She was the young country girl from Norway who fell in love with an English painter and together they founded a dynasty of great landscape artists.
Now Mathilde Heaton Cooper is to be remembered in a new project at the family art studio in Grasmere in the Lake District.
Mathilde’s is the name of the new café which opens this summer, offering an extra dimension of hospitality to one of the Lakes’ most popular tourist destinations.
It’s a fitting tribute to the woman who played a quietly supportive role in the life of Alfred Heaton Cooper, and gave birth to their son, William. The father and son became known as the most famous of the English landscape artists of their respective generations. Her grandson, Julian Cooper, is now Britain’s foremost painter of mountain scenes and is about to open his third exhibition of the year.
“She was the love of his life,” says Becky Heaton Cooper, director of the studio and Mathilde’s great grand-daughter. “It really was a love match. Alfred was the centre of her world, and we think it’s wonderful to have her name here now at the centre of our new expansion project.”
The café, an ongoing project itself, is part of a major re-development at the Grasmere studio which will also offer extended exhibition space, and places for artists to work and study.
Alfred Heaton Cooper, born in Lancashire, had travelled to Norway after studying art in London. He became fascinated by the rural lifestyle of the Sogne region – which influenced his work subsequently – where he eventually set up a studio beside the fjord at Balestrand.
It was there that he met Mathilde Valentsin, and it was love at first sight. Inspired by her, he made a series of sketches of Norwegian women in traditional costume, or dancing or skating.
But it would be several years before they could afford to marry; Alfred proposed in a letter written when he had returned to England to work and save. They were eventually married in Norway in 1894. To reach the church, the bride and groom and guests had to row across the Ese Fjord (in traditional costume).
The couple came to live in England, arriving in Newcastle on November 5 – bonfire night. Hearing the fireworks, Mathilde reportedly said to Alfred: “Isn’t it kind of the English to give us such a grand welcome.” She spoke no English at the time.
Alfred and Mathilde lived in several homes around the north west, including Bolton and Southport. Their first child, Sverre, died as a baby. They then had a daughter, Alice Ellide, and a son, Frithjof, before William was born in 1903. Their last child, Una, was born when they were living in Ulverston.
It was Alfred who “imported” the log house studio from Norway which was rebuilt first in Coniston, and then in Ambleside, where it remains today as a restaurant. William, himself by then an eminent artist, moved the studio and family business to Grasmere after his father’s death.
Mathilde outlived Alfred by almost 30 years, living long enough to be Grasmere’s oldest resident, and died at the age of 90 in 1953.
“It is such a pleasure that the new project has given us the impetus to look more closely at this aspect of the family history,” says Becky Heaton Cooper. “We hope that the new café will become the heart and soul of Grasmere for visitors from all over the world who love art.”