The artist William Marshall Cooper was born into a Quaker family in Doncaster in 1833. Very little is known about his early life, but by 1864 he was living and working as a surveyor in New Zealand. His work provided him with plenty of opportunity to display his artistic talents, and he supplemented his surveying work with drawings and watercolours of the lands on which he worked. He moved to Australia in 1876 but seems to have painted little or nothing whilst there. He returned to England in about 1891 and by 1893 was living at Shanklin on the Isle of Wight. He seems not to have engaged in surveying work on his return to England, but at some stage he met William Borough Hill, the Southampton-based surveyor, valuer and auctioneer, who in 1896 engaged him to paint a series of watercolours of Southampton.

At that time Hill was employed by Southampton Corporation in valuing properties in the slum clearance schemes under the Housing of the Working Classes Act, 1890. Hill thought it important that a visual record by made of the parts of the town that were disappearing as a result of the demolition schemes. Cooper duly produced 65 watercolours, mostly of the old buildings in the Simnel Street, Castle Lane, West Quay, St Michael’s Square area. He also painted views of the High Street and some historic buildings.

In 1898 William Borough Hill displayed over 200 paintings in his own collection, including the Cooper watercolours, in an exhibition in the Philharmonic Rooms entitled Antient Southampton. When this exhibition ended in 1909 the entire collection was purchased by the Borough Council. Since then the Cooper collection has never been displayed in its entirety because of the paintings’ extreme sensitivity to light, although individual paintings have occasionally been on view temporarily. Two calendars featuring high-quality reproductions of the Cooper collection were produced by the City Council in 2005 and 2006. Cooper returned to the Isle of Wight where he died in 1921.

Taylor's Court, off Simnel Street

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Watercolour by William Marshall Cooper, c.1895

St Michael's Square

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Watercolour by William Marshall Cooper, c.1895

Miller's Court

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Watercolour by William Marshall Cooper, c.1895

Newspaper clippings:

'The Quest for Cooper' - (A. G. K. Leonard, in Supplement to Newsletter number 90, Spring 2007, of the Friends of Southampton’s Museums, Archives & Galleries)

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