a flat roof that provides shelter from sun and rain. A large pear tree grows up the side of the whitewashed walls, its branches framing the windows with greenery. It is an idyllic spot, designed for a client with a fine aesthetic eye.
The Croft was home to the growing Heaton Cooper family until 1949, when lack of space prompted a move to a larger rented property at Winterseeds on the other side of the valley. This was the family home for the next thirteen years. But as the children grew up and went to boarding school, the Heaton Coopers came back to base, living and working in the Croft once more, painting, sculpting and overseeing the running of the galleries. William held painting courses in the spring and autumn, using a greenhouse as a studio when the rain set in.
After a short period of illness, Ophelia died in 1975. Heaton remained at the Croft until 1990 when he moved to a nursing home in the village. But still the house stayed within the family, and for the past twelve years it has been home to Rebecca Heaton Cooper, William’s granddaughter and a practising artist in her own right. The house has been refurbished to the highest standards in order to provide a unique visitor experience for people wanting to stay in the place where William Heaton Cooper and his wife Ophelia produced their work and raised their family. As well as having the natural advantage of being right in the heart of the village, with all the amenities of Grasmere literally on the doorstep, The Croft can provide visitors with the chance to soak up the unique ambience of the artists’ home and workplace. The gallery next door is still run by the family, the prints and original paintings on show still give pleasure to the many thousands of people who buy them. The house has been home to the Heaton Cooper family for eighty two years, and still bears the imprint of their lives.