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 quality. The very few gaps—a major Braque figure composition (a necessary pendant to Picasso’s Homme à la clarinette of 1911), a Picasso landscape of 1908–1909, and a “rococo” still life of 1914—were more than made up for by Cooper’s acquisition of such landmarks as the first recorded papier collé (Braque’s Nature morte avec compotier of September 1912) and an incomparable group of Léger’s Contrastes de forme (four paintings and several large gouaches bought from Léonce Rosenberg around 1935 for about £5 each).

In his initial phase as a collector Cooper was greatly helped by his friendship with the shadowy German marchand amateur, G.F. Reber. Reber had originally made a collection of major post-impressionist paintings, most of which he subsequently exchanged (except for Cézanne’s Garçon au gilet rouge, later sold to Emil Bührle) with Paul Rosenberg for important works by the artists that Cooper was acquiring. In addition to Cooper the principal client for Reber’s remarkable stock was a young Sudeten art historian, the late Ingeborg Eichmann, who was also in the market for great modern paintings. According to Cooper, Reber always hoped—in vain—that marriage might ultimately link the two collections that he had helped to form. When short of cash—a frequent occurrence—Reber would sell one or other of his protégés a Picasso or Braque he had kept back for himself. This is how Cooper acquired his greatest treasure, Picasso’s Trois masques (1907)—the most important work of the “Negro” period left in private hands—but only after redeeming it from Geneva’s municipal pawnshop.

On the outbreak of war Cooper characteristically chose to remain in Paris and join a French ambulance unit organized by a fellow mécène, Comte Etienne de Beaumont. When the Germans invaded, Cooper’s valiant care for the wounded won him the Médaille Militaire. He subsequently recounted his adventures in a book, The Road to Bordeaux (written with Denys Freeman), part of which was reissued by the Ministry of Information as a pamphlet against panic. On disembarking in England, Cooper—who had a lifelong horror of passing unperceived—contrived to get himself jailed (the loathsome English again!), for no better reason, he claimed, than that he was wearing a French uniform. Thanks to the intervention of a former minister of air, Cooper was rescued and commissioned in the intelligence service of the Royal Air Force. Given linguistic abilities that included a mimetic command of German—Hochdeutsch to Wienerisch—Cooper proved to be a demon interrogator of prisoners of war during the North African campaign, but the nervous strain was considerable, so was the toll on his psyche.


After a further spell of intelligence work in Malta at the height of the siege, Cooper was transferred to the Monuments and Fine Arts Branch, Control Commission for Germany. Once again his knowledge of the German language and character proved invaluable, and he briefly found fulfillment in passionate pursuit of Nazi art thieves and the dealers who had collaborated with them. He was especially proud of the hornet’s nest he stirred up when he discovered the reason why Herr Montag—one of Hitler’s leading looters—kept eluding his Vautrin-like grasp; Montag owed his liberty to having taught Churchill how to paint. One of the byproducts of Cooper’s work for the commission was a small collection of fine works by Paul Klee, which he made in the course of investigative visits to Switzerland.

Back in London, Cooper moved in with his old friend, Lord Amulree, hung as much of the collection as the walls of 18 Egerton Terrace would hold, and embarked on a career of Kunstwissenschaft punctuated by controversy. The articles on nineteenth-and twentieth-century art that poured from his pen were at their best trenchant and innovative; at their worst, petty and spiteful—sometimes all these contradictory things at the same time. For instance, Cooper’s catalog of the Courtauld collection abounds in original ideas (some of them Benedict Nicolson’s), but his searching analysis of the impact that Impressionism had on English art and collecting was so marred in its original draft by attacks on Roger Fry that the chancellor of London University (the book’s sponsor) was moved to ask if Fry had made off with Cooper’s wife. And despite many remarkable contributions to The Times Literary Supplement (thoughtful essays on Ingres and Fénéon in particular), Cooper too often used the anonymity of the journal as cover from which to snipe on friend and foe alike, castigating them in interminable sottisiers for misplaced accents and typos rather than more heinous shortcomings. All the same his bitchy brilliance, his abrasiveness, his passionate and pugnacious outbursts were far more stimulating and enlightening than the Bloomsbury prissiness of his immediate predecessors: Roger Fry’s halfhearted views on Cézanne or the vacuousness of Clive Bell’s concept of significant form.

No wonder the Bloomsbury eunuchs fought shy of him, as did cautious Kenneth Clark and the British art establishment, and vice versa. No wonder official recognition failed to materialize. And no wonder he decided “to get the hell out.” For a time he thought seriously about moving to New York, but given the extent to which his admiration for American collectors and scholars (the Museum of Modern Art and its then director, Alfred Barr, in particular) was tinged with envy and sour grapes, it is as well that he never pursued this idea. Over the years, however, he made recurrent visits to these shores and derived intense pleasure from finding fault with any manifestations of connoisseurship that rivaled his own. Instead Cooper decided to emigrate to France. When he (and the present writer) discovered an abandoned folly, the colonnaded Château de Castille, for sale in the depths of Provence, he lost no time in moving—lock, stock, and paintings—to the country he had always preferred to England.

By the summer of 1950, the château was habitable, and for the first time Cooper’s collection could be seen in its plenitude. Since there was no comparable conspectus of Cubist art in France—public or private—Castille soon became a pilgrimage place for anyone interested in the subject. After L’Oeil magazine published an article on le château des cubistes, the trickle of pilgrims grew to a stream—art historians, dealers, and American tourists poured through the house. Cooper basked in their interest and adulation, which he repaid with a fund of wit and good counsel. But what he most enjoyed was visits from the artists whose work was represented on his walls. Léger came for his second honeymoon, but Picasso was the most assiduous guest, so much so that Cooper saw himself in some respects as replacing Gertrude Stein in the artist’s life.


Besides giving Cooper countless drawings (including a major study for the Demoiselles d’Avignon, later bequeathed to the Kunstmuseum, Basel), Picasso made a series of maquettes for the great murals (carried out in sandblasted cement by Karl Nesjar) in the former magnanerie at Castille. These decorations are still in situ, unlike Léger’s vast Circus painting—executed (largely by assistants) for the château’s staircase—which is now in the National Gallery of Australia. Besides artist, students were always especially welcome; however, given the split in Cooper’s personality—it was as if an angel and a demon child were perpetually fighting for control—there was always the risk, indeed the probability, that the chatelain’s solicitude and hospitality would change abruptly into irrational ire.

From his Provençal stronghold Cooper continued to collect—later works by former Cubists for the most part—and he made all manner of contributions to modern art history. He proved to be a most effective organizer of exhibitions, remorselessly browbeating artists, collectors, dealers, and institutions, the world over, into making loans (seldom reciprocated) to a succession of pathfinding shows: Monet and Braque in London and Edinburgh, Picasso in Marseille and Arles, Braque in Chicago, “The Cubist Epoch” in Los Angeles and New York—to name but a few. He wrote books on Picasso, Léger, and de Staël. Although these do not always live up to the great expectations that his pontifical putdowns of rival authorities entitled us to expect, they present the complex processes of modern art in painfully sharp focus, very occasionally obscured by a clumsy thumb in front of the lens. In addition, historians will always be in Cooper’s debt, given all the firsthand information that the former interrogator managed to wheedle out of his subjects. Too bad that he never produced the definitive work on Cubism or Picasso that he was uniquely qualified to write.

Slade Professor at Oxford in 1957–1958, visiting professor at Bryn Mawr in 1961, Cooper was also a tireless lecturer—in French, German, and Texan as well as his own tongue. But he never outgrew his penchant for controversy, as witness countless reviews of books and exhibitions whose aim was more to shock than to instruct. Alas, even when he was in the right, as he often was, Cooper would press his case to such vituperative lengths that he would consolidate the targets of his wrath in their job, opinions, or reputation, rather than the other way round. A case in point was “The Tate Affair”—a campaign by some of the more progressive trustees and staff members of the Tate Gallery to have the government remove an inept and reactionary director—which wasted much of his time and energy in the mid-Fifties. This business was the more regrettable in that it not only failed to right a wrong, but put Cooper under an unfortunate obligation to his comrade-in-arms, Graham Sutherland, the foremost British painter of the day.

An implicit quid pro quo for Sutherland’s resignation as a Tate Gallery trustee—the move that triggered a protracted battle in the Treasury and the House of Commons—was that Cooper should write a monograph on the artist. The faint praise that materialized did little credit to the author or his subject. As Cooper later confessed, “a taste for Sutherland was incompatible with a taste for Cubism.” He should have resisted, he said, the pressure to accord a minor British painter the accolade he had hitherto reserved for “the giants” of the Paris school. Cooper’s much publicized fight with Sutherland, many years later, was an inevitable outcome of the false position in which the author found himself vis-à-vis the artist. In the circumstances it is a wonder that the portrait commemorating this ill-starred friendship escaped destruction. Cooper frequently threatened to follow the example of Lady Churchill, who consigned Sutherland’s official portrait of her husband to the furnace, but he always allowed himself to be dissuaded from doing so.

After thieves broke into Castille in 1974 and made off with some of the smaller works (yet to be recovered), Cooper decided to sell the château and move somewhere safer and less remote. In 1977 he acquired what he described as “a bunker,” a couple of small apartments in a modern building overlooking the sea in Monte Carlo. Since space was limited, he sold some of his larger paintings (including Picasso’s Homme à la clarinette, now in the Thyssen-Bornemisza collection). However, even in its reduced form the collection retained its historical integrity; and enough fine things remained—indeed still remain in the hands of the collector’s adopted son, William McCarty Cooper—to constitute a monument to the Cubist movement and the collector’s discrimination. In Cooper’s later years a self-destructive taste for feuding (he even managed to quarrel with his hero, Picasso), combined with failing health, condemned him to a relatively reclusive life. This was a good thing in that it enabled him to concentrate on such serious tasks as putting the finishing touches to the Juan Gris catalogue raisonné, on which he had been working for forty years, and to complete an as yet unpublished catalog of Gauguin’s oeuvre.

Did Cooper, one wonders, come to have second thoughts about his native land? The last major exhibition he organized (with Gary Tinterow), “Essential Cubism” (1983), at the Tate Gallery, constituted something of a rapprochement with England. This and the loan of his Braque Atelier led the Tate to believe that the hatchet had been buried. However the collector’s fickle old heart had found yet another object, the Prado. And the pride of Cooper’s last years was that he was the first foreigner to become a member of that museum’s patronato. In gratitude he gave the Prado a masterpiece by a Spanish master virtually unrepresented in Spain: Juan Gris’s portrait of his wife. He also left the Prado his no less important Nature morte aux pigeons (1912) by Picasso and the palette that this artist had used while working on his Déjeuner sur I’herbe versions.

Cooper had started his career as a rebel in the cause of Cubism; he ended as a rebel without any cause at all except a loathing for contemporary art, as witness his much-publicized denunciation of the Tate’s acquisition of a work by Carl André. It is not hard to see how this came about. His narrow view of Cubism as the only valid yardstick by which to judge the art of this century doomed Cooper to regard virtually everything done by post-Cubist artists, above all nonfigurative ones, as a perversion or a dégringolade. In line with his old-fogeyism, he adopted an apoplectic manner and took to dressing up as one of his horsy forebears, only in m’as tu vu color schemes. Like Evelyn Waugh in old age, he relished the role of sacred clown, and cherished the belief that everyone was out of step but himself. As Cooper was often in considerable pain, the clowning must have taken a lot of courage to sustain, but his alternately fiendish and childish wit never failed him. His end was in character. “I propose to die on April Fool’s Day,” he announced as he went into the hospital for the last time. And after three days in a coma, that is exactly what this clown of genius did.

This Issue

April 25, 1985