Research by Jacqueline Arundel
Thomas Sidney Cooper was a famous English landscape and animal painter, popular in Victorian times. He was born to humble parents in Canterbury in 1803, where he died in 1902 at the age of 99. Cooper attributed his longevity to a simple country life, abstaining from stimulants such as tea and coffee, eating to be strong and healthy, and not over-indulging.
He exhibited at the Royal Academy for 57 consecutive years; this longevity and consistency was unmatched at the time and may still be unsurpassed today.
He travelled to the continent to seek fame and fortune and met Belgian artist, Eugene Verboeckhoven (1799-1881), who revealed an academic discipline in the handling of pigment in oil and gave Cooper the ‘secret’ of the great 17th century Dutch Masters. This medium, which turned out to be walnut oil, brightened colours and has resulted in almost all of their paintings being splendidly preserved to this day. Cooper took many cues from Verboeckhoven to improve his own drawings and gained an expertise that was to remain an important factor for the remainder of his career.
Cooper’s art is an amalgam derived from several different sources. The Dutch School, chiefly represented by Aelbert Cuyp (1620-1691), Paulus Potter (1625-1654) and Verboeckhoven, a disciple of Cuyp and Potter, whose technique evolved out of that employed by Balthazar Paul Ommeganck (1755-1826), linking him, and ultimately Cooper, to the great cattle painters of 17th century Holland. His subject matter and compositions were also greatly influenced by Rev William Gilpin (1724-1804), author and amateur artist of the Picturesque tradition. Gilpin felt that cows and sheep were relative to picturesque beauty but that horses were not sufficiently picturesque to be included in a composition. He believed this observation to be confirmed by the great Dutch Masters, who preferred cattle to horses and deer in adorning their rural scenes. Cooper’s ability to combine what was a dying tradition with Dutch realism undoubtedly gave it a new lease of life.
Cooper was also one of the earliest artists to use photography as an aid to creating compositions for his paintings. As early as 1851 his friends, Richard Ansdell (1815-1885) and John Prescott Knight (1803-1881), were members of the photographic club known as the Calotype Club and therefore would have been in a strong position to impart knowledge of the improvements that were happening in photography. Cooper often created his compositions using a photomontage technique, overlaying photographs and sketches of landscapes and animals until he achieved a suitable composition.
Canterbury Meadows depicts a tranquil landscape in the late afternoon when the sun is low; the shadow of the tree is cast forward and to the right of the picture, the same with the cattle sitting in the mid-ground. The main shadow creates a triangle wedge of dark tone, entering from the front and receding towards the vanishing point. Paulus Potter often used this ‘dark wedge’ in his paintings. The landscape recedes from grey-blue/purple and grey-green to warm ochre, creating depth; cool and dark colours appear to recede, where warm and pale colours advance. Cooper has used Caravaggesque lighting, a high contrast of light and dark, which emphasises the three-dimensional nature of the cattle and defines them by accentuating the highlights. Cooper assimilated this mannerism of the Dutch masters, especially Aelbert Cuyp’s, into his own paintings with considerable effect. Friend of Cooper, and some say his Master, Verboeckhoven, was a disciple of the Dutch Masters and taught him many of their techniques.
Repeatedly, Cooper, in imitation of Verboeckhoven, applies a zigzag squiggle of white along the muzzles of his sheep and goats to give a metallic reflecting quality. The edges of the hoofs and horns are picked out with a thin, craftsman-like stroke of white lead, the moistness of eyes and muzzles being obtained by similar means. See Verboeckhoven’s Cattle and Sheep in a Landscape (1874), also in the Lytham St Annes Art Collection.
Cooper’s attention to detail creates a distinct contrast, as you can see by the clear shadow of the head of the cow stood in the water on the left of the picture. In contrast, the background, especially the cloud formation, is painted with broad and heavily laden strokes. In the foreground, the cattle are finished with Cooper’s usual accurate draftsman-ship, painting crisp directional strokes, as opposed to that of an artist who exploits the plastic qualities of oil pigment. The body of water shows horizontal reflections of the cattle; this, and the vertical tree, gives the picture plane stability, another Dutch influence. In the mid-ground, a group of sheep surround a couple of cows sitting in another pool of sunlight and in the far distance, on the horizon, a farmhouse. These saturated pools of light and dark wedges of shadow show that Cooper understood, as did the Dutch Masters, how light works on the landscape.
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