The Heaton Cooper Archive


Many families retain an archive of a kind, and with a family of artists it consists largely of paintings, drawings and sketchbooks, as well as sculptures, maquettes, and working drawings with the usual letters and photographs. As well as being practising artists both Alfred and William Heaton Cooper wrote and illustrated books, and in the case of William also made broadcasts and gave lectures. Some of the paintings have been acquired by the Heaton Cooper Studio over the last 30 years, either as gifts or more often bought in and not sold, in order to build up a collection of the best of their work. Some of the paintings and sculptures were left as part of the estate of the artists. A good deal of the oil and watercolour paintings by Alfred and William Heaton Cooper have never been shown and are still unframed. Some of the sculptures by Ophelia Gordon Bell are the original plaster casts made from the clay, and they are quite fragile. Other sculptures are bronze or resin/bronze casts. Ophelia kept quite a lot of her student work, which won prizes, and many sketch-models or ‘maquettes’, which are in less good condition. They are interesting and valuable because they show the evolution of ideas in three-dimensions, some of the results ending up as public sculpture. Many for churches such as the ‘St Bede in Carlisle or for pioneering industrial concerns of the 1950’s such as the U.K. Atomic Energy Authority.

For the Heaton Coopers it began when Alfred died in 1929 leaving the Norwegian Loghouse Studio gallery in Ambleside full of paintings. Debts were many and a sale of Alfred’s paintings was held in order to raise money. Only a small proportion sold and William began to use the gallery to sell his own work as well, so for a few years both father and son’s paintings were on sale there. When William built his own house and gallery in Grasmere in 1938 he continued showing his father’s work but his own gradually took over, leaving a large residue of Alfred’s work stored away.

Lawrence Bell died in 1955, and Winifred Gordon Bell in 1973 leaving the bulk of their artistic estate to Ophelia, and when she died in 1975 the whole of her sculpture studio with past and current work in progress became part of the archive.

This was augmented on William’s death in 1995 by the whole of his life’s work that remained unsold.

We have over a hundred framed oil paintings and watercolours by Alfred and William Heaton Cooper in the collection at Grasmere, and several times that number unframed. There are fifty sketchbooks belonging to Alfred Heaton Cooper dating from the 1870’s, recording the changing landscape and the rise of industry in Lancashire, a Moroccan trip, and late 19th century in Western Norway all the way up to 1929 both in the Lake District and further afield.

There are a similar number of William Heaton Cooper’s sketchbooks dating from his early days in Ambleside and London in the 1920’s until his death in 1995. The value of the sketchbooks lay in both their own artistic development and their depiction of a wider social history. They function as a form of visual note-taking, capturing life as it happens, whether in a pub in Victorian Chelsea or on the timeless Cumbrian fells.  A lot of information can be conveyed in these sketches, particularly in Alfred’s case due to his interest in people and the details of working life wherever he went, ranging from farming, woodcutting, charcoal burning, hunting and village life in Lakeland and the counties of England to Scandinavia and the Alps.

Alfred’s paintings include oils, watercolours, pastels, and drawings. The subjects range from the 1870’s and 1880’s in Lancashire and London, North Africa, Scandinavia, then the Lake District, Wales, Scotland, Switzerland, France and Britain until his death in 1929.

The archive also displays a unique literary history. Alfred’s library included all the A&C Black’s series he illustrated as well as others, and books relating to Turner, Ruskin, Collingwood and the Severns, Lakeland and Norse folk-lore, and early maps and guidebooks.

Another inheritance we have at Grasmere are a set of William Heaton Cooper’s Fell & Rock Climbing Club guidebook drawings and diagrams which were the standard means of finding routes up Lakeland crags from the early 1930’s until the 1980’s. Some of the drawings are works of art in themselves, William excelled at delineating complex rock forms by means of pencil on paper.

William also designed book-jackets for several novels and mountaineering books, including the “Ascent of Everest” by John Hunt, and Herman Buhl’s classic “Nanga Parbat Pilgrimage”.

We have the original designs and sketches for these alongside other commercial work undertaken for theatre and film in 1930’s London.

In the 1950’s the BBC Home Service broadcast several talks and discussions about art and landscape to which William contributed, and we have the transcripts. William’s lectures were originally given to servicemen in the R.A.F. during the war, and he continued giving them until the late 1960’s. He used an Epidiascope which projects printed or painted images onto a screen and we have the machine and many of his concertina-like sequences of images illustrating talks on different aspects of painting and landscape. There are the manuscripts and drafts of the five books he wrote, and correspondence relating to various public events and enquiries affecting the Lake District over the years, in which William became involved.

Letters in the archive include correspondence with the film director Michael Powell, the writer Harry Griffin, the novelist Hugh Walpole, the collector Helen Sutherland, poet Norman Nicholson, fellwalker Alfred Wainwright, painters Ivan Hitchens, Rowland Hilder and Percy Kelly.

Ophelia’s archive includes her letters, sketchbooks, paintings, photos of her early life in London including travel in Europe with her aunt and uncle, photos of art school life and sculpture, portrait commissions, in which she specialised when starting out, industrial and Church commissions and correspondence with patrons. There are her stone and wood carving chisels and mallets and clay and plaster modelling tools, pigments, and many sculpture books and catalogues.

The intention is to house the archive in a space on the Grasmere Studio site.  As well as being evidence of a remarkable family of artists, the archive and collection brings together perspectives from differing artistic periods and is again united by the influence of Cumbria and the Lakeland landscape. The archive could be seen as a reflection of the enduring ideas of a genius loci, a “spirit of the place”.


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