Pioneer climber Gwen Moffat on the art of Heaton Cooper

A tribute to the artist William Heaton Cooper has come from one of Britain’s pioneer female mountaineers.

Gwen Moffat, now 90, was a ground-breaking rock-climber, adventurer and first female mountain guide in the post-war years. As a new exhibition devoted to the mountain art of Heaton Cooper opens next month, Ms Moffat hailed his influence as a climber and guidebook illustrator.

“In the forties we lived to climb and everything was new, untried, unexplored,” she said.

“Guide books were essential and two compilers stood out from the rest: Edwards in Snowdonia for his idiosyncrasy, Heaton Cooper for the accuracy of his drawings in the Lakeland guides. He was a man who knew his mountains; in his illustrations the routes are lines running up pencil-shaded rock where every crack and overhang, every buttress is correct and matched neatly to the text.

“I still have those guides: over 60 years old, waterworn, mud-stained, dog-eared and annotated and still consulted to verify a date of ascent, noting how I found a route, turning to the plan to see where the next pitch went had I not retreated from the crux.”

The exhibition, Lines of Ascent, will be opened at the Heaton Cooper studio in Grasmere on November 19 by veteran climber Al Phizacklea. The event will launch the Kendal Mountain Film Festival which follows all weekend.

Lines of Ascent will feature the work William Heaton Cooper produced for the Fell and Rock Climbing Club guides for 50 years from 1930s onwards. The books were bibles for the climbing community, showing new routes as they developed, drawn on site and working closely with the climbers at the crag face.

Phizacklea succeeded Heaton Cooper as the illustrator of the FRCC guidebooks.

Alongside the drawings, guides and journals will be climbing photographs from the 1930s and 1940s from Heaton Cooper’s private album, as well as some of his paintings that reference the mid-twentieth century climbing scene, including some not seen before.

There is also an Alpine sketch-book full of vivid drawings and  sketches of the Grandes Jorasses from above the original Couvercle Hut, and crowded interiors of the old hut in the 1950s.

The Alpine theme at the exhibition will be extended with Julian Cooper’s huge oil painting  Eiger Face, shown alongside images of the famous 1938 first ascent and subsequent routes up the North Face of the Eiger.

The exhibition will be curated by Julian Cooper, William’s son, and Becky Heaton Cooper, William’s grand-daughter and Julian’s niece.

Becky Heaton Cooper is a director and general manager of the business established by the landscape painter Alfred Heaton Cooper in 1905. His son William built the present gallery in Grasmere in 1938. For generations their paintings and books have influenced the way the landscape of the Lake District has been viewed.

Gwen Moffat , who wrote a best-selling account of her adventures, Space Below My Feet, went on to write detective fiction, in particular the Miss Pink series featuring Melinda Pink, a middle aged magistrate and climber. She recalled:  “In the 1950s we discovered his paintings and by then people had just enough cash to buy prints. For many climbers the first picture in their first home was a Heaton Cooper. If guides are now little more than reference books, the mountains are part of current living. They are on the other side of the valley, at the end of the lake and through the trees, and if all else fails they are in living rooms, on walls of halls and bedrooms in innumerable homes of mountain lovers.”

She said: “Heaton Cooper is venerated, and not because he was a climber, a pioneer, a draughtsman and geologist, a man who understood the soul of rock, he was all of these and more: something between a realist and an impressionist. Light and texture are of his essence; water flows and cascades in his becks, whispers in his summer falls – you watch for the glimpse of a dipper. His rock is warm and gritty under the hands: feeling achieved by brush strokes. A sunbeam finds a hole in storm cloud to slip past the black bulk of a mountain and strike water on a shadowed tarn with a colour that is no colour but pure light.

“To term the best of his paintings sublime may be dismissed as subjective but no one can challenge nor deny me when I maintain that just one cherished Heaton Cooper can haunt the mind.”



  • The Heaton Cooper Studio in Grasmere was opened by William Heaton Cooper in 1938.    It is a hugely popular tourist attraction, with more than 90,000 visitors last year. It features work by the Heaton Cooper family and guest artists, with the Lakeland landscape at the heart of the gallery’s displays.


  • The Heaton Cooper family tree is a pictorial essay on the development of art in the Lake District and beyond. There are 10 artists represented, including the sculptor Ophelia Gordon Bell, (herself the daughter of the animal painter Winifred Gordon Bell) and Julian Cooper, the internationally renowned painter whose recent work has been concerned with finding a relevant contemporary language for painting mountains and rock all over the world. The most well known works are by Alfred and William, each distinctively capturing the magnificence and beauty of rock and fell, stream and lake.


  • Julian Cooper, the son of William Heaton Cooper and the sculptor Ophelia Gordon Bell, is an internationally known painter, represented by Art Space Gallery, London. He is a member of the Alpine Club, and has climbed throughout Britain and the Alps.



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