As a new exhibition gets under way in a new gallery at Grasmere’s Heaton Cooper studio, the great-grand-daughter of the founding father of the artist-dynasty is at the helm of exciting plans for the future.
Becky Heaton Cooper is director and general manager of the business established by the landscape painter Alfred Heaton Cooper in 1905. His artist son William Heaton Cooper, Becky’s grandfather, 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.
Now Becky, an artist herself, is supervising plans to extend the village-centre building, create a new gallery and workshop space with a café, and diversify the range of exhibitions. Trained in fashion and textile design, she has exhibited her own contemporary mixed media paintings, but admits that her career as an artist is on hold. “I put a lot of creative energy into the business. There will be time to come back to my own work,” she says. She is also a climber, runner and mother of four year old twins.
There will be a new entrance, and a glass fronted gallery/workshop looking directly out to Stone Arthur and the high fells, as well as an extended shop. The studio has always sold prints and some ceramics, but is diversifying to include art books and gift items, as well as a wider range of artists’ materials. At the children’s table, young artists are encouraged to create work which is scanned and uploaded onto the Heaton Cooper website. There will be more painting demonstrations by local artists, for locals out of season as well as for visitors
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 Becky’s grandmother, the sculptor Ophelia Gordon Bell (herself the daughter of a famous animal painter, Winifred Gordon Bell), and her uncle, Julian Cooper, the internationally renowned painter whose recent work has been concerned with finding a relevant contemporary language for painting mountains and rock. The mountains, crags and tarns of the Lake District are themes that permeate the artistic genealogy.
The most loved works, though, are by Alfred and William, each distinctively capturing the magnificence and the beauty of rock and fell, stream and lake. They add to the cultural wealth of Grasmere, the artistic counterbalance to Wordsworth’s poetry and influence in these parts. Becky is custodian of their heritage, a task she undertakes with as much love and caring as business acumen. Born here in Grasmere, she studied at Newcastle and worked for fashion designer Nigel Cabourn, and with Coates Viyella, before returning to the Lakes, working locally while she developed and sold her own work in the Grasmere studio.
She joined the family business to work with her father, John: “I’d always been familiar with the business, and always wanted to work with him.” As he took steps towards retirement, Becky took the helm. She’s married to Dave Almond, a National Trust property manager, and they live near Loughrigg Tarn with their children Ophelia and Alfie (who are always encouraged to experiment as artists, in the family tradition.)
“It’s very special, to be a part of all this. It has a fascinating place in the history of art and a special place at the heart of the Lakes. I feel very lucky to be custodian of that heritage, and to be part of this family.” She understands her ancestors feeling for the crags as both an artist herself and having been a climber: she’s tackled all the traditional classic Lakeland climbs and “done seasons” in the Alps – “But I was no good at leading!”
Her own favourite picture? It’s a painting is of Scafell Pike from Upper Eskdale by her grandfather William, painted in 1936. Meanwhile visitors are enjoying the current exhibition, Working the Landscape, set in a new gallery and celebrating a centenary of Lakeland hill farming seen through the eyes of the Heaton Cooper family in their sketchbooks, paintings and sculpture.
Alfred Heaton Cooper was born in Manchester and brought up in Bolton, Lancashire, one of six children of mill worker parents. Alfred left school to become a clerk in Bolton Town Hall. But his mother recognised his passion for drawing and painting and encouraged him to submit some of his artworks with a view to gaining an art scholarship.
He was successful and went to London in 1884 where his arrival coincided with one of the most active periods of challenge and change in western European art. He studied under George Clausen and was heavily influenced by Turner, Constable and the Barbizon school, also by Millet, who was one of the first to portray the life and work of the common man in painting.
He later spent time in the Norwegian fjords determined to make his living selling landscape pictures to the European tourists who went there in great numbers. He was fascinated by the rural peasant life of the people of the Sogne region, married a local girl and built a studio beside the fjord at Balestrand, which stands today and is known still as Cooperhus.
Alfred returned with his bride in 1894, settling in the Lake District, where wealthy tourists promised a better livelihood. A red roofed log cabin which Alfred had shipped from Norway caused quite a stir when it was first erected in Coniston village as a studio, but his expectations of the wealthy tourists were not fulfilled sufficiently for Alfred to sustain his growing family. More people seemed to be visiting Ambleside than Coniston, so the log studio was moved there, where it still stands today, now a restaurant.
Alfred settled to a life of continuous painting. His wife ran the studio while he tramped the Lakeland fells and valleys, finding scenes which inspired him to paint and which would appeal to visitors. An important source of income was a commission from travel guide publishers A & C Black, for whom he illustrated many books.
William Heaton Cooper was the third child of Alfred Heaton Cooper and his Norwegian wife Mathilde. He was born at Coniston in October 1903.
He gained a scholarship to the Royal Academy School in London and subsequently exhibited at the Royal Academy, the RBA and the Royal Institute.
Alongside his painting, he became an authority on the lore and landscape of the Lake District, walking and rock climbing in its mountains with the pioneer climbers of the 1920s. There can have been few men with a better knowledge of the Lakeland fells, their structure and their geography.
This knowledge is apparent from his books on Lakeland and his illustration of the rock climbing guides published by the Fell & Rock Climbing Club, of which he was elected life president.
He was elected in 1953 to membership of the Royal Institute of British Watercolourists and was for eleven years president of the Lake Artists Society.
After his father’s death in 1929, William took over the studio in Ambleside which his father had built, in order to provide for his mother and younger sister. A period of intense unhappiness followed during which a search for inner peace and integrity led him on a religious quest, culminating in his adoption of the doctrines of the Oxford Movement (Moral Rearmament). His painting continued to improve, so much so that he soon eclipsed the reputation of his father. A decision was taken to move the studio business to Grasmere and the building of a home and studio there began in 1938. In the same year he met the sculptress, Ophelia Gordon Bell, who later became his wife.
It was after World War ll that the idea of reproduction sales occurred. The advent of improved colour printing techniques meant that more faithful reproductions of originals could be made and literally thousands of prints have been sold.
William’s style of mountain painting is more impressionistic than his father’s, with his knowledge of geology used to the full in his sometimes spare and skeletal depiction of crags and fells. He was fascinated by the ever changing light of Lakeland, often painting the same views at different times of day; and would walk miles over the fells, camping out to capture the late or early sunlight over fell tops and lakes. The result has been a body of work which continues to give pleasure to thousands of visitors to the English Lakes. William died in 1995 and is buried in Grasmere.