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 Austin Cooper  (1890 - 1964)

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Lived/Active: Quebec/Manitoba / England/Canada      Known for: abstract expressionist painting, collage, printmaking, commercial art, teaching

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Ad Code: 3
AskART Artist
from Auction House Records.
Congeries 194
Artwork images are copyright of the artist or assignee
This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Austin Cooper was a painter, commercial artist and educator.  He’s best known as the creator of avant-garde travel posters for British railway and steamship companies.

Born in Souris, Manitoba, Canada, a town about 140 miles west of Winnipeg, he died in London, England, where he appears to have lived and worked for most of his life. While a child, he moved with his family to Cardiff, Wales (1896) and returned to Canada in the early 1910s.  He worked in Montreal as an interior decorator and commercial artist for a few years before his military service in World War I (1915 – 1919).  Some sources note that he resumed work in Montreal, Quebec after the war; however, he was living in London, England by 1922. (1)

His mediums included posters, lithograph*, collage*, gouache*, mixed mediums and watercolor. Until 1943 he was almost exclusively a commercial artist and poster designer. Some of his clients were the London and North Eastern Railway, Underground Electric Railway Company, Royal Mail Line, Indian State Railways, Empire Marketing Board, and London Transport. His subjects were travel destinations, trains, steamships, cityscapes, entertainment venues, museums, landscapes, figures, sports, landmarks, historical people and special events. His styles included Realism*, Vorticism*, Surrealism*, Op Art*, Geometric Abstraction*, Cartoon* and Art Deco*. (2)

Quote: “The functions of a poster are dual: to arrest the attention and then, having caught the eye of the passer-by, to deliver a message swiftly, convincingly, effectively.” – Austin Cooper (3)

After 1943, he dedicated his life to creating abstract paintings. As an abstractionist his subjects were color, shape, and texture.  His best known style is Abstract Expressionism*. AskART have some very good illustrations of his work from this period.

Quote: ‘In so far as my pictures are concerned they are the constructions based on a very varied experience which has taught me - so I hope and believe - that we are surrounded by mystery....’ – Austin Cooper (4)

Cooper’s formal art education began in Cardiff at the city's School of Art (1903); he then won a scholarship to the Allan Frazer College of Art, Arbroath, Scotland (1906 – 1910); he also attended evening classes at the City & Guilds of London Art School, Kennington (c. 1910), under Innes Fripp (see AskART). (5)

His career in art education included being the first principal of the Reimann School of Commercial and Industrial Art, London (1936 – 1940). He was also the author of the book “Making a Poster” (1938), which has been reprinted several times. (6)

Cooper’s paintings have been exhibited at the London Gallery Ltd. (first solo 1948); at Galerie Craven, Paris (1959); and from 1955, frequently, at Gimpel Fils, London. Sir Herbert Read wrote the text for the 1959 Cooper solo exhibition there titled “Trajects”. Cooper’s paintings were also included in the “21st International Watercolor Biennial” at the Brooklyn Museum, New York (1961); and they were the subject of “Imponderable Joys: The Work of Austin Cooper”, Art Gallery of Southwestern Manitoba, Brandon [30 miles north of Souris] (1993). (7)

According to the Canadian Heritage Information Network* and individual museum websites there are Austin Cooper works in the permanent collections of the Art Gallery of Ontario (Toronto), Tate Modern (London, England), the London Transport Museum (England) and the National Archives (Surrey, England). The London Transport Museum, with 78 examples, appears to have the largest public collection of Cooper’s posters and original poster art.

A magazine reference for Cooper is Time Magazine, November 14, 1949, "Art: Anything Can Happen".
(1.1) Sources: The London Transport Museum; “The Modern British Paintings, Drawings, and Sculpture” (1964), by Mary Chamot, Dennis Farr & Martin Butlin; and “The Thames & Hudson Dictionary of Graphic Design and Designers” (1992), by Alan Livingston and Isabella Livingston (see AskART book references).

(1.2) Note: Library and Archives Canada have a photo showing Cooper posing in formal dress with top hat and cape. It was taken by well known Montreal society photographer, and Alfred Stieglitz associate, Sidney Carter (1880 – 1956). The same list of distinguished Carter subjects which contains the name Austin Cooper also includes the names Thornton Wilder, Rudyard Kipling, Bertrand Russell, John Singer Sargent and Rockwell Kent. Though the photo is not dated, given the biographies of Carter and Cooper it was probably taken in Montreal during the brief time after the war and before his move to London in 1922.

(1.3) Note:The place of his death was supplied by Austin’s cousin Colin Salter in an email to the author dated July 9, 2011. The email states ‘…he lived with his daughter and son in law in Bayswater, London and died in St. Pancras (Hospital?) in August 1964’. – MDS.

(1.4) A summary of Cooper’s military record was also supplied by Colin Salter: ‘He served with the Black Watch Regiment during the First World War. With them he went through four years of trench warfare in some of the grimmest confrontations of the conflict including Passchendaele and Ypres. At the latter he survived a gas attack which killed many of the 60,000 Canadians lost in the war. He was discharged in 1919 with the rank of Regimental Sergeant Major.’ Source: Courtesy of Colin Salter’s website “Tall Tales from the Trees”. Most sources note only that Cooper saw combat in Flanders. Salter also provides a photo of Cooper in the uniform of a sergeant, adorned with what appears to be the insignia of the 87th Infantry Battalion, Montreal. – MDS.

(2.1) Medium, style and subject sources: AskART Images; Swann Auction Galleries, New York; the London Transport Museum; and other individual museum websites with illustrations and descriptions of the Cooper works in their collections.

(2.2) Note: The “Anagram Shadow” letter font is based on a design Cooper created for a 1928 steamship poster. Source: My Fonts (website).

(3) Source: Making a Poster (1939), by Austin Cooper (see AskART book references).

(4) Source: Tate modern – The quote is Cooper’s April 7, 1963 response to a request by the museum for more information about his art.

(5) There is little difference between the sources for dates of education; we are using those provided by the National Archives of the United Kingdom of Great Britain.

(6) Source: London Transport Museum.

(7) Exhibition sources: The provenance of works in Tate Modern, which includes exhibition history; Library and Archives Canada; the Art Gallery of Ontario (catalogue summaries online); and The Modern British Paintings, Drawings, and Sculpture (1964), by Mary Chamot, Dennis Farr & Martin Butlin (see AskART book references).

* For more in-depth information about these terms and others, see Glossary

Acknowledgement: Thank you to Colin Salter, author/writer of Edinburgh, Scotland, who very kindly provided family information and details not available elsewhere in published sources.

Prepared and contributed by M.D. Silverbrooke.

This biography from the Archives of AskART:
A Postscript:

In July 2011, within a few days of posting the above biography, the author, M.D. Silverbrooke, was contacted by Timothy Ray the curator of the 1993 Cooper exhibition at the Art Gallery of Southwestern Manitoba (and touring); he’s also a great-nephew of Austin Cooper.  Professor Ray (retired, Minnesota State University, Moorhead) kindly forwarded an autographed copy of the exhibition’s catalogue Imponderable Joys.  It discusses Cooper in considerable depth and breadth; the monograph is an indispensable work of scholarship for anyone interested in delving further into Austin Cooper’s life, times and art.  It also provides some additional details that fit within the scope of the AskART biography and prompted leads to sources that uncovered a few more. The new information is noted below:

(1) In 1912 Cooper, traveling with fellow Allan-Fraser graduate Adam Sherriff Scott (see AskART), joined the Calgary (Alberta) commercial art firm Catlett’s Calgary Studio.  Page nine of the catalogue contains a photo of Cooper and Scott at work.  A few years later (before World War I) the two partnered in the Montreal firm Shagpat Studios.  Both men served in combat overseas during the war. The partnership continued for a few years after the war and ended on November 17, 1922.

(2) George Harcourt (see AskART) was a teacher of Cooper’s at the Allan-Frazer College of Art, Arbroath.

(3) From correspondence, it appears Cooper was an associate of Canadian artist and icon A.Y. Jackson (see AskART).

(4) The Reimann School was bombed out during the war and not reopened after 1945. H.E. Reimann retired to Vancouver, British Columbia.

(5) Cooper’s works were included in the exhibition “The Art of Assemblage” at the Museum of Modern Art (NYC) (1961).

(6) There is a Cooper work in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art (NYC) [it’s listed “on view”]; and 42 works in the permanent collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum (London).
Imponderable Joys: The Work of Austin Cooper (1993), by Timothy Ray; published by the Art Gallery of Southwestern Manitoba (36 pages, color).

The Art of Assemblage (1961) William C. Seitz; Museum of Modern Art New York (176 pages, B&W).

Victoria and Albert Museum (London)

Museum of Modern Art (NYC)

Submitted by M.D. Silverbrooke.

** If you discover credit omissions or have additional information to add, please let us know at
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