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The Soper Collection: The reclusive family whose art captured the English countryside

a painting showing a shepherd and sheep dog on a hillside overlooking a flock of sheep

George Soper, South Downs Shepherd. Courtesy Chris Beetles Gallery / The Soper Collection

The race is on to secure a home for a unique collection of rural artwork little known beyond the East Anglian home of the enigmatic family who created it

Beautiful watercolour evocations of the English landscape, charming wildlife and children’s illustrations from the English mid-century, and a wide range of evocative prints and etchings that capture a way of life that has all but disappeared; the Soper Collection offers a remarkable snapshot of the colours, life, atmosphere and movement of the British countryside.

Yet few people beyond their native East Anglia know of the reclusive family and the large body of work they produced against the changing social backdrop of the 20th century.

From their home, the appositely named ‘Wildings’ in rural Hertfordshire, the reclusive Sopers, illustrator, etcher and watercolourist George Soper (1870 – 1942) and his daughters Eva and Eileen, produced a huge body of representational, pastoral art that celebrated the British countryside, its traditions and the wonder of the flora and fauna it contains.

Today the Soper Collection, a charitable trust which cares for an extensive holding of their works, is spreading the word about their work and furiously fundraising to buy a gallery in Suffolk from where they plan to share it with a wider audience.

a sketch showing plough horses silhouetted against the trees

George Soper, The teams plod home to rest. Courtesy Chris Beetles Gallery / The Soper Collection

a drawing of toadstool with elves picnicking on them

Eileen Soper. The Birthday party. Courtesy Chris Beetles Gallery / The Soper Collection

a watercolour of two red flowers

Eileen Soper, Red Flowers. Courtesy Chris Beetles Gallery / The Soper Collection

a drawing of a cart of a group of horse galloping away with a cart pursued by a farmer

George Soper, Runaway Horses. Courtesy Chris Beetles Gallery / The Soper Collection

“The Soper story is very, very unusual,” says Joy Baker of the Soper Collection Trust, “but had they not led such reclusive lives there would not be this remarkable output.

“It’s a story spanning 100 years of rural life and art; George Soper was born in 1870 and exhibited his first work in 1890 and both Eva and Eileen died in 1990.”

Joy’s passion for the family’s art stretches back nearly thirty years, when she and her late husband, John, started collecting their work as it first began to come onto the market, following the Soper sisters’ passing.

When Eileen and her sister Eva departed Wildings for the last time they left behind a treasure trove of artworks literally stuffed in every nook and cranny of the old family house they had shared. There were also diaries, letters, photographs and numerous personal possessions.

Today the Soper Collection comprises over 700 original works of art including original pieces in oil, watercolour, etchings, woodcuts, pencil, ink and other media, and also the entire family archive.

a black and whihte photo of a family in a garden with a large house in the background

George with Eva and Eileen in the 1920s. © The Soper Collection

a woodcut showing the interiro of a wooden beamed barn with men forking hay next to a horse

George Soper, Barn. Courtesy Chris Beetles Gallery / The Soper Collection

a rural watercolour with a cart on a lane with haystacks

George Soper, Lane, dusk. Courtesy Chris Beetles Gallery / The Soper Collection

a book cover for an Enid Blyton book

Eilieen Soper’s artwork for Enid Blyton’s Five Go to Smugglers Top. Courtesy The Soper Collection

George, a renowned etcher and watercolourist, schooled his daughters to become naturalist artists. Neither of them went to art school but under his expert tuition they became accomplished working artists, working into into old age and well beyond their father’s death in 1942.

Both George and Eileen enjoyed professional careers as illustrators. George was a prolific illustrator and artist during the First World War, contributed to periodicals, such as The Boy’s Own Paper, and illustrated many books published mainly by Headley Bros. such as The Water Babies, Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare and Tanglewood Tales.

Eileen, who was the youngest ever exhibitor at The Royal Academy at the age of 15, became most renowned for her illustrations for Enid Blyton, including The Famous Five series, as well as other writers. She also wrote and illustrated her own books both for adults and children.

“George immersed himself in depictions of the working horse and Eileen developed her unique talent for capturing wildlife”

However, in addition to their mastery of pencil and brushwork, they were both supreme master engravers who became absorbed by the flora and fauna of their unique surroundings at Wildings.

George immersed himself in depictions of the working horse and Eileen developed her unique talent for capturing wildlife. Eva did much of the printing for both of them and herself modelled birds and animals to commissions from The Royal Worcester Porcelain Company.

“For both George and Eileen, illustration was one thing, and their wildlife, horticultural and domestic art another,” says Baker.

“Their world, as Eva’s also, was of the elements and the senses: light, life, water, air, wind, rain, touch, sight, feeling, colour, line – the beauty of the natural world. Their aim was to capture the essence of whatever they were applying their perception to.”

a photo of three bird in the snow

Eileen Soper, Fieldfares with Apples in the Snow. Courtesy Chris Beetles Gallery / The Soper Collection

a black and white photo of a young woman with a Scotty dog in the front seat of a vintage car with a man and another young woman in the back seat

The Sopers in their car, early 1930s. © The Soper Collection

a pencil drawing of farmers crowded into a sheep fair

George Soper, The Sheep Fair. Courtesy Chris Beetles Gallery / The Soper Collection

a black and white photo of a man and young woman who is seated working on a sketch

George and Eileen Soper in the 1930s. © The Soper Collection

This quiet devotion to capturing the countryside left an extraordinary collective body of work. As well as horses and the local landscape, George Soper indulged his passion for capturing the beauty and traditions of the wider farmed landscape, making occasional forays into Sussex where he produced some beautiful evocations of the Downs.

Eileen’s passion seems to have been for birds, badgers and other wild animals. She is famed for befriending local badger families, often camping out all night to observe their habitats and to capture them in lively drawings.

Some of these she published in her own books such as Wild Encounters and When Badgers Wake, but many of the drawings that she left behind at Wildings have never been exhibited or even seen.

“There is no self in the art of the Sopers, which is what I find so incredibly moving”

“Eileen had this extraordinary empathy with wildlife,” says Baker, “they could come so close to her, it really was a special gift.”

Her eye for portraying her encounters with the local fauna also informed her children’s illustrations, which are full of joy and unfettered freedom; something that endeared her to Enid Blyton, who gave her a steady stream of illustration work.

“It’s the power of the work of the Sopers,” says Baker, “nobody else has done anything quite like it. Other people have painted the working horse, for example, but none in such a comprehensive manner as George Soper.

“It’s representational art, in the pure watercolour tradition,” she adds, “and you could say it was an obsession, but there is no self in the art of the Sopers. It’s a pure representation of the beauty of the flora and fauna of the British countryside, which is what I find so incredibly moving.”

an etching of an old man in flat cap at a work bench

George Soper, In a boatshed. Courtesy Chris Beetles Gallery / The Soper Collection

a sketch of three badgers emerging from their burrow beneath a tree

One of Eileen Soper’s many studies of badgers. Courtesy Chris Beetles Gallery / The Soper Collection

a photo of sa yoiung woman in 1930s dress looking out through a window a from a window seat

Eva Soper by the window at Wildings. © The Soper Collection

The Soper Collection is currently attempting to buy a property in Suffolk to provide a space where the life and art of the Sopers can be fully appreciated via a gallery and education centre that will inform and inspire future generations to have a love for naturalist art, British wildlife, landscape and history.

If successful, and they only have until the end of November to find raise the money, it will be a remarkable outcome for a collection of art produced by a very private family who were so cloistered that, for most of us, their cohesive vision and talent is still to be discovered and enjoyed.

Find out more about the Soper Collection at www.thesopercollection.org

Support the fundraising bid at www.thesopercollection.org/donations-soper-collection/

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