The fells and the fjords: a story in art

From place names to Herdwick sheep, the Scandinavian influence on the north of England has had a profound effect on the Lake District.

And one artist par excellence explored that influence, the similarities and the connections, in his art over several decades.

Alfred Heaton Cooper (1863-1929) journeyed from his home in the Lake District throughout Denmark, Sweden and Norway, reaching as far as Arctic Lapland, documenting the landscapes, buildings and people he encountered along the way, and finding parallels between Lakeland lives and landscapes and the ones he found in Scandinavia.

Now a new exhibition will celebrate his work at the studio he founded in the heart of the Lakes, in Grasmere.

Heaton Cooper loved Northern Europe so much that he shipped an entire log cabin from Norway to Coniston where he used it as his first studio.

Realising later that there were more visitors to Ambleside, he re-located the cabin again, and it stands to this day on the approach to the town where it houses a restaurant, The Log House.

The artist and his dynasty moved to Grasmere, where the Heaton Cooper Studio’s new Archive Gallery now also operates as a centre for landscape interpretation, and is one of the most significant cultural tourist attractions in the North of England.

AHC himself

A. Heaton Cooper painting in Norway

But while the Studio carries permanent exhibitions of the work of Alfred, his son William Heaton Cooper, his daughter in law Ophelia Gordon Bell, and other members of the family, the new show, opening at the end of April, concentrates on the Fells and the Fjords.

It will highlight the artist’s process from sketchbook drawings done from life, up to the finished paintings and then onto the colour plates documenting all aspects of Scandinavian life and landscape in the period from 1890 to 1927, which were used to illustrate a series of guide books.

Those books, The Norwegian Fjords, Norway, Sweden and Denmark were published by A&C Blacks from 1905 to 1927.

But the exhibition will also carry a wealth of material – drawings, watercolours and oils – used to illustrate Heaton Cooper’s two masterly and classic books, The English Lakes published in 1905, and Wild Lakeland published in 1922.

“It is a remarkable body of work from a lost era, though one that is not so far back,” said Julian Cooper, the artist’s grandson who is curating the exhibition. “The sketchbooks are crammed full of life and landscape from Sweden, Denmark, Norway right up into the Arctic Circle.”

The paintings will come mostly from the Heaton Cooper archive, supplemented by work on loan from Charles Nugent, and from the Gertrude Looi collection.

Alfred Heaton Cooper set off to the Norwegian fjords determined to make his living selling landscape pictures to the well-heeled European tourists who were visiting in greater numbers.

He became fascinated by the rural peasant life of the people of the Sogne and Hardanger regions. He studied them and their language and eventually wrote and illustrated a guide book to the fjords. He married a local girl and built a studio beside the fjord at Balestrand, which stands today and is known still as Cooperhus.

Alfred could not make an adequate living in Norway, but he tried to arrange matters so that he could live partly there and partly in England, where he returned with his bride in 1894. He settled first back in Bolton, moving to Southport and finally to the Lake District, where wealthy tourists promised a better livelihood.

“What he recorded in his work are the remarkable similarities in the two landscapes,” says Julian Cooper. “There is a great deal of interest in the Nordic countries and cultures at the moment, and we know that this exhibition will throw new light on how the Lake District was influenced.”

It was in the tenth century that Norse people who had originally settled in Ireland came to the Lake District to escape political turmoil. They constructed monuments like crosses and earthworks marking significant places.

It’s possible to tell where Norse people lived because of local place names, for example names ending in –by such as Ireby mean village; and those ending in –thwaite, like Satterthwaite, mean clearing. Other words with a Norse origin are beck which means stream; dale which means valley; fell which means hill or mountain; gill which means ravine.

The name of Windermere, England’s largest lake comes from the Scandinavian for ‘lake of a man called Vinandr’.

And the iconic Herdwick breed of sheep, now considered native to the Lake District, is thought to have originated from Scandinavia. The word “Herdwyck”, meaning sheep pasture, is recorded in documents going back to the 12th century. Herdwick sheep are the most hardy of all Britain’s breeds of hill sheep, grazing the central and western dales of the Lake District.

The manager of the Heaton Cooper studio, Alfred’s great grand-daughter Becky Heaton Cooper, has made a study of the Norse connection. She said: ““I’m looking forward to this exhibition.  Julian’s intimate knowledge of the Heaton Cooper archive will undoubtedly weave together a fascinating story of the links our family have with Scandinavia and Norway especially.”

The exhibition will open on April 28 until June 12



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