When the curator steals the show….

Mag North meets the latest generations in a remarkable dynasty of Lake District artists
March 25, 2022

A new exhibition at the Heaton Cooper Studio in Grasmere features images – photos and

paintings – of the monumental standing stones of Cumbria. But it’s the curator of the show

who steals the limelight initially as visitors head to the archive gallery. On the café wall is a

truly monumental work of art, a painting of Scafell Crag by Julian Cooper, Britain’s foremost

living mountain painter.

It’s a giant in both scale and subject, 13 feet high and 10 feet wide, with a story almost as

remarkable as the painting itself. It was commissioned to celebrate mountaineering and the

role of the Lake District in the birth of rock climbing, and hung for many years on the wall at

the Rheged Discovery Centre near Penrith, the original home of the Mountain Heritage


Julian Cooper had done an earlier, smaller painting of climbers on Central Buttress, Scafell,

which he showed to the Trust to give them an idea of his plan. At that stage, the intention

was to display a horizontal painting along a wall in the restaurant at the centre, and Julian

got to work on what was one of his biggest-ever commissions. “I needed specially-built

indoor scaffolding in his studio to work on it.”

- CR

But then the site for the painting was changed, moving to a new space in the atrium that

was higher than wider, so the painting had to be re-scaled. “Pikes Crag had to be moved in

front of Scafell, deleting the landscape in between,” says Julian. Then the opening date of

Rheged was brought forward, in 2001, and so Julian’s painting had to be hung unfinished.

This task took four men, several ropes, two long ladders, and a specially made framework to

support it while it was secured to the wall.

After the opening ceremony was over, the painting was removed to a barn where Julian

added climbers on the crag, friends whom he persuaded to “model” for him. Among them

was his niece Becky, now the director of the Heaton Cooper Studio, who can be seen in the

bottom left-hand corner of the picture. The finished work was then taken back to Rheged six

months later, where it remained till last summer when it was moved to Grasmere, and

awaits a buyer.

Meanwhile Julian, who has curated a number of significant exhibitions at the gallery over

the past few years, had his own most recent show brutally curtailed by the pandemic after

only four weeks early in 2020. Among Mountains was an exhibition of “hard-core”

paintings, never before shown in the Lake District, of some of the world’s greatest mountain

ranges; in recent years Julian has concentrated on images closer to home in the northern

fells. It covered a period of 25 years, all the result of Julian’s own adventures as a painter of

mountain landscapes, fraught with danger and risk, and included paintings done during a

two-month trip to the Peruvian Andes in 1995, along with the two remaining paintings in his

possession from the Tibetan Kailas series. These were done fifteen years later when, in

2006, he travelled across to the far west of Tibet and walked all around the sacred mountain

of Kailas, painting each aspect of the mountain on site but on a smaller scale, and producing

several large paintings on his return.

On one occasion, working from a base camp in the Andean watershed, he carried 40 tubes

of paint, a 7X6ft canvas and its alloy frame, another 1000ft higher to his working site on a

moraine edge. For five days he fought against the altitude to make a painting while seracs

cracked off, stones fell, glacial dust was blown up from the cliff below, and cracks started

appearing in the ground behind and in front of him. “Slicing off like salami, the earth eroded

right up to my canvas,” he recalls. He decided it was too dangerous to stay.

- CR

There were also Alpine paintings which originated when Julian and his artist wife Linda Ryle

spent Christmas week in 1990 in Zermatt, when he drew and photographed the mountains

from high up above the valley, reached by cable car. His more recent work exploits the rich

possibilities of Northern Lakeland fells with their vertical interplay between the wildness of

the heights, the cultivated valley fields, and the marginal land in between.

Julian studied Fine Art at Goldsmith’s in the late 1960s and his work has ranged from

narrative paintings based on Malcolm Lowry’s novel Under the Volcano to a series about the

assassination of the Brazilian union leader and environmentalist Chico Mendes in Amazonia,

in 1989.

He says that his more recent work has been concerned with finding a relevant

contemporary language for painting mountains and rock. In 2001 his Mind has Mountains

exhibition at the Wordsworth Trust and in London showed paintings made after an

expedition to the Kanchenjunga region of Nepal; noticeable was an absence of sky and a

concentration on selected areas of terrain. His solo exhibition, Cliffs of Fall, in 2004 at

London’s Art Space Gallery, showed work based on a comparative study of the North Face

of the Eiger in Switzerland and the Honister slate mine above Borrowdale in the Lakes.

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 Julian’s mother, the sculptor

Ophelia Gordon Bell. Julian’s father, William Heaton Cooper (1903-1995) was a successful

painter of the Lake District, as was his grandfather, Alfred Heaton Cooper (1863-1929), and

his mother was herself the daughter of the animal painter Winifred Gordon Bell. The most

well known works are by Alfred and William, each distinctively capturing the magnificence

and beauty of rock and fell, stream and lake. The studio also celebrates the work of other

artists in the family; as a sculptor Ophelia is famed for her head of Everest pioneer Sir

Edmund Hillary. Other family members whose work is shown in the galleries include W.J.O

Gordon Bell (1883-1973), Otalia Johnson (b1942), Linda Cooper (Ryle) (b1947), and Becky

Heaton Cooper (b 1970).

The studio was established originally by Alfred in 1905; he was recognised as one of the

finest Victorian painters of his generation. His son William 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.

A hugely popular tourist attraction, with more than 90,000 visitors a year, with the

Lakeland landscape at the heart of the gallery’s displays. Alongside the significant temporary

exhibitions, showcasing the work of local, regional, national and international artists, such

as the current one (The Old Stones) featuring photos by Gavin Parry and paintings by Tony

Galuidi, the studio sells fine art prints and books about the Heaton Coopers and other

Lakeland artists, as well as books about Cumbria and mountains generally.

All this is concentrated under the dynamic leadership of Becky Heaton Cooper. She took on

the role of director some ten years ago, following in the footsteps of her father, John

(Julian’s brother). John died in 2018. He had a colourful life, though not an artist himself, but

certainly an accomplished climber and mountaineer. As a teenager he would ride his

motorbike around the Lakes, wearing the jacket worn by John Hunt on the successful 1953

Everest expedition. His mother, Ophelia, had sculpted portraits of Hunt as well as Edmund

Hillary; Hunt subsequently gave the jacket to John.

Says Becky: “His business acumen and visionary mindset brought about the realisation of his

father’s dream of creating an artistic space devoted to mountain art. When I took over as

director, my father was still working there on a daily basis. Thanks to him, the Heaton

Cooper Studio exhibits world-leading mountain art, capturing the magnificence and beauty

of rock and fell, stream and lake – subject matter close to his heart.”

Becky’s an artist herself, studying fashion design in Newcastle after an art foundation

course, and time spent working as an au pair in Paris. She became interested in textiles and

print, and went on to work in mixed media and collage, exhibiting in the studio, and

throughout Cumbria and beyond, and working to commission. Inspired by the landscape

and her family heritage, Becky’s multi-layered artwork explores texture and colour, and

reflects her interest in such diverse artists as Henri Matisse and the collage-artist Kurt

Schwitters, whose last years were spent nearby in Ambleside.

She and husband Dave live a few miles from the studio next to Loughrigg Tarn, under the

shadow of her favourite fell, Loughrigg itself. They have twins, Alfie and Ophelia (family

names, of course) with whom they’ve camped on Loughrigg’s summit, but family life and

the growing business put a temporary halt to Becky’s own artistic development. Instead she

pursued her father’s route, developing the business with a passion that’s both ludicrously

ambitious and lovingly detailed. She designed, and oversaw the building of, an extension to

the studio that’s created the archive gallery space but also an on-site café, Mathildes. Doing

so, Becky not only doubled the size of the building, but also doubled the size of her own job.

Mathildes, like everything Becky approaches, is exquisite. The café has captured the

attention of locals, tourists and food writers, and is known to be a refuge for those who love

art, and food that’s very different.

Mathilde was a young country girl from Norway who fell in love with the English painter and

together they founded this dynasty of great landscape artists. “She was the love of his life,”

says Becky, who is 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 latest project.”

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


- CR

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).

It was Alfred who imported the log house studio from Norway which was rebuilt first in

Coniston, and then in Ambleside, where it housed a restaurant for some years. 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.

Says Becky: “We’re delighted that the café has become the heart and soul of Grasmere for

visitors from all over the world who love art.”

Becky says she was encouraged by all the family to leave home and pursue her art: being

part of a famous dynasty made her immensely proud. “My grandfather, William, was

interested in my artwork and always encouraging. Likewise Julian and his wife Linda. Art is

just who I am. I just get on with doing what I have to do.”

The Old Stones exhibition runs until May 29.


Photo credits: Chris Routledge