Alfred Heaton Cooper was born in Bolton in 1863, the eldest of five children.
His father, William was a cashier in Cannon’s cotton mill, and his mother, Alice, was a weaver there.
Alice could neither read nor write, but she was to prove a driving force behind her children’s upbringing and education, so that they succeeded in careers far beyond their background. Daniel became a photographer and moved to Boston in America, Thomas became an instructor in drawing at Cleveland School of Art, Ohio, USA, William emmigrated as a groom to Australia, and Edith married the regional editor of a French newspaper in Brittany.
After leaving school at 14 Alfred got a job at Bolton Town Hall as a junior accountancy clerk, but spent all his spare time drawing and painting on the Lancashire moors and as far afield as Yorkshire and the Lake District. The results were good enough to secure a scholarship to Westminster School of Art in 1884.
He had digs at 72 Cheyne Walk in Chelsea, moving later to Upper Cheyne Row. This proximity to the Thames led Alfred to make many studies of the river and its life. One of Alfred’s teachers was George Clausen, and through him Alfred would have learnt about the new realist painting being developed in France by Francois Millet, Henri Bastien-Lepage and others, which featured people working outdoors. Alfred kept up this interest in working people throughout his life. Another French influence was the painters of the Barbizon school of landscape painters. In 1886 Alfred rented a wooden studio on the riverbank at Old Windsor, from which he painted the rural upper Thames, often from a boat.
After leaving art school in 1888 Alfred embarked on the ship SS Malta heading for Tangier via Gibraltar. He spent 5 weeks in Morocco, resulting in several full sketchbooks and some larger watercolours, including “The Old Souk, Tangiers”.
Travel had certainly become important for him because two years later he chose to go to Norway, sailing to Bergen in July, 1891. From Bergen he first discovered Hardangerfjord, making intensive drawings and paintings of local peasant life, arriving four months later at Balholm on the Sognafjord, which was on the route of steamers carrying wealthy English, American and German tourists. Balholm then had several resident artists, including Hans Dahl and Augustine Normann. This situation looked commercially viable to Alfred, and he established himself in lodgings belonging to the Kviknes family, staying there until June 1892, and bringing back many paintings which were placed with the art dealers Swan & Morgan of Newcastle, who handled his paintings over many years.
Whilst in Balholm Alfred had met Mathilde Valentinsen, the daughter of a local wool dyer called Rasmus Valentinsen, and on his return to England he wrote to Mathilde, proposing marriage; this was accepted, and Alfred spent the next two years back at Bolton and on painting trips to Scotland and the Lake District selling the work through his Bolton art dealers, Bromley’s of Bradshawgate.
An important painting he did at this time was “Coal and Iron versus Corn-Wigan” an ambitious 4ft by 6ft oil painting which he submitted to the Royal Academy, depicting in the background the dense smoke and crowded chimneys of Wigan, with golden corn fields forming the foreground.
By September 1894 he had saved enough money for the marriage to Mathilde in Balholm, and they were on the boat back to England by November. From Bolton they soon moved to the then fashionable seaside town of Southport, partly for health reasons, their first-born son Sverre having just died. Mathilde wasn’t well either, and they hoped that the wealthy entrepreneurs of Liverpool and Manchester might buy Alfred’s paintings. But this didn’t happen, nor did Mathilde’s health improve, so a move to the Lake District seemed the answer. In 1898 they rented a cottage in Hawkshead. From there Alfred painted not only landscapes but also the people he saw at work around him, such as charcoal burners, woodmen, farmers and fishermen.
Ellide, their daughter was born in 1898, and in 1899 the family returned to Norway for three months, returning to live in a larger cottage in Coniston where Mathilde gave birth to a son in 1900, called Frithjof, named after the hero in the Norse Sagas.
The family increased again with the birth of William in 1903, and more space had to be found, so they moved to The Gate House, (which they re-named ‘Solheim’) in the centre of Coniston at the gates of Holywath, Coniston’s manor house.
Another three month trip to Norway followed, Alfred taking advantage of the long hours of daylight to paint the mountains and fjords around Balholm.
Back in Coniston Alfred was offered a commission by A&C Black, the London publishers of popular guide books, for 75 watercolours to illustrate a large book about the English Lakes planned for the following year. Alfred felt his luck had changed, and he ordered a Norwegian log cabin painted a deep red and with carved Viking dragon heads, from the makers Jakob in Trondheim. This came by sea to Newcastle and was assembled in a garden behind the Crown Hotel in Coniston. This was to be his gallery and studio for the rest of his life, moving with the family to Ambleside in 1912.
The “English Lakes” book was a success, and the family returned to Balholm in 1906 for 15 months, where Alfred had another wooden house built, next to the fjord, similar to the Coniston one, providing both a home and studio for the family. They had their own rowing boat moored outside. It is still there and known as the “Cooperhus”.
Balholm was growing more important as a tourist centre Kviknes had built a large wooden hotel at the centre of it, where Alfred’s paintings sometimes hung, but despite the wealth of rich and famous visitors, including the Norwegian Royal family, and the German Kaiser, after 15 months lack of finances forced Alfred to leave Norway again.
John Ruskin had been the presiding spirit of Coniston for 25 years until 1900, and Alfred in his youth had been deeply influenced by him and his writings on Turner, and indeed had visited him at Brantwood. Followers of Ruskin still came to Coniston, and W.G.Collingwood his secretary lived there, he and Alfred becoming friends, though there seemed to be some friction between them over the beginnings of the Lake Artists Society. This was later resolved, evidenced by Mrs Collingwood painting a delicate watercolour portrait of Ellide, Alfred’s eldest daughter. One thing they both had in common was Norway and the Vikings. Collingwood was deeply interested in the Norse legends and the Viking presence in the Lake District, writing several novels setting the 8th c. Norwegians in the Coniston landscape. This must have been heady stuff for Alfred, providing a significant link with Balholm.
After the success of the “English Lakes”, Alfred was asked to write and illustrate another book, “The Norwegian Fjords”, published in 1907. This was followed by “The Isle of Wight”, and a year later “The Isle of Man”. Other Black’s titles Alfred illustrated were “Ireland”1915, “Norfolk&Suffolk”,1912 “Dorset”, “Somerset”, “Northumberland”, “Derbyshire”, “Denmark, 1926, Sweden, 1927”, and “Wild Lakeland” in 1925.
In 1908 the family moved to Ulverston, in order to get schools for the children. Alfred took the train to Coniston each day. In 1911, the family moved again, this time to Ambleside. Alfred found the daily journey to Coniston irksome, and tourism was increasing every year. Thousands arrived at Windermere station, cruised up the lake, and visited Ambleside. Coniston, despite the attraction of the lake with its elegant steam yachts, could never compete for visitor numbers with Ambleside. Also a new Kelsick Grammar School had just been endowed, suitable for the children, so they settled in Millans Park, transporting the Norwegian Studio from Coniston and re-erecting it on a plot of rented land on Lake Road in Ambleside.
Apart from the constant travelling needed for the Black’s illustrations, Alfred had to supply Lake District paintings to sell in the Studio, sometimes going on journeys on foot lasting several days. He would stay in farms and got to know the farmers and their families. In Ullswater he stayed with the Wilson’s of Glencoyne, in Wasdale he would stay with the Wilson’s of Burnthwaite. He was also a follower of the Coniston fox hounds, based in Ambleside. From 1887 he had paintings accepted for the Royal Academy Summer show, usually oils, and he continued showing there regularly until 1925.
Ellide married a rubber planter in 1917, and went to live in India, whilst Frithjof, the eldest son joined the Royal Flying Corps. William had decided to become a painter, and often accompanied his father painting around Ambleside and the Brathay River, and helping him in the Norwegian Studio mounting and framing his pictures. In 1925 William left home to go to the Royal Academy Schools, and youngest daughter Una was the only one of the four still living at home, eventually marrying the poet Edmund Lee. The family had meanwhile moved again to Cross Brow, on Old Lake Road, formerly the home of the poet Sir William Watson.