A vital spirit: the artist and her family

opening smallerThe balancing act of a talented artist was described at the official opening of an exhibition in Grasmere at the Heaton Cooper studio.

Clare Martin, the daughter of sculptor Ophelia Gordon Bell, told how her mother managed to raise four children while juggling with her own career.

Ophelia (1915 – 1975) is known as the wife of landscape painter William Heaton Cooper. But the new show, A Vital Spirit, aims to bring attention to her own life and extraordinary talent. The opening marked what would have been her 100th birthday.

“It is good to see how the different elements of her life have been pulled together here,” she told the guests, paying tribute to her brother, the artist Julian Cooper, who curated the exhibition.

“She coped with all the social changes of the time, working throughout the war, and becoming a climber. And she coped with the transition from life in London, moving to the Lake District. She took all that on board, and we absorbed it all as youngsters,” said Clare.

Born in London and brought up among the artists of St John’s Wood in London, Gordon Bell was equally at home in the Lake District where her maternal grandfather was vicar of Urswick near Ulverston.

Trained in London, she exhibited at the Royal Academy, the Royal Glasgow Institute of Fine Arts, and the Royal Scottish Academy.

Her work can be found throughout Britain, from a carving of St Bede at a Carlisle church to the giant stone figures, Thought and Action, outside the Risley HQ of the former Atomic Energy Authority in Cheshire.

Perhaps her most celebrated work is the bronze head of mountaineer Sir Edmund Hillary. She also created many pieces portraying the characters of the Lakeland fells – shepherds and farmers and houndtrailers.

It was during a visit to the Lakes that met William Heaton Cooper.  They married and made their home in Grasmere and had four children. One of her sons, the painter Julian Cooper, is curating the new exhibition. He says: “She was truly a vital spirit. Everyone who met Ophelia was struck by her. Even if they did not know of her artistic skill, they were witnesses to her great vitality and kindness.

“She was a most remarkable woman, bringing together the two enormously contrasting worlds of London and the Lakes, and bringing immense vitality to everything she created.”

Guests at the opening were served canapes created by Kevin Tickle, head chef at the Forest Side Hotel in Grasmere which opens later this summer.

A Vital Spirit: the work of Ophelia Gordon Bell opens at Grasmere’s Heaton Cooper Studio until late autumn

Top: Kevin Tickle, the chef, and his wife Nicola (general manager of the Ryebeck Hotel at Bowness) with Clare Martin and Julian Cooper at the opening of the exhibition

Below: A selection of Kevin’s canapes

kevins canapes small


  • Ophelia was the daughter of Winifred Gordon Bell, a renowned animal painter.
  • Ophelia and her mother made their home with an aunt and uncle, Dr Caleb Saleeby and his wife, Muriel,  in St John’s Wood, after Winifred and her husband divorced. Ophelia was educated at home with a governess, and was taken on chauffeur-driven grand tours of Europe. But she was equally at home on the Lakeland fells.
  • During the Second World War she drove ambulances for the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry
  • One of her early works – which remains one of her most famous – was The Dalesman, made in her London studio from her memories of a man coming down the Lakeland fells to a farm. It was entered for the prestigious Prix de Rome.
  • Ophelia’s full name was Joan Ophelia Gordon Bell.  One member of her mother’s branch of the family is always christened ‘Ophelia’ and ‘Gordon’ as appropriate, to keep the names alive. According to the family story, the original Ophelia Gordon was the only child and daughter of the 5th Duke of Gordon, who died in 1836, and she was cut off from inheriting the title when she eloped with an Englishman called Captain Sinclair in the late 18th or early 19th century. (Scottish inheritance could go to the female line.)
  • 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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