William T. Cooper was a prolific artist throughout his life, most notably as a painter of birds, but also of mammals, landscapes, seascapes and plants - numerous plants.
Bill always lived in the bush. He spent his childhood in the bushy outskirts of Newcastle, New South Wales, and his early adulthood on the coast to that city's north. The latter half of his life was spent at Topaz in north Queensland. A keen naturalist from childhood, he became exceptionally knowledgeable in many fields of natural history, including birds, reptiles and mammals, in Australia and worldwide.
I was the very lucky girl who won Bill Cooper's heart in 1976. From that time, beginning at Bungwahl in New South Wales, our lives were shared as we lived and worked together for 39 years.
Initially, Bill's knowledge of plants was limited to the familiar coastal plants of his younger years in the greater Newcastle area. However, when we bought our first property at Bungwahl, which had a couple of rainforested gullies, we learned those plants together. Then in 1987 we moved to a new property completely covered with rainforest, at Topaz in the wettest part of tropical north Queensland. Learning the plants here was daunting. Bill decided to paint every fruit we found in the forest so that we might one day be able to use the illustration to find a name for the plant. These paintings were the beginnings of the fruit books. From here on, I seemed to learn the plant names more easily than Bill; he stepped back and mostly stuck to illustration. This was at a time when he was keen to develop his painting skills, particularly by adding more plants to his bird paintings.
We were soulmates from the start but our highly co-dependent professional relationship bloomed when Bill, after many attempts, finally convinced me to write our first fruit book, Fruits of the Rain Forest. For me, this was a revelation and from there we published Fruits of the Australian Tropical Rainforest and Australian Rainforest Fruits - A Field Guide. Soon after that I became a taxonomist, naming and describing new species of plants. Both of us had grown up with scarce resources, neither of us completing high school, yet despite that we were lucky enough to make a living in fields we relished. We were in utter disbelief when the Australian National University bestowed on us honorary doctorates for our work in 2014.
Over the many years of our life together, we shared a well-lit studio/library/office that always had a special aroma of books, paints, plant specimens and bird specimens. We often worked on the same project but with different and complementary roles. Bill relied on my botanical knowledge but did not always need it. He was a tireless worker and once he was on a roll his excitement was almost frantic to gather all of the material required to compose a picture and begin the actual painting. If the current piece was causing problems, we would head out into the forest for some time to smell the roses.
Although Bill did not think of himself as a botanical artist, he was long considered one by those who appreciated his artistic skill in rendering the plants in his bird paintings. His keen eye, precise draftsmanship and extensive botanical knowledge allowed him to play with light and shade to give realism and a sense of perspective to his paintings. A healthy artistic confidence enabled him to include blemishes and imperfections to add authenticity. His memory and attention to detail were truly remarkable.
Bill always wanted to tell a story in his paintings, with the botanical component as part of that story. This would often begin as a suggestion from him that we needed to go west to the dry country to collect a plant appropriate for a bird that occurred in that habitat. Or he might want to use a plant from somewhere further afield. If he was after a plant from the habitat of, for example, an Indonesian bird, I would scroll through plant lists and descriptions looking for a species that occurred both in Indonesia and in north Queensland. Then it was a matter of finding a location where the plant occurred, mostly within a day's drive, collecting a specimen and bringing it home for a detailed illustration, as seen in the work Pleiogynium timorense, which was used with the Umbrella Cockatoo. Bill was well known for always having the correct plants with his subjects.
Bill rarely painted plants as completed botanical illustrations, other than those for the fruit books. However, hundreds of working drawings of plants were made opportunistically for potential use in his paintings. Others were painted because they were especially attractive and might be able to be worked into a painting. It was hoped that these stored drawings might reduce the need to dash out urgently to find plants relevant to a proposed painting.
Bill frequently kept diaries for recording his observations of wildlife behaviour. Most of these records are not related to plants, but where possible I have included extracts relevant to some of the botanical illustration. They document Bill's interest in and compassion for all things wild.
The idea for this book was suggested by Bill's biographer, ornithologist and author Dr Penny Olsen, who believed that Bill's abundant and lovely botanical work (complete and incomplete) might have broad appeal. Most pieces chosen for the book are from Bill's archives, now largely held in the collections of the National Library of Australia and the State Library of NSW.
- This is an extract from The Botanical Art of William T. Cooper by Wendy Cooper. NLA Publishing, $65.