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11 July, 2008
William Heaton Cooper 1903-1995

William Heaton Cooper was the foremost and best-known Lake District landscape painter of his age.

William Heaton Cooper was the foremost and best-known Lake District landscape painter of his age - his very name almost synonymous with sunlight on the fells and the translucent depths of mountain tarns. Largely through the enterprising production of prints, his reputation was almost world-wide. I have seen drawing-rooms in British Columbia crowded with his paintings or prints and have friends in New Zealand who collect them assiduously - to remind them of their homeland hills.

Heaton Cooper was essentially an outdoor painter, doing most of the work on the spot - often high up in the fells – and then completing it in his studio. In younger days he was an active rock climber, taking part in several first ascents on Lakeland crags and having links with the pioneers of the sport. This expert knowledge of the crags is very evident in his mountain paintings, the rocks and the structure of the cliffs being far more accurately represented than in the unreal splodges of some other painters.

Heaton Cooper was, in fact, a draughtsman of distinction - especially of rock - and his meticulous drawings of the Lake District crags, the routes carefully delineated, have long been used in the official climbing guides to the crags. He had been a member of the Fell and Rock Climbing Club and was a distinguished honorary member.

William Heaton Cooper 1903-1995

Heaton Cooper was born at Coniston in the Lake District, in 1903. His father was the landscape painter Alfred Heaton Cooper, who painted in a rather different style, and his mother came from Norway. Heaton Cooper studied art at the Royal Academy School, held many exhibitions in London and the provinces and was elected a member of the Royal Institute of Painters in Water Colours in 1953.

In 1940 he married Ophelia Gordon Bell, the sculptor, and with their four children they lived a happy family life in Grasmere. His wife's death some years ago came as a shattering blow to the painter; only his strong religious faith helping him to pull through. Since the late 1930s Heaton had been an active member of the Oxford Group - Moral Rearmament, and he and his wife followed the group's teaching that the good Christian should always search for "absolute purity, absolute love and absolute unselfishness". Heaton Cooper believed that only his religion had made his life worthwhile.

He was a sensitive writer of good prose and several of his books, all illustrated with paintings or drawings, including The Hills of Lakeland (1938) and The Tarns of Lakeland (1960), may be found in most mountain libraries. His revealing autobiography Mountain Painter (1984) was his last book.

Personally, I owe Heaton Cooper a great deal, for it was he, about 40 years ago, who encouraged me to write my first books. We never climbed together but we often met in the hills - usually, unfortunately, going in opposite directions.

The last time I met him I was on my way, with a friend, to attempt a new scramble on the rocky face of 111 Crag above the upper Esk, and he happened to be painting the same crag, seated on a stool at his easel near the lonely head of Mosedale. He was then approaching his eighties - bronzed, alert and, as always, very courteous. We discussed the proposed route, clear in the sunshine about three miles away, and I remember his enthusiasm for our project, the splendid day and the lovely autumn colours.

For many years he lived in a house behind the Heaton Cooper Studio in Grasmere where his paintings and prints are on sale or exhibition – a must for visitors to the village, or indeed, to Lakeland.

by A. Harry Griffin

William Heaton Cooper, artist: bom Coniston 6 October 1903; married 1940 Ophelia Gordon Bell (deceased; two sons, two daughters); died 26 July 1995.

This article first appeared in the Independent on 15 August 1995

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