Stories from Hospitalfield: Austin Cooper

Austin Clare Cooper (1890-1964) arrived at Hospitalfield in 1906 when he was just sixteen years old. He was offered one of the first scholarships at the newly established Art School in Arbroath where he studied for four years, leaving in 1910. It was the teaching of George Harcourt that this young artists would have been attracted to as he joined the residential undergraduate course alongside his ten fellow students.

Austin Cooper would go on to become one of the most highly regarded poster designers of the 20th-century. In 1937 he was appointed the first principal of the Reimann School of Art, an institution that played a significant role in introducing modernism to Britain through the employment primarily of artists and designers from Europe.  The school that been founded by Albert and Klara Reimann in Berlin in 1902 had been forced by Nazism to relocate to London setting up premises in Regency Street in 1937.

Born in Canada to Irish migrant parents, his father’s farming enterprise failed and the family returned to Ireland and then relocated again to Cardiff, Wales when Austin was three years old. Cooper clearly showed signs of artistic talent early on in his life, starting lessons at Cardiff School of Art aged thirteen where he attended evening classes for young students aged between nine and seventeen. The opportunity to gain a scholarship at the new art school in Arbroath would have represented an attractive and fortunate prospect. The minute books at Hospitalfield record, ‘A. C. Cooper of Killane, Ireland, strongly recommended by J. S. Sargent R. A.’. Cooper evidently displayed significant artistic ability to attract the attention and recommendation of John Singer Sargent, one of the leading portrait painters of his generation, at such a young age.

The course of learning at Hospitalfield was a classical education of drawing and painting. The students were given opportunities to visit and study exhibitions in Glasgow and Edinburgh and Harcourt records in his annual report to the Trustees in 1906, ‘There is much earnestness and enthusiasm for work amongst the students and this is due in no small extent to the Collegiate life at Hospitalfield, to the evenings spent together when Art subjects are discussed, when students show their sketches and original ideas.’

Poster by Austin Cooper promoting rail travel to Montrose. The scene features the sculpture of Joseph Hume by William Calder Marshall, the first Chair of the Board of Governors of Hospitalfield

Shortly after graduation, Cooper returned to Canada in the company of his friend and fellow Hospitalfield graduate Adam Sherriff-Scott. On arrival in Calgary, they collaborated on a large painting depicting Christ in a contemporary street scene in the city which attracted some controversy. The pair then found employment in a commercial art studio producing architectural and industrial drawings for property developers.

The young artists were 22 years old when they relocated to Montreal to establish their own business called Shagpat Studios. The enterprise was interrupted by the outbreak of the first world war and the two friends separated. Cooper returning to London in 1922 and settled there for the remainder of what would become an illustrious new career.

Austin Cooper in his Studio

Cooper’s great break was in securing a series of commissions to design posters for the London North East Railway (LNER), London Transport and the Royal Mail Line. Then in 1928 a second LNER poster campaign which promoted visiting museums including the British Museum, the Natural History Museum, the Imperial War Museum and the Science Museum. He became one of LNER’s designer’s referred to as one of the ‘elite five’.

Poster Design by Austin Cooper

These commissions made his name and established his reputation and he went on to design many of the most memorable posters promoting travel by rail to cities and towns throughout Britain, producing designs that created a wanderlust to visit the places that Cooper so evocatively depicted. The designs were installed at railway stations and in bus shelters around the country.

The very interesting move that he made to lead the new Reimann School of Art must have been inspired by his own education and his commitment to a next generation. The curriculum trained students in the modern design subjects including graphics for printing, stage design and textiles, and it also ran a successful commercial art studio producing posters and graphics for the BBC. During this time, Cooper published his book ‘Making a Poster’ which became an important design text. The development of his ideas for this pioneering institution was sadly interrupted by the outbreak of World War II. The Reimann School closed in 1940 and the building in which it was housed was destroyed by bombing in 1943.

Cooper chose to shift his focus from commercial commissions to a fine art practice following the war, producing constructed abstract works and exhibiting primarily with Gimpel Fils in London. Several works from this period of his career are held at Tate. Cooper’s many designs for posters are held in collections around the world with significant holdings at the collections of the London Transport Museum, the V&A and the Postal Museum.