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Culture: Creating a home for a family in ambitious project near Lavenham for The Soper Collection

More than 700 pieces of rarely seen artwork, porcelain and memorabilia from one family could go on show to the public if an ambitious project to open a gallery and education centre near Lavenham comes to fruition.

The Soper Collection, a charitable organisation, was formed to celebrate the work of the Soper family – father George and daughters Eileen and Eva, who, over 100 years of creativity, dedicated their lives to depicting the life, colour, atmosphere and vitality of the British countryside.

But the clock is ticking. The project, which it is hoped will be housed at Brandeston Hall Farm Barns in Great Waldingfield, has until November 20 to reach its £600,000 target.

Soper collection (5168262)
Soper collection (5168262)

It is the brainchild of local resident Joy Baker, who along with her late husband, John, began putting their collection of Soper art together in the early nineties. “The race is on, but we are confident that with the generous support of national donors, art and wildlife lovers and grant-giving organisations, we can raise the amount needed to construct The Soper Collection art gallery and education centre.”

So what is so special about the Sopers? George was one of the best naturalist artists of his generation, his illustrations, landscapes, watercolours and etchings saw him enjoy a long and successful career. Most recognised for his work on rural life and the working horse, he also illustrated Charles Kingsley’s The Water Babies for the Headley Brothers at the turn of the last century.

He passed his love of art and the outdoors to his daughters. Elder daughter Eva’s most popular works were bone china life-size bird figurines showing extraordinary detail, while sister Eileen is perhaps the most famous of

the Sopers.

Her talent for etching was soon recognised and at 15 she was one of the youngest artists ever to exhibit at The Royal Academy. In 1924 she was honoured when Queen Mary bought her Flying Swings print and she also illustrated Enid Blyton’s Famous Five novels.

“This is an exquisite collection that should be enjoyed by a wider audience,” said Joy. “But there is also a huge educational attraction which is equally important. I quickly fell in love with the work of the family – the luminosity and the sheer grace and power of the work – the draftsmanship, colour and, above all else, the movement. Everything is about movement.”

Much of the artwork did not come to light until 1989 when celebrated bird artist Robert Gillmor visited the sisters’ lifelong home after they were hospitalised. He discovered a mass of art treasure.

And Joy wanted to share that treasure.

Having formed a charity, and having an extensive board of directors and advisors, including Robert Gillmor (artist, author and founding member of the Society of Wildlife Artists), Paul Heiney (television and radio personality, advocate for preservation of working horses) and endorsed by the High Sherriff of Suffolk, George Vesty, support for The Soper Collection couldn’t have been stronger.

“The range of content in the Soper Collection is varied,” explained Joy.

“George has accomplished what no other working artist has within that industry – the craft of the working horse and man, which was the backbone of society prior to mechanisation.

“And I’ve not stopped at George, he and his daughter Eileen illustrated for the children of their time – she producing work for Enid Blyton no less, among others – their contribution has been huge.

“The quality of their work is exquisite across the board and some of the sketches alone are just wonderful.

“With Eva’s work I was simply astounded. It’s a totally different execution, the mere flexibility. . . and comments on these alone have seen people completely captivated.

“The first four actually remained in production for 49 years showing the importance they had for that time, the sheer pleasure they must have given people.

“What is incredible about it all is that George, who was born in 1870 and first exhibited in 1890, did so every year until he died, his daughters then carried the mantle until they passed in 1990.”

It is expected the majority, if not all, the Soper Collection will be housed in the restored buildings with ample space for a permanent exhibition and several smaller, rotational exhibitions of the Soper family works.

Paul Heiney, who shares George’s passion for the craft of working horses having worked 36 acres with Suffolk Punch horses for ten years, said: “When I heard about the plans to house these amazing works of one family in a gallery and education centre and create, among other things, a celebration of the working horse, I was always going to support it.

“I think the working horse is under appreciated, especially in rural counties like Suffolk. We should celebrate the culture of the working horse and I am delighted that this is going to keep that alive.”

With an essence of speed required, and the hope of reaching a collective solution, Joy Baker is optimistic: “This is an ambitious project but I think the Lavenham area is the perfect place for it – in the heart of the Eastern Counties where there is so much tradition around the working horse.

“It’s wonderful for educational purposes and tells a fabulous story.”

For more information on The Soper Collection visit thesopercollection.org.

From The Water Babies to The Famous Five

The Soper family have seen their stunning illustrations weaved throughout the history of literature with both George and daughter Eileen strongly represented.

Be it The Water Babies (Charles Kingsley), Tanglewood Tales (Nathaniel Hawthorne) and Hansel & Gretel (Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm, Grimm’s Fairy Tales) with George, through Bill and Coo (Mazo De La Roche), the iconic Famous Five (Enid Blyton) and her own, When Badgers Wake (Eileen Soper), the influence is evident.

“Eileen has illustrated not only for Enid (Blyton) but many others as well,” explains Joy Baker, trustee for The Soper Collection.

“Their contribution to children’s literature has been huge and she (Eileen, at the age of 15) was the youngest member of The Royal Academy, whilst also writing and illustrating her own books.

“Not only does the collection include these (literary) illustrations but, in regards to Enid, I’ve also been entrusted with a mass of correspondence between Eileen, Enid and the publishers, the two ladies having been friends as well.”

As early editions are keenly sought after by collectors, The Soper Collection itself contains every Enid Blyton book illustrated by Eileen, as well as the Nature Readers and accompanying Nature Plates, and the correspondence shows Enid Blyton thought highly of Eileen and her illustrative abilities.

“I hope you are not too busy for this, as I couldn’t bear anyone else to

do it.”

“I think you produce a lovely set!” November 1950

“You will be interested to know that my fans never mention any artist

but you. . . they seem to recognise your pictures but nobody else’s,” October 1953.

Praise indeed.

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