Remembering Douglas Cooper

Douglas Cooper
Douglas Cooper; drawing by David Levine

One point that Douglas Cooper, the controversial English art historian who died last year, would want his obituarist to emphasize is that he was not Australian. True, his antecedents had acquired a considerable fortune, not to speak of a baronetcy, down under, but they returned to England around the turn of the century; and they sold their Australian holdings, including much of the Woollahra section of Sydney, some years later. Given his father’s lifelong possession of a British passport and his mother’s Dorset lineage, Cooper understandably resented his countrymen’s tendency to endow him with an erroneous—i.e., Australian—provenance. A very minor irritant, one might have thought. Unfortunately resentment made for paranoia; paranoia made for Anglophobia; and Anglophobia made for the outlandish accents, outré clothes, and preposterous manner that Cooper cultivated. Bear in mind, however, that many of his idées fixes only made sense if turned upside down, or seen in the light of willful provocation or perversity. Anglophobia was the only form of patriotism that Cooper could permit himself.

Cooper’s importance for art history is that he was the first person to study and collect Cubist works with the reverence and scholarship hitherto reserved for the old masters. Cooper’s education was somewhat random: Repton, which he loathed, and a year or so successively at Cambridge, Freiburg im Breisgau, and the Sorbonne. When he was twenty-one (1932), he came into £100,000. This enabled him to defy his Bouguereau-owning parents, who hoped to force him into diplomacy or the law, and become a scholar like his erudite uncle, Gerald Cooper, the musicologist and collector of Purcell manuscripts. To get the hang of the art world, Cooper did a brief stint as a dealer—in partnership with Freddy Mayor of London’s Mayor Gallery—but he was not prepared to make the concessions that this métier demanded. Thenceforth he devoted all his energies to chronicling modern art (an edition of Van Gogh’s letters to Emile Bernard, published under the pseudonym of Douglas Lord,* was his first contribution to scholarship), and to collecting Cubism.

Nothing if not systematic by nature, Cooper set aside a third of his inheritance for his collection; and with this he went to work charting the development of the four most important artists of the Cubist movement (Picasso, Braque, Gris, Léger) subject by subject (still life, figure, landscape), medium by medium, and year by year. Cooper was lucky in that his chosen field was still relatively untilled. Much of the cream of Cubism, which had been thrown on the market ten years earlier by the four forced sales in Paris of Kahnweiler’s stock, was not only still available, but prices had hardly changed over the previous decade. Moreover, Cooper found he had very few serious rivals. Thanks to his fastidious eye, hard-headed scholarship, and sufficient means, he managed in less than ten years to put together a collection that was unique in scope and…

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