I find the medium of words a very difficult one by which to express
infinite feelings, so I try to do it in paint – W Heaton Cooper.
William Heaton Cooper’s first memory was of dipping one of his father’s brushes into the beck that ran down from the Old Man and past their home in Coniston. He spread its bristles over a rounded green boulder veined with lines of white quartz. He was three.
Partly in an attempt to get noticed by his father, Heaton – as William became known – continued to follow the great man’s example by drawing everything in sight. On the big day, when he was thirteen, that his father presented him with some paints, his enduring memory was of trying to paint the waterfall Skelwith Force and, he claimed, of not doing very well.
He had been intent on joining the church, but the landscape called more urgently. To his astonishment, his parents were delighted when he said he wanted to be a painter. By the time he was 17, Heaton was cycling, three days a week, to Kendal Art School, 13 miles away. The drawings he made there displayed such skill that they earned him a five-year scholarship to the Royal Academy.
Interviewing an 80-year-old Heaton in 1984, Melvin Bragg noted in his subject, ‘a sense of sturdiness but still a feeling of searching’. He didn’t seem to find what he was looking for in London. He was painfully self-conscious and perceived in himself a colossal ignorance of art – a combination which, at first, was interpreted by his fellow students as superiority.
What he did find was Sickert – who taught him – and Chinese art, which appealed to him for the way it portrayed man as taking his place in nature. And he was so inspired by Van Gogh and Cézanne that in 1925 he travelled to Provence with a friend to paint in their brilliant French light. One of the paintings he made, Les Calanques, Provence, is wonderful. Right there is early evidence of that eye for composition; right there are those assured lines, realised with a flourish.
Back in the Lakes, some years after he had returned as a result of his father’s death, an old friend brought her niece to his Ambleside studio. ‘They had been walking in the rain and Ophelia’s hair was streaming wet,’ he recalled in his autobiography, nearly fifty years later, ‘and I knew at once that she was to be my companion for life’.
Ophelia was a sculptor. He asked her to plant some young wild birches and rowans with him in the garden at what was to be the new studio at Grasmere. Although his deep religious faith and commitment to painting sometimes appeared all-consuming, after Ophelia died he said ‘Life would have been almost unbearably lonely… if my family had not rallied round me.’
His building of the house and studio was itself an original and creative act. Bit by bit, as he earned the money to pay for them by painting, the buildings rose up around him. And he was canny, Heaton. Not for him the stereotype of the flighty, impractical artist. After the war, he began to publish good quality prints of his and his father’s work. They sold in their thousands, enabling him to concentrate on painting.
Heaton knew the crags through rock climbing and represented them with a winning combination of precision and flair. Part of the appeal of his paintings is the result of his interest in the Lakeland light, which he would capture in the morning or evening by camping out on the fells. He also illustrated official climbing guides among other books. A photograph, he explained, cannot emphasize particular aspects of a mountain in the way that a drawing can.
He communicated in paint, but he also connected with people via the process of painting. When he was in his seventies, he took a friend’s grandson to Crummock Water. Having watched and listened to Heaton explain the techniques he was employing, the boy began slapping on colour swiftly and confidently, producing after an hour ‘quite a good, bold watercolour of a difficult subject’. It was cold and the boy was silent as they walked back across the fields. Then he stopped and said, ‘Mr Heaton Cooper, I think this is the best day in the whole of my life.’