Part II: Billy and Douglas; Anatomy of the Collector

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Douglas Cooper at his home with two of his Picassos in Argilliers, France, 1954. Photograph by Robert Doisneau.

Today we’re running the second part to our story of the lives of Billy McCarty Cooper and Douglas Cooper. It’s a story very familiar to me since I knew Billy and several of Douglas Cooper’s friends. But it’s always new because of the underlying drama. Perhaps it’s age (mine) but it’s a deeper look into two men’s lives that were both remarkable, sophisticated, privileged, even brilliant for a time, for a moment.

Douglas Cooper was born in London in 1911, the eldest of three children of Mabel and Arthur, who lived on fashionable Eaton Place. The money, which was ample, was from Australian real estate. The Coopers had owned a substantial chunk of Sydney’s Woollahra Point section, one of the city’s most valuable pieces of real estate. Most if not all of their holdings were liquidated in the first decade of the 20th century and the family considered themselves English, not Australian. Arthur Cooper was Australian, although he held a British passport. Mabel came from solid Dorset stock. Their place in London society, however, was non-existent.

Cooper in Paris during the war.

Douglas was a very difficult and temperamental child from the beginning. A longtime friend recalled a story about the boy on a train trip with his parents, slamming a compartment door on his father’s fingers. The father shrieked in pain and the boy made little attempt to stifle his laughter.

As the child began to grow aware of his parents’ bourgeois existence, it embarrassed him. His response was to detest their presence. As he became more and more displeased with them, their response was complete bewilderment and confusion.

“He despised authority,” according the late Sir Francis Watson, who had been in his lifetime, surveyor of Queen Elizabeth‘s artworks and director of the Wallace Collection in London. Watson met Cooper in 1929 when they were students. “He could be very tiresome and mock people. When he was bored, he would let everyone in the room know it.” Watson was understating the case.

Mabel Cooper, longing for the social cachet that her husband’s small fortune could not buy, hoped her son would become a lawyer or a diplomat. Her husband’s brother, Uncle Gerald, an erudite musicologist, however one day took the ten-year-old Douglas to a Diaghilev Ballet and sealed the child’s professional fate with that one experience. The Diaghilev was magical for the boy. It awakened what would become a truly brilliant visual facility.

When he was thirteen, Uncle Gerald introduced Douglas to Mrs. Samuel Courtauld, wife of the English textile millionaire who had amassed Britain’s greatest collection of Impressionist works, including Manet‘s A Bar at the Folies-Bergère. Little Douglas was the perfect gentleman with Mrs. Courtauld, and she in turn invited him to see her pictures. Like the trip to the Diaghilev, the viewing of the Courtauld Collection marked another defining moment. Thirty years later, in his mid-forties, he wrote the introduction to the catalog for the Courtauld Collection, noting that after first seeing it, he decided that one day he would be a collector.

Kyrle Leng, Elizabeth Theresa Frances Courtauld (née Kelsey), Samuel Courtauld, Igor Vinogradoff, and Bob Gathorne-Hardy; photographed by Lady Ottoline Morrell, 1926 © National Portrait Gallery, London

He was sent to public school at Repton in Derbyshire. He hated it. He then went up to Cambridge which he also abhorred, although he was very bright and particularly facile with languages. Yet despite his boredom with school, or maybe because of it, two important aspects took form for him that would figure profoundly in the rest of his life: he developed his interest in pictorial art, and he responded actively to his homosexual inclinations.

Homosexuality in public schools in England was never considered (if considered at all) uncommon, nor was it ever ever discussed. But it was a crime. For decades after the trial of Oscar Wilde, many Englishmen, very often upper class, were jailed for getting caught in the act. Even the most socially aggressive personalities (such as Cooper’s) knew they had to be very, very careful.

After Cambridge, Douglas studied German and French at the Albert-Ludwig University at Freiburg im Breisgau, and then at the Sorbonne. He soon became proficient in both languages, helped as he was by his own talent for mimicry which he often used strenuously in his native language also.

When Douglas was thirteen, he was introduced to Elizabeth Courtauld, wife of the English textile millionaire who had amassed Britain’s greatest collection of Impressionist works, including Manet’s A Bar at the Folies-Bergère, pictured above.

At twenty he looked barely pubescent. There was a high-pitched squeak-squawk of a voice which often bleated invectives when displeased (which was always often). He was of average height, broadshouldered, long-waisted and short-legged with an already established potbelly that would, like the rest of him, expand with age. The characteristics and qualities were repeated in the face: he was strong-jawed, fleshy, with wide full lips and eyes which were almost half-concealed by the puffiness of his lids. He was not a good-looking boy. Nevertheless, he announced himself at all times without modesty: his dress was conservative but there was a penchant for wild color combinations, jackets of stripes or checks that would attract notice, or, more precisely, attention. Which was what it was always about. Painful attention.

In 1932, at the depth of the world Depression, when Douglas was twenty-one, he came into his inheritance from his grandmother – several million in today’s currency. Sir Francis Watson recalled, “He was quite rich, in the European sense, and quite rich at the right time.” He was, by nature, not foolish about his money. He planned immediately to set aside one-third for collecting.

Georges Braque, Maisons et arbre (Houses at l’Estaque), 1908.

The object of his studied glance were the Cubists. A time in the art movement approximately between 1907 and 1914, after the Impressionists, Cubism got its name from Braque‘s 1908 Houses at L’Estaque, which Matisse said appeared to be made from cubes. The style was characterized by its flouting of conventional form, breaking single objects into a multitude of pieces. Douglas was naturally drawn to it: it was misunderstood, even repulsive to the British art establishment; it defined him precisely.

Ultimately his collecting would be narrowed to the four “true” Cubists: Braque, GrisLéger and Picasso, whom he would later befriend for an almost life-long relationship. He sought not only their oil paintings but especially their primary media – that being their drawings, their papiers colles, prints, and sculptures.

The English view of “modern art” at the time, dictated by Roger Fry and the Bloomsbury group, was that it was lacking. Everything. This galled Douglas who later wrote of the period: “Modern art, in order to be acceptable, had to appear traditional … and easy to understand. Augustus John was still more highly valued than Matisse and Picasso. No (English) collectors of true Cubist painting existed before or after (World War I).”

Douglas Cooper; drawing by David Levine.

When he was twenty-two, in searching for his place, he went into the gallery business, in partnership with Fred Hoyland Mayor of London’s Mayor Gallery. He met many dealers and collectors. An opening exhibition in April 1933 included the “true” Cubists, as well as Francis BaconMax ErnstPaul KleeJoan MiróHenry Moore and Francis Picabia. Douglas came to know all of them.

But he didn’t like the gallery business. He couldn’t be bothered with the tedium of pushing the wares. So he quit, taking his interest out of it, in pictures. The business of Art History, and its study, in those ancient days was a catch-as-catch-can process. Universities and colleges had no courses per se for such pursuits. The great art historians of that time, which now includes Douglas Cooper, were mainly self-taught (and mentored).

After leaving the gallery, he then devoted himself to his collection and another passion: writing about 19th- and 20th-century art history. As for collecting, his timing couldn’t have been better. The market for Cubists had gone through the roof in the roaring 20s but during the Depression 30s, the bottom dropped out.

The first serious Cubists collectors started buying around the time Douglas was born, 1910 – 1911. The most important buyers were the Germans – Gottfried ReberDaniel-Henry Kannweiler (who was Picasso’s dealer), and Alfred Flechtheim. Twenty years later it was they who took the young collector under their wing, becoming his mentors as well as his suppliers.

Between the spring of 1933 and the summer of 1939 just before Hitler ruined everything for everybody, Douglas Cooper spent approximately 10,000 British pounds sterling (about a quarter-million in today’s buying power), buying 130 works of art , paying an average of 77 pounds each. These included 7 Braques, 39 Légers, 36 Picassos, 27 Gris, as well as 27 by Miró and several by Klee.

Cooper’s most expensive purchase during that period was Cézanne‘s La Preparation du banquet (ca. 1890) in 1933. He later traded it with Paul Rosenberg in 1935 for Picasso’s Still Life with Fruit Dish and Mandola (1932), pictured above.

Not yet thirty years old, Douglas Cooper had become a major force in European art circles. Sir Francis Watson, being present at the creation, recalled that “He had advanced taste and an absolute passion for modern art.” He also cultivated friendships with all of the artists. With them he was the sweet and amusing Douglas. “Picasso and he saw with similar eyes,” Sir Francis recalled. “Douglas had a natural emotional affinity for modern art. That was the attraction. He was ahead of his time.”

He had created a place of prominence for himself in a very rarified sphere of interests, and he made sure it wasn’t a secret. Not unlike the boy who slammed the train door on his father’s hands and then laughed about it. As an art historian, he published. In reviews and essays in the Burlington Magazine, a scholarly chronicle of the fine arts, and in the London Times Literary Supplement, or in private or public letters, he sniped and swiped at whomever he wished. “He was like a clever schoolboy showing off,” Sir Francis remembered. “He used his sharp eye to find even the smallest detail that he deemed incorrect.”

Although when it came to his own mistakes, he was not only silent but obdurate. A visitor to his London home once pointed out that a Miró the host had recently acquired was hanging upside down. Mortified, he righted it in front of the guest. Every time the visitor returned, however, Cooper turned the picture upside down.

“Dead bodies ready for the embalmer,” was his assessment of the work of Graham Sutherland, the portraitist who painted him, and a friend. Hurting someone’s feelings just felt right to him, no matter who they were. By this time in the man’s life, he had already acquired a lot of acquaintances who found him loathsome, even if they pretended to tolerate him.

In 1940 when Hitler entered Paris, Cooper, who’d spent a lot of time in Paris before the war, joined a French ambulance unit organized by Count Etienne de Beaumont (father of Viscountess Jacqueline de Ribes). Douglas was later awarded a French military medal for bravery on the front.

Graham Sutherland’s Portrait of Douglas Cooper, 1966.

When he returned to England conspicuously wearing a French uniform, the British military jailed him for violation of their military regulations. A friend rescued him but he was then sent to Malta to interrogate German POWs. His flair for accents and his incisive mind made him particularly well suited to the job. He bore his duties with the stiff upper lip, but the endless German bombings almost brought him to a nervous breakdown. So he was transferred to a department that pursued Nazi art thieves and their dealers.

After the War, Cooper’s hatred for England motivated him to move permanently to France where attitudes toward sexuality were far more relaxed. In 1949, he developed an interest in a budding British art historian, John Richardson, the public school-educated son of a British peer. They met through mutual friends. Cooper was thirty-eight and Richardson was twenty-five, bright and handsome. Cooper was impressed.

On a drive through Provence with Richardson and Lord Amulree, a prominent English gerontologist, Cooper happened upon an estate in the village of Argilliers that captivated him. The dilapidated, turreted chateau surrounded by an impressive colonnade had been unoccupied for more than twenty years. Built in the 17th century and renovated in 1789 on the eve of the French Revolution by the baron de Castille, it was to become the perfect setting for a new kind of revolutionaries, albeit established somewhat – the Cubists. He bought the chateau for four million old francs, or the equivalent of $12,000.

The following year Cooper and Richardson moved in, covering its walls with the great collection. The house, just off the Paris-Cote d’Azur route, became a stopping-off point for artists, art historians, dealers, international socialites and their sycophants, be they social or sexual. Léger, once described by Cooper as a “paysan normand,” spent his second honeymoon there. He painted a vast circus mural on the staircase landing wall, the Trapeze Artists (1954). Picasso created a series of five drawings, three based on Manet’s Le Dejeuner sur l’herbe, which were reproduced in an enlarged format on the loggia wall in 1963. By then Cooper referred to Picasso as “mon cher Pablo.”

John Richardson, Douglas Cooper and Pablo Picasso at La Californie, the artist’s Cannes villa, 1959, photographed by Picasso’s wife Jacqueline.

Cooper reigned from on high at Castille. The French-born Lady Elisabeth Ampthill, who visited as a girl with her parents in the 1950s remembered that “Douglas was sensational, peculiar and difficult. He had piercing eyes and didn’t suffer fools. Life at the chateau was filled with amusing, brilliant people and good food.” All kinds came from all over. Madame Helena RubinsteinQueen Elizabeth‘s later disgraced (for being a Soviet spy) private curator Anthony Blunt, ex-king Leopold of BelgiumBenjamin Britten, W.H.Auden and Stephen Spender, and lots of art history students in tow with arriving friends who were Cooper’s contemporaries. Not everyone was welcome. Once Lady Diana Cooper, (no relation) wife of the then British ambassador to Paris, stopped by unannounced. Douglas Cooper, who liked to maintain a deep tan, was sunbathing in the nude on the roof. Without covering himself with so much as a towel, he called down to the gate and told the lady to get lost.

Billy McCarty-Cooper at Canaletto, Gloria Etting’s cottage in Loveladies, NJ, at about the time of the beginning of his relationship with Douglas Cooper.

Like all collectors, Cooper’s activity was never at a standstill. He was always buying and selling, refining, acquiring, divesting. In the late 1950s he sold a number of Klees in order to pay for Léger’s mural. He also bought, besides the Cubists, CourbetDaumierGiacomettiModiglianiHenry Moore and Sutherland (the embalmer). He also organized a number of important exhibitions throughout the world and wrote books on Léger, Picasso, and Nicolas de Stael.

He also wanted something that would never be within his reach: a curatorial position at the Tate in London. Friends, on hearing of his objective, thought him naïve. During the opening of an exhibition at the Tate, for example, he enraged Tate director John Rothenstein to the point that Rothenstein finally slugged him. It was an instant scandal and Cooper reveled in it. He wrote to a friend: “We are having a lovely row with the Tate and are hoping that any day now Sir John will have been thrown out.” That did not happen, however. Nor did Cooper ever get a post.

By his mid-40s, Cooper had reached his zenith as a collector. World War II had changed everything about the world he was born into and grew up in. Cubism was no longer new, or even avant-garde. The scene at the chateau was also shifting. Then in 1960, Richardson left, after living there for a decade, and moved to New York where he had secured a post at Christie’s and started a new life. Cooper was shattered and enraged. Everybody within earshot or post range heard about it. The umbrage he took toward Richardson was so intense that the two would not speak again for almost two decades.

Coincidentally, however, that same year, Cooper was offered a visiting professorship at Bryn Mawr, lecturing on the history of modern art. He was ready for a change, and he was fond of the America he’d seen on earlier visits. So he accepted.

Philadelphia, with its rich heritage of art appreciation and long-established society, was perfect for Douglas Cooper. The Philadelphia Museum of Art’s granite steps — years later immortalized for the world’s view by Sylvester Stallone in “Rocky” — represented the route to social legitimacy for many an ambitious Philadelphian. Because of his stunning Cubist collection, Cooper automatically belonged. Furthermore, it turned out that it was in the City of Brotherly Love where he would meet the man, half his age, who would reshape the rest of his life.

For Part I, click here

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