Drawing is never easy but working on this particular drawing has been especially hard. It’s a drawing of Thomas Sidney Cooper RA (1803-1902). It took forty-five days of actual drawing. And previous to that there were two other attempts and lots of research before that. I’m not complaining; I think it’s a privilege to able to spend time making art. This drawing was hard work and so it should to be.
Cooper was born in the house which now forms the front gallery and offices of the Sidney Cooper Gallery in Canterbury. He was born into a poor family and had little education or encouragement. But he became a very successful and very rich artist and went on to set up what is now The Sidney Cooper Gallery. My drawing is a commissioned work for Canterbury Christ Church University to commemorate the gallery’s 150th year. Its first public showing will be as an object within an installation piece called ‘Sidney Cooper’s Living Room’ by Sound Artist Emily Peasgood. This installation might also include recordings of yours truly talking about the gallery, studios and drawing. Once the exhibition is over it will become part of the university’s permanent collection of artworks.
The piece is a silverpoint drawing containing a portrait drawing and hand-written text. The face is drawn from a mixture of images but it most closely resembles a photographic image from about the time his art school was built. Cooper bought his mum’s old house, and the land around it, and had the art college and gallery built but kept his childhood home intact so that the grand classical-style entrance to the gallery stands next to the house in St Peter’s Street. He gave it all to the town to be used as a place for art education. My portrait of Cooper will be hung in what was probably his mum’s front room. If Cooper’s ghost was to haunt the place I hope it would see something of himself in my drawing.
The hand-written ‘text’ is made up of lines transcribed from the first chapter of his autobiography. It recalls the poverty of his childhood years, various anecdotes and his repeated references to his sense of an absence of a father he never knew and who deserted the family when he was too young to have formed any visual memory of him.
He writes that his mother was ‘overwhelmed’ by the effort to care for her family. He also recalls his habit of walking in the countryside, alone, and how he would often feel a sense of ‘depression’ in the presence of natural beauty. On one occasion he thought he heard a voice calling “On, on; come on” but he looked about and could see no one. This moment was to stay in his mind and seems to have become a kind of personal motto for him throughout the rest of his life.
Both the image and the text have been repeatedly re-drawn and scratched-away so the that the drawing has changed in each re-working. Fragments of earlier versions are present alongside subsequent iterations. I hope the viewers are drawn into the piece and spend some time with it. The text began as a much larger block of writing but each subsequent re-telling became shorter and the text more condensed. All of the words are Cooper’s own words. I want the drawing to create the feeling of a person being present with his memories.
I love that this man gave this wonderful art school building to the town. I love that the building has preserved his childhood home. All of the drawings, artworks, exhibitions and all the chance meetings and good things which have ever taken place at the Sidney Cooper Gallery and studios are down to this man taking the trouble to have this place built and to have given it to the town. I think there is a lot to like about Thomas Sidney Cooper. I hope he would have liked my drawing of him.