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'the best ornithological illustrator alive'
In the work of artist William T. Cooper, platypuses swim in green underwater worlds, waves throw up blankets of spray, embers glow in the aftermath of a bushfire, a Thylacine emerges from the shadows, sniffing the air. But it is his paintings of birds which set Cooper apart-his raucous cockatoos, colourful parrots, animated turacos and flamboyantly displaying birds of paradise. Often placed in meticulously studied landscapes, these intricate bird portraits reveal Cooper's close observation not only of his subjects' appearance, but their habits, poses and behaviour.
In this biography, Penny Olsen traces the path of Cooper's life and art-from his childhood spent in the bush, to his teenage years as an apprentice taxidermist at Carey Bay Zoo and, later, to his work as a window dresser and landscape artist. She documents his fruitful partnership with wife and collaborator Wendy Cooper and his extensive travels in Australia and abroad in pursuit of his subjects. Olsen's commentary reveals the development of an artist and the trajectory of a life, while extracts from Cooper’s extensive field notebooks give an insight into his interests and processes.
Illustrated with photographs, paintings and sketches, and includes a portfolio of bird and landscape paintings that have never before been published.
* Illustrated biography
* Includes colour illustrations, sketches and a portfolio of over 30 previously unpublished works
* Foreword by David Attenborough
Illustrator's life as colourful as celebrated birds
When Sir David Attenborough first saw paintings of birds of paradise by Australian artist William Cooper hanging on a wall in Sydney in 1979, he immediately asked to meet their creator.
He was told by Cooper's publisher that the artist "lived in the bush and won't talk to people", and the legendary naturalist left disappointed.
But the next time he was in the country, he succeeded in tracking Cooper down, and found the publisher had been mistaken.
He immediately commissioned work for his private collection, and thus began a lifelong friendship, founded largely on a shared love of birds and nature.
Cooper was even the subject of one of Sir David's documentaries in 1993, Portrait Painter to the Birds.
And now, the man Sir David has described as "the best ornithological illustrator alive" is the subject of a new biography, written by ANU professor Penny Olsen and published by the National Library of Australia.
Cooper, now almost 80 and living in Topaz in far North Queensland, was in Canberra on Thursday for the book's launch, and said it had been a strange experience to see his life laid out on the page.
While the book is lavishly illustrated with Cooper's vivid paintings of birds, plants and wildlife, it is also filled with stories of his travels and many projects.
Born in Newcastle in 1934, he worked as an apprentice to a taxidermist as a teenager, and later as a window-dresser and a landscape artist.
By the 1960s, he had become a fulltime artist, travelling across the country and the world, throughout Asia and East Africa in pursuit of his subjects - mainly birds.
Along with his wife Wendy, a botanist, whom he met in 1976, he kept meticulous records of his journeys, illustrated several books, and has works in private collections throughout Australia and overseas.
Dr Olsen, a field biologist and ecological consultant, said when Cooper first approached her many years ago to ask her to write his biography, she turned him down. "I'd written a lot of descriptive books about birds, like about how many eggs they lay, and a biography is very removed from that, so I said no, I thought he could do better.''
But when he asked her again a decade later, she agreed. "I'm so glad I did it, it's a great gift. I hadn't realised how remarkable his story is and how rich it is," she said. "He started in Newcastle in a shack that his father built with hessian walls, and he's one of the few wildlife artists who's made a living from it."
Cooper said despite the fact that he had long been urged to write a biography, it was surprising to see his trajectory written down. "It's strange, because since it's come out, people have said "Oh, you've done so much", and I never think that I've done much at all, I just think we do our daily life," he said. "But when you read it, you start thinking, if I was somebody else, I'd say he had a great time!"
An exquisite, highly-sought-after parrot, threatened with extinction, catches the eye of natural history author Dr Penny Olsen.
Australia has an amazing diversity of brilliant and engaging parrots, but my favourite is one I will never see - it was called the Paradise Parrot, one of 12 species that are extinct, or threatened with extinction, out of the 56 Australian parrot species.
The Paradise Parrot's days were numbered by the time it was first collected by Europeans on the Darling Downs, Queensland, in 1844. Its country, the richest grasslands in Australia, was claimefor farming and changed within a few decades.
The parrot's first European collector, John Gilbert, wrote to his employer, British ornithologist John Gould, describing the bird as 'without exception, the most beautiful of the whole tribe I have ever seen in Australia' and hoping that Gould would honour him by naming the bird for him. Gould did not grant him his wish, but the bird was called the Beautiful Parrakeet for a time.
The slender, multi-coloured parrot, with its bright, irridescent plumage was much admired and sought after as live birds for the menageries of the wealthy and as ornaments, stuffed, for their drawing rooms; museums too wanted specimens to add to their collections. The few Paradise Parrots that survived the long sea voyage to England and beyond, proved difficult to breed in captivity.
In the wild, the parrot bred in termite mounds, but European settlers removed these to floor their huts, pave roads and, eventually, for the surface of tennis courts. As its habitat disappeared to farming, its rarity increased, only heightening interest in the bird and its eggs. The first and last photographs of the parrot were taken in 1922, and the last confirmed sighting was made in 1928. Yet reports of its existence continued into the early 2000s.
In the 1970s, a Sydney aviculuralist claimed to have a cage full of Paradise Parrots at a secret locailty. They were eventually lost to fire or flood, he would relate, squeezing tears from his eyes, and displaying a black and white photo, which, I discovered during some research, had been published in an early British magazine. It was taken in England and pictured another, related species.
All in all, the Paradise Parrot's was an extraordinary story - of scams and wild goose chases, royalty and rogues, passions and jealousies. A great gift for an author, but a tragedy for the little parrot.
A magnanimous book accompanied by his meticulous paintings in oils, watercolours and acrylics. A fascinating life.
What a joy it is to find a beautifully illustrated book about nature that you had no idea existed. I experienced that pleasure last week when two new books arrived in the post, and was so taken by them I ordered extra copies for Christmas presents...
The second book is also a joy not only to read but also to view. The wonderful illustrations of birds and other wildlife are a highlight of the biography An Eye for Nature - The Life and Art of William T Cooper, written by Penny Olsen and published by the National Library of Australia in 2014.
It features the life of a Newcastle boy, Bill Cooper, who grew up running through the bush of Adamstown and Glenrock in the Depression. As boy, he was fascinated by animals and natural history illustrations became his profession.
Sir David Attenborough has described William T Cooper as "Australia's greatest living scientific painter of birds, he is possibly the best in the world".
He is also the only Australian awarded a gold medal by the Academy of Natural Sciences Philadelphia.
Bill Cooper has had a strong connection to the university and his traditions are now closely followed by the students of the unique Bachelor of Natural History Illustration degree.
Not only books to buy for your own library, but ones to give to friends.
Professor Tim Roberts is director at the University of Newcastle's Tom Farrell Institute for the Environment.
Tribute to a special eye for nature
One of the greatest living painters of birds, William T. Cooper, AO, who lives near Malanda on the Tablelands, has been celebrated in a new book by Canberra academic Penny Olsen.
An Eye for Nature: The Art and Life of William T. Cooper, is a sumptuously researched and presented book, published by the National Library of Australia. The book was launched last month and takes its place in a fair catalogue of works by or about the renowned wildlife painter, whom David Attenborough visited again last year and often cites as perhaps the greatest living painter of birds.
The new book by Olsen, a bird scientist who herself has built up quite a body of work about bird species and those who study and paint them, is a painstaking account of Cooper's life as well as his work, from his infant days in hardscrabble Newcastle, NSW, just after WWII, to his entering the art world, at first self-taught and then gradually building such a formidable expertise that he became renowned in his field, travelling the world on forays to Africa, India, Malaysia and repeatedly to Papua New Guinea.
With Attenborough he shared a fascination for the bird of paradise which is at its most prolific and spectacular as a species in New Guinea. It was seeing depictions of these magnificent birds in his youth that inspired his later career.
His richly detailed and coloured depictions of these birds, along with exotica like turacos and hornbills, leap off the pages of this book, along with accounts of his adventures in wild and sometimes dangerous places.
The diversity is amazing, from Ethel's chooks ‒ ordinary in themselves but still wonderfully rendered ‒ to the upside down mating display of the blue bird of paradise and then the absolutely arresting image of the helmeted hornbills (page 219), which simply defy imagination and surely hold a prime spot in the gallery of nature's most unlikely creatures.
The thing with Bill Cooper is that he insists on painting from sketches in the field. Drawing with technical accuracy is the basis of his work, and the book is not stinting of examples of his working sketches.
(He has in fact written a book for other artists on the technical aspects of this work, called Capturing The Essence.)
His observations take in the birds' environment and their typical behaviour. So looking at his paintings feels like stepping into the scene itself ‒ you can feel the jungle of New Guinea or Sumatra, or the heat of the Quincan bluffs near Laura, or the dryness of the Indian bush where he painted tigers.
The book takes you into Cooper's world ‒ three marriages, his friendship and collaboration with Stan Breeden (for whom he illustrated Visions of A Rainforest) who also lives near Cairns, his encounters with the adventurers, nature lovers and tribal people on various continents.
And in more recent decades a domestic contentment seems apparent ‒ Cooper and his wife Wendy made dozens of trips into Cape York to study flowering fruit, the basis of a book together and she has become quite a naturalist in her own right.
Cooper is 79 and has said he is near the end of painting birds. His next chapter will be large canvases ‒ a fitting format for a grand career.
The birdman of Topaz
David Attenborough describes William Cooper as "the best ornithological illustrator alive"
It's another beautiful day at Topaz on the Atherton Tablelands in Queensland's far-north, and a gently spoken William Cooper couldn't be happier or feel more content in the tropical rainforest hideaway where he lives with wife Wendy.
West of Innisfail, Topaz edges the Wooroonooran national Park - home to the natural world that Cooper has loved and respected all his life. "I've always loved the jungle,'' says Cooper, who turns 80 next month and this year celebrates 50 years as a professional naturalist artist.
His extraordinary talent is celebrated in a new biography, Penny Olsen's An Eye For Nature: The Life and Art of William T. Cooper, published this month by the national Library of Australia.
While generously illustrated with examples of Cooper's exquisite artwork - landscapes and wildlife, but mostly birds - ultimately, it is these illustrations' accuracy that prompted David Attenborough to describe his friend and colleague as the world's "best ornithological illustrator alive".
In his foreword to the 278-page hardback, Attenborough says of Cooper: "over the years, he has illustrated not only all the living species of birds-of-paradise but all the parrots, cockatoos, turacos, kingfishers and hornbills. each portrait conforms to the strict requirements of ornithological science, yet all, in their composition, are amazingly varied and aesthetically deeply satisfying."
Attenborough's accolade is among many others that recognise Cooper's life work and various publications he has illustrated, including his very first book, A Portfolio of Australian Birds (written by Keith Hindwood) and a list of titles authored by long-time colleague Joseph M. Forshaw, including Parrots of the World, The Birds of Paradise and Bowerbirds and Australian Parrots.
In 1992 the prestigious academy of natural Sciences Museum, based in Philadelphia in the US, awarded Cooper its gold medal for distinction in natural history art. he is the first and only Australian recipient of the medal in the academy's 190-year history.
Australian National University research scientist and natural history writer Dr Penny Olsen, also an ornithologist, has written more than 20 books, including the recent Cayley and Son: The Life and Art of Neville Henry Cayley & Neville William Cayley. and while the name Cayley was for more than a century synonymous with Australian bird illustration, Olsen has no reservation in stating the superiority of Cooper's work.
"Oh, by miles," Olsen says. "Just the accuracy. In part, it was the times. By the time Bill came along, photography showed us how birds really fly and how they really look when alive, whereas the Cayleys worked a lot from skin specimens. Bill was raised in the bush and has an intuitive feeling... he'd watch birds for hours.''
Olsen says it shows in Cooper's paintings that he "knows what animals do, where they live, how they move around, what they eat, how they interact". "one of the things I hope this book will do is show how versatile Bill is. he's the sort of fella who could have turned his hand to a lot of things."
Cooper recalls a happy, idyllic childhood. His resourceful parents, William Sr and Coralie, turned a post-Depression shack in a bush gully near Adamstown, outside of Newcastle, into a comfortable cottage for a young family. "It was a very happy childhood," he says. "I lived in the bush, ran free in the bush, never wore shoes until I went to high school. We just lived with nature. It was wonderful. My father had bush knowledge - he understood the animals, the birds.
"I was always taught they (the animal world) had a right to be here, just as we do, and to look after them - not to shoot them or take them unnecessarily. If we needed fish to eat, we'd go and catch fish."
In his teens Cooper was apprenticed in taxidermy and later was employed as a window dresser. his interest in painting was rewarded with competition wins, followed by exhibitions.
After two failed marriages, in the late '70s Cooper met and married Wendy Price. Their interests in nature aligned, with the couple travelling and working together in India, Africa, Malaya and New Guinea.
Years ago, Cooper was a guest lecturer at Newcastle University. "I always told my students, you can't do accurate work unless you understand your subject,'' he says, recalling how, in the mid-'80s he and Wendy journeyed to India where they had several sightings of the famous Bengal tiger, menacingly depicted in a 2007 oil painting An Eye For Nature.
Brush with stunning wildlife
"The best ornithological illustrator alive'' is how Sir David Attenborough sums up the art of William T. Cooper.
While he painted platypuses swimming, waves throwing up blankets of spray and a thylacine emerging from the shadows, sniffing the air, it's his paintings of birds that Sir David believes set Cooper apart.
His portraits of ‘‘raucous cockatoos, colourful parrots, kingfishers and flamboyantly displaying birds of paradise'', often placed in meticulously studied landscapes, indicated close observation not only of the birds but also their habits, poses and behaviour.
Penny Olsen, a research scientist and natural history writer based at The Australian National University in Canberra, has traced the path of Cooper's life and art, from his childhood spent in the bush to his teenage years spent as an apprentice taxidermist at Carey Bay Zoo in New South Wales and, later, to his work as a window dresser and landscape artist.
In An Eye for Nature, Olsen documents Cooper's fruitful partnership with wife and collaborator Wendy Cooper and his extensive travels in Australia and abroad in pursuit of his subjects.
Papua New Guinea, the wilds of Africa and Malaysia all drew Cooper's eye for detail.
Olsen also includes extracts from Cooper's extensive field notebooks, which give great insight into this intrepid artist's interests and processes.
Connection to Sir David indeed indicates high-flying respect for Cooper's expertise.
Interestingly, Olsen first corresponded with ‘‘Bill'' Cooper in the late 1990s when she was keen to feature his work in her publication Feather and Brush: Three Centuries of Australian Bird Art.
A few years later Cooper asked Olsen if she would be interested in writing his biography.
As she tells it, ‘‘daunted by the responsibility, I at first politely refused''. In 2010 she was given a second chance, which she seized and has culminated in a book that is immersive in both word and breathtaking illustration.
Many readers may already recognise Olsen as the author of another impressive art biography. Collecting Ladies: Ferdinand von Mueller and Women Botanical Artists, released last year.
This latest biography is equally impressive.
David Attenborough says North Queenslander William Cooper is ‘the best ornithological illustrator alive',
It is another beautiful sunshine day at Topaz, on the Atherton Tableland, in the state's far north, and a gently spoken William Cooper could not be happier or feel more content in his tropical rainforest hideaway, where he lives with his wife Wendy.
He can hear the cicadas singing and, while it's the height of summer, at 700m, and one of the highest places in Queensland, it's a pleasant 26C.
West of Innisfail, Topaz edges the Wooroonooran National Park, home to the natural world that Cooper has loved and respected all his life.
"I've always loved the jungle,'' says Cooper, who turns 80 next month and this year celebrates 50 years as a professional naturalist artist.
His extraordinary talent is celebrated in a new biography, Penny Olsen's An Eye For Nature: The Life and Art of William T. Cooper, published this month by the National Library of Australia.
While generously illustrated with examples of Cooper's exquisite artwork - landscapes and wildlife, but mostly birds - ultimately, it is these illustrations' accuracy that prompted David Attenborough to describe his friend and colleague as the world's "best ornithological illustrator alive''. In his foreword to the 278-page hardback, Attenborough says of Cooper: "Over the years, he has illustrated not only all the living species of birds-ofparadise, but all the parrots, cockatoos, turacos, kingfishers and hornbills.
"Each portrait conforms to the strict requirements of ornithological science. Yet all, in their composition, are amazingly varied and aesthetically deeply satisfying.''
Attenborough's accolade is among many others that recognise Cooper's life work and various publications he has illustrated, including his first book in 1968, A Portfolio of Australian Birds (written by Keith Hindwood) and a list of titles authored by long-time colleague Joseph M. Forshaw, including Parrots of the World, The Birds of Paradise and Bowerbirds, Australian Parrots and Kingfishers and Related Birds.
In 1992 the prestigious Academy of Natural Sciences Museum, in Philadelphia, in the US, awarded Cooper its gold medal for distinction in natural history art. He is the first and only Australian recipient of the medal in the academy's 190-year history.
Australian National University research scientist and natural history writer Dr Penny Olsen, also an ornithologist, has written more than 20 books, including the recent Cayley & Son: The Life and Art of Neville Henry Cayley & Neville William Cayley.
And while the name Cayley was for more than a century synonymous with Australian bird illustration, Olsen has no reservation in stating the superiority of Cooper's work.
"Oh, by miles,'' Olsen says. "Just the accuracy. In part, it was the times. By the time Bill came along photography showed us how birds really fly and how they really look when alive, whereas the Cayleys worked a lot from skin specimens. Bill was raised in the bush and has an intuitive feeling ... he'd watch birds for hours.''
Olsen says it shows in Cooper's paintings that he "knows what animals do, where they live, how they move around, what they eat, how they interact''.
"One of the things I hope this book will do is show how versatile Bill is.
"He's known for his bird art, but he can draw and paint anything: people, landscapes, tigers, beetles, fish.
"He's the sort of fella who could have turned his hand to a lot of things. He's musical, he can dance really well. He was a good boxer, he never pursued it, but was told he could have. He's a fine taxidermist. He could have been a biologist. He's built houses.''
Cooper recalls a happy, idyllic childhood. His resourceful parents, William Sr and Coralie, turned a post-Depression shack in a bush gully near Adamstown, outside of Newcastle, into a comfortable cottage for a young family.
"It was a very happy childhood. I lived in the bush, ran free in the bush, never wore shoes until I went to high school. We just lived with nature. It was wonderful.
"My father had bush knowledge. He understood the animals, the birds,'' Cooper recalls.
For him, the message was clear: "To respect and enjoy nature.''
"I was always taught they (the animal world) had a right to be here, just as we do, and to look after them, not to shoot them or take thenunnecessarily. If we needed fish to eat, we'd go and catch fish.''
While Cooper's father taught him the ways of the bush, his mother encouraged his love of books and learning, which started with her dropping him, from age 10, at the Pope Library while she shopped in Newcastle.
In his teens Cooper was apprenticed in taxidermy and later was employed as a window dresser. His interest in painting was rewarded with competition wins followed by exhibitions, first landscapes then seascapes, before his real passion, and talent, blossomed with his first love, birds.
"I painted landscapes before I painted the birds. That was where I thought I was going. I was trying quite a few different styles, but then the birds came along and lured me away,'' Cooper says.
After two failed marriages, in the late 1970s Cooper met and married Wendy Price. Their interests in nature aligned and so began a perfect partnership, with the couple travelling and working together in India, Africa, Malaya and New Guinea.
"An artist might be hard to live with ... someone obsessed with their work. Wendy had an interest in the natural world. She's become quite a power on her own in the botanical world,'' Cooper says of his wife.
Olsen also emphasises how extraordinarily important Wendy is in Cooper's story: "They're like two peas in a pod. They complement each other beautifully. Wendy, with her botanical knowledge. She's very organised, which lets Bill get on with his painting.
"They love going out bush, camping and having a wander around. She's now a respected biologist, despite no (formal) training. They have such an intense interest in their surroundings.''
Olsen says that "intensity of interest'' partly reflects Cooper's commitment to accurately depicting the subjects of his paintings, whether in oils, watercolours or acrylics - along with their meticulously studied backdrops.
"He loves popping in a little insect somewhere, peeking out from under a leaf, then asking you if you have seen it,'' she laughs. Says Cooper: "We go to great lengths to get it right.''
Time is the key. As much time as is necessary, in fact, to understand then capture his subjects.
"Years ago, I was a guest lecturer at Newcastle University and I always told my students ‘you can't do accurate work unless you understand your subject','' he says, recalling how, in the mid-'80s, he and Wendy journeyed to India where they had several sightings of the famous Bengal tiger, menacingly depicted in a 2007 oil painting in An Eye For Nature.
"It's one of my favourite works,'' Cooper chuckles.
"An amazing animal. I've seen them at very close range. It makes the hair stand up on the back of your neck.''
In the work of artist William T Cooper, platypuses swim in green underwater worlds, waves throw up blankets of spray, embers glow in the aftermath of a bushfire, a thylacine emerges from the shadows, sniffing the air.
But it is his paintings of birds which set Cooper apart - his raucous cockatoos, colourful parrots, animated turacos and flamboyantly displaying birds of paradise.
Often placed in meticulously studied landscapes, these intricate bird portraits reveal Cooper's close observation not only of his subjects' appearance, but their habits, poses and behaviour.
In this biography, Penny Olsen traces the path of Cooper's life and art - from his childhood spent in the bush, to his teenage years as an apprentice taxidermist at Carey Bay Zoo and, later, to his work as a window dresser and landscape artist.
She documents his fruitful partnership with wife and collaborator Wendy Cooper and his extensive travels in Australia and abroad in pursuit of his subjects.
Nature meets art in this overdue study.
At least two types of people will find reason to like Penny Olsen's beautiful book about the bird and nature artist William T. Cooper.
Those who like nature and nature art, and those who are interested in the local history of Newcastle and the Hunter will be equally pleased by the volume.
I opened the book for the first reason: I like reading about nature and about others who do too.
But I read the first chapters avidly for the second reason: Cooper was Newcastle-born and raised, and this biography gives many insights into the area in the 1930sand 1940s.
From the classic 1936 Hunter Street photo at the beginning of the book, with Cooper's parents and their toddler son, to other snaps, vignettes and anecdotes of life in the depressed steel city, it's a good read for Novocastrians.
The Coopers lived, for a time at least, in a Depression shanty town in a bush gully near Adamstown, and the book describe show the family kept itself fed by raising goats and chickens, growing vegetables and hunting in the bush.
Later they also lived in the New Lambton Estate, another shanty town on coal company land dotted with sink holes from collapsed mine shafts.
After the shelling of Newcastle by a Japanese submarine in 1942, Cooper was sent to live near Manilla, west of Tamworth.
The book describes Cooper's early contact with the Carey Bay Zoo at Coal Point, where he began an unofficial apprenticeship in taxidermy.
In 1951, when zoo owner Tom Brown died, Cooper went with the new owner, Reg Ward, to Sydney's Taronga Zoo to buy a lion, some monkeys and "other public-pleasing animals".
Cooper's early official working life was varied.
One employer was the Coo-ee Clothing Company, in Hunter Street, where - among other things - he painted window displays.
All through this time Cooper had been learning to paint, and notable Hunter artists, including William Dobell, gave him plenty of advice and encouragement.
Soon he was selling paintings and his career as an artist was launched.
Always a nature-lover too, Cooper's fondness for bird illustration helped him chart a course and he followed deliberately in the footsteps of Audubon, Gould and the Cayleys, ultimately rising to the point where such luminaries as Sir David Attenborough (who wrote this book's foreword) describe him without hesitation as one of the greatest bird artists ever.
An Eye for Nature is well-written and concise, well-designed and beautifully illustrated.
It's a book that many Newcastle people will want to own for the local content alone.
For them, the glorious illustrations and new information about an artist they may not previously have been aware of will be icing on the cake.
You know you're off to a flying start when Sir David Attenborough describes the subject of a biography as "the best ornithological illustrator alive" and writes the foreword. The auspicious beginning is well matched by Olsen's clear prose and Cooper's stunning illustrations. Olsen's meticulous research ensures that this is not just a book of pretty pictures but an intriguing insight into how a former apprentice taxidermist, window-dresser and landscape artist became a world-renowned bird artist.
A natural's soaring portraits
When Sir David Attenborough describes someone as ‘‘the best ornithological illustrator alive'', the world had better take notice. In our case we'd better take particular notice because William Cooper is Australian, alive, well and still painting at the age of 80 in north Queensland.
I'm going to stick my own neck out even further and suggest that Cooper is one of the greatest living Australian artists. Even if you don't know his work, it's likely that you've seen it because prints of his exquisite parrot and cockatoo paintings in particular are often hung in areas such as government offices or ‘‘bush'' guest houses.
Among the reflections of his international recognition and renown was an AO in 1994; I am surprised to read that only ‘‘half a dozen or so'' visual artists have ever been given such high honour, though less surprised to read that he is the only natural history artist to have been so honoured.
Penny Olsen is an eminent research scientist in her own right, especially focusing on birds of prey, but who has in the last decade carved out her own niche writing books on Australian natural history and especially on its artists.
Her 2001 Feather and Brush, an overview of Australian bird artists, was especially notable. In particular she has concentrated on mining the vast resources of the National Library of Australia, which she has used to construct a series of books to showcase this crucial part of our heritage. In this case though, it was Cooper who invited her to write his biography. They had met while she was researching Feather and Brush.
It's a remarkable story in that Cooper, born in 1934, grew up in struggling working class Newcastle, NSW, and despite very supportive parents and others, dropped out of a totally non-nurturing school system at 15.
Everything of value to his professional life he taught himself. As someone who is artistically challenged I find the concept of a ‘‘natural'' artist wonderful, but he seems to have been that. I can much more readily relate to his passion for the natural world from an early age; a thread that winds through the book is of someone who is only really comfortable in non-urban situations with a few select companions.
Nonetheless he always seemed to find the nerve to approach people who could and would help him achieve his aims; one such was the taxidermist at Newcastle's now defunct Carey Bay Zoo who helped him become a very competent preparator of skins from the age of 12. He became the de facto local snake remover for the area in his mid-teens (I love the story of the cinema which on more than one occasion interrupted the movie with a slide advising: ‘‘Bill Cooper go home, the snakes have escaped''!)
There was a period then when ‘‘motorbikes and girls - ‘many girls' - gradually took priority''. He dabbled in selling hand-painted ties, window-dressing and boxing and had a live-in ‘‘girlfriend'' 10 years his senior (his ballroom dancing instructor) at the age of 19. After his inglorious national service (when he was court-martialled for walking out in exasperation at arrogant map-challenged officers) he returned to painting and made a pretty fair living as a landscape painter.
It seems to me that that skill was to be a crucial part of the success of Cooper's beautiful bird portraits. One of those who gave him valuable advice in those days was William Dobell, and Cooper plied his craft where he could find work. The book is lavishly illustrated, with photos and early works as well as his magnificent later opuses, but one little work of art from 1962 that I particularly enjoyed is a very atmospheric record cover for a Phillips Beethoven Piano Concerto.
In 1966 a visit to the Australia Museum in Sydney launched the first of the two professional partnerships which were to define Cooper's working life.
With Keith Hindwood, eminent amateur ornithologist, he produced the Portfolio of Australian Birds, a very upmarket boxed set of superb paintings. This portfolio concept - produced at a cost not accessible to most of us unfortunately, one reason this book is so valuable - was later revisited with ornithologist Joseph Forshaw, for several worldwide groups of birds.
Most famously these included parrots and cockatoos, but also kingfishers and relations (that one in six volumes), the beautiful African touracos, and the birds of paradise. Some of those also appeared in book form. Papua New Guinea fascinated Cooper, not least because of the extraordinary birds of paradise (a shared passion which drew Sir David to him), and he made several visits. One of Cooper's strengths as a natural history artist is his need to see and experience his subjects in their natural setting, with perfect botanical and landscape detail. His foliage is chewed and imperfect, as the world is.
I found the early chapters particularly satisfying, building a picture of a society and the ornithological world of those years, as well as of a passionate and talented man. Olsen's decision to keep much of the personal thread of his life until dedicating a later chapter to it is quite understandable, but does create some continuity problems.
After two marriages - both of which ended badly - Cooper met Wendy Price and his personal life was thus also defined. She was 22 and he was 40 when they ‘‘got together'' (apparently his words). Soon she was trekking with him in Papua New Guinea and generally sharing his life, as well as creating her own. In northern NSW she was becoming a very competent amateur botanist; later, living in north Queensland, she became a highly respected authority on tropical fruits. Her two books on the subject, immensely comprehensive and superbly illustrated by Bill, are still classics.
Their travels pursuing birds to paint in Asia, Africa and Australia are detailed exhaustively. Indeed, I might suggest, excessively so. My impression is that Olsen has felt obliged to use all the obviously voluminous material, including his very detailed field notes and sketches, that she was given.
Anecdotes can be both illuminating and entertaining, and are crucial to a biography, but not all of them are essential or even interesting to other people. Some of the details of who they had dinner with each night in East Africa didn't add anything for me to what was already an intrinsically interesting story. I think the editor could have stepped in here and there; however, such judgments - including mine - are always subjective.
And fewer pages would have meant less space for the paintings and historical photos which are one of the joys of the book! Many of the portfolio paintings - and others, including some of the many commissions that provide him with a living - are beautifully reproduced in full-page format.
Cooper has now finished, at least according to him, the book illustration and scientific art work chapters of his life; the last such work, on all Australian pigeons and doves, is with the publisher. He plans to move on to ‘‘larger, looser work, and big canvasses . . . a more impressionist style''. I look forward to seeing that, though I have a deep pang at the thought of no more bird paintings from him.
If you don't know Cooper's work, here's your chance and it's not one to be missed. If you do, then I'd be very surprised indeed if there wasn't new information for you here, and new paintings to revel in. Either way, do yourself a favour and in the process celebrate a great artist and great Australian.
According to the jacket notes, Bill Cooper asked Penny Olsen to write this biography, and she agreed when asked a second time some years later, in 2010. Clearly the narrative is based on Cooper's own recollections and notes. Indeed the text reads like a memoir - really an autobiography in third-person person format. As a result, the story is more frankly personal than you might expect, about family relationships, personal feelings, a few misfortunes and the occasional illness.
Bill Cooper is certainly a home-grown artist. If you had an Australian childhood, more or less in the country, and had an intense early interest in birds, you might recognise a few things here: the fascination of any coloured illustrations you came across, the excitement of being given a copy of Cayley's What Bird Is That? and the hours spent examining it, the lure of the mounted bird and animal exhibits in any museum you could get to.
And then, much later, there was the stimulus of that remarkable book Birds of the World, published in 1961, that Cooper came across in 1966. His reaction to it has been shared by many others, non-painters included: ‘He was bowled over by Singer's paintings and he thought I could do this. Thus inspired, he made his first serious attempt at a professional painting of a bird'.
There followed the milestones in that painting career: the illustrations for A Portfolio of Australian Birds (1968 - written by Keith Hindwood), the first of the ambitiously illustrated monographs with Joe Forshaw (1978 - Parrots of the World), followed by a series of volumes on other bird-families-of-the-world, work on these entailing considerable travel beyond Australia. Then, with the consequent wide recognition and acclaim, came work on commission on larger canvases. In the Olsen book, the illustrations for the monographs are called ‘scientific' because of the necessary attention to detail, and the big canvases are described as ‘larger looser work', no doubt Cooper's own terminology.
As a result of Penny Olsen's work, a little-known life story has now become known to many as a result of recent radio and television programs.
In a way Cooper's work on the birds of paradise forms the centrepiece of the book. This is the subject of David Attenborough's foreword where he writes that in the ‘immediacy and vivacity' of Cooper's birds of paradise he had ‘after a gap of 80 years ... taken up the tradition in which Gould's illustrators had worked and ... managed to lift it to new and unprecedented heights'.
Cooper made repeated visits to Papua New Guinea, first with Forshaw in 1970 when he managed to observe ten bird of paradise species in the wild. Cooper returned in 1972 for a 3-month expedition during which he saw 35 species of the combined birds of paradise/bowerbirds list.
It is quite hard to see birds of paradise in their natural haunts, and penetrating far into lowland or highland rainforest entails considerable planning and exertion, and enlisting of local knowledge. Cooper had organised this second visit himself for the purpose of his book on birds of paradise and bowerbirds. The book appeared after a third visit in 1974, Joe Forshaw having been asked by Cooper to write the text.
David Attenborough's admiration for the bird of paradise paintings led, ten years later, to the filming of an Attenborough documentary with Cooper at work, at his North Queensland home, among other things painting a resident Victoria's Riflebird. It emerged that Cooper and Attenborough had both, as boys, been inspired by the same plate in the same book, a reproduction of a Lesser Bird of Paradise.
The artistic content:
Many will find the illustrations the most striking and valuable feature of this book. They cover a wide spectrum of subjects and approaches, although necessarily only a small sample of Cooper's work. Very few of the 270-odd pages are without an illustration of one kind or other. To give you the flavour, there are five graphic offerings before you get to the start of Chapter 1: a landscape in oils with Rainbow Lorikeets (cover); an oil of a pet cat that damaged a loaned study skin (title page - the cat must have survived because the incident was in 1966 and the painting is dated 1972); pencil sketch of Red-backed Fairy-wren (copyright page); oil sketch of Purple Swamphens (next page); an acrylic of Lesser Birds of Paradise, and a photo with David Attenborough (illustrating foreword); then pencil sketches of a Grey Goshawk.
The photos and the many sketches are carefully arranged to fit the text. There is some unavoidable awkwardness in the chronological placement of the published artwork. Although he travelled extensively to study and sketch his subjects, Cooper did not visit South America, so a fine plate of two macaws, painted from skins for Parrots of the World in 1971, appears in the New Guinea section, as does the New Zealand Kakapo. Fortunately a very comprehensive index enables you to find, or re-find, any particular illustration.
Two things about Cooper's work are made very clear by this book: his versatility and his prodigious output. There are the early landscapes, and a selection of varied landscapes ‘1950s-2012' is included at the end. However other works might be described as ‘landscape with birds', like the emu with chicks (p164), the Wedge-tailed Eagles (p202), the Brown Sicklebills (p238), and ‘Morning on the Moor' with Yellow-tailed Black-Cockatoos (p240). For most of the bird subjects the background is plants, not a generalised green but a carefully selected species - or two. On the next page to the plate of the White-bellied Go-away Bird (a turaco) is Cooper's detailed drawing of, and notes on, the local fruit, carefully observed and then used in the plate.
Given such an eye and attention to detail it follows that Cooper's botanical illustrations, as those for Wendy Cooper's book on rainforest fruits, are meticulous, as well as beautiful. However the same adjectives might be used for the flowers, mammals, insects - and so on.
The relentless attention to detail makes Cooper's sustained output over such a long period all the more remarkable. He is said to be a relatively quick worker. A ‘scientific' work for a book usually takes a fortnight, perhaps a week if ‘on a roll'. For a larger composition in acrylics or oils the average time is two to three months. Then consider (as we know from this book) the time devoted to travel, observation, field notes and sketching. Among other adjectives for William Cooper, ‘industrious', as well as ‘prolific', will not be out of place.
As to his global status, the dust jacket and the publisher's leaflet quote Attenborough as saying ‘the best ornithological illustrator alive'. The Morpeth Gallery website has Attenborough saying ‘Australia's greatest living scientific painter of birds, he is possibly the best in the world'. Attenborough's own foreword says ‘arguably one of the greatest of all bird artists'. Taken literally, those statements do not all mean exactly the same thing, but any of them is high praise from any point of view.This is a great book. It is worth a place on the shelf for the art alone. As Attenborough says, the paintings are ‘aesthetically deeply satisfying'.