Ophelia Gordon Bell (1915-1975)

Ophelia Gordon Bell

Written by David A Cross

Occupation: Sculptor
Location: Grasmere

Born in Bayswater on 1st July 1915 and baptised Ophelia Gordon in the Anglican church, her name Ophelia was a 200 year old tradition by descent in her mother’s family.  Her father F. Lawrence Bell [1878-1955] was a bank employee but a gifted printer of woodcuts, who had met her mother Winifred Joan Ophelia Gordon Billinge [1883-1973] in Antwerp before the Great War.  Winifred had strong family connections with the Lake District, being the daughter of the Rev. Robert Burland Billinge [1847-1915], the vicar of Urswick from 1878-1902, who had retired to Ulverston and died six days after Ophelia’s birth.  Winifred’s sisters were Mary Dorothea [1882-1972], who had lost a close friend during the Great War and Muriel Gordon [1879-1964], who married as his second wife Dr Caleb Williams Elijah Saleeby [1878-1940], at St Paul’s cathedral in 1927. 

Ophelia’s mother, usually known as ‘Tommy’ studied with William Frank Calderon [1865-1943] at his School of Animal Painting at 54, Baker St. and became a society animal painter herself, winning the School scholarship in 1904.  Then instructed in figure drawing by Edwin Noble [1876-1941], she taught art herself and became a visiting lecturer at Leamington School of Art, where she knew the composer Frank Bridge [1879-1941].  The wedding of Winifred to Lawrence Bell was at Kensington registry office in the summer of 1914 but the couple separated in 1918 when Ophelia was three years old.  Consequently, she was brought up in the Saleeby household at 13, Greville Place, St John’s Wood and educated at nearby St Alfred’s School from the age of five, at Oakburn private school at Windermere and later by a governess, who failed to instil the rudiments of mathematics.  Her uncle, a doctor, writer and eugenicist, had many interests, was keen on fresh air, sunlight and health, successfully argued for the existence of the first ministry of health and was the inventor inter alia of the First World War tin hat.  His daughter Mary, by his first marriage to Monica Meynell [1880-1929], was tutored for a time by D.H. Lawrence [1885-1930], trained as a geriatrician and married Dr [later Professor] David Fisher, of the school of medicine in Edinburgh.  Aunt Muriel had been a prize winner at the Royal Academy of Music and was a professional piano accompanist, friendly with Sir Henry Wood [1869-1944], Sir Adrian Boult [1889-1983] and their wives.  Ophelia became very friendly with the baritone Keith Falkner [1900-1994], later President of the Royal College of Music, and met players of BBC orchestras and local artists at home and at tennis parties.  She designed a St. George and the Dragon mascot [1929] for the black chauffeured Humber in which they toured Europe to Vevey in Switzerland and to Florence, through the snow.  Later they sailed on the Baden-Powell yacht in the south of France.  Along the road lived Alfred Frank Hardiman [1891-1949] the sculptor inter alia of the fine heraldic lions at Norwich city hall who modelled a fine bust of Dr Saleeby.  Ophelia visited his studio and kept photographs of him and his work.  

Aged fifteen, she knew that she wanted to be a sculptor and soon attended Regent St. Polytechnic, where sculpture, as her metier, was confirmed.  She worked in stone, wood, metal, clay and plaster and her tutors were Professor Harold Brownsword [1885-1961], Marjorie Crossley [later Osborne; fl.1930-1951] and Geoffrey Hampton Deeley [1912-2007], who was later to teach her son Julian at Goldsmiths.  Her Castor and Pollux won a silver medal in 1933, followed by Narcissus [c.1934] and Leda and the Swan [1935], her prizewinning Ovidian design for a college bronze medallion, a subject she later reprised in three dimensions. As a Christian, her belief that God the creator was at the foundation of her work led to her high relief nativity First Christmas [1933] and the slender St Giles and the Hind [1937].  These youthful creations anticipate her later religious work, such Agnus Dei, in low relief, with the lamb kneeling before the infant Christ, Madonna and Child [1973], with the baby Christ standing on her knee with arms outstretched, for the Convent of St Denys, Warminster, Wiltshire [version in plaster and fibreglass resin, Grasmere church] and St Francis receiving the Stigmata [1974].  

Ophelia was well able to take a likeness and portrait commissions followed in her early twenties, including the huge bust portrait Mrs Lound and the Epstein influenced Mrs Richard Freund. Though fashions were changing, she established the basis of a career in this genre and set up a London studio while still at the Polytechnic. Here following ‘a rather trying series of Prix de Rome sculptures’, she chose her own subject, The Dalesman [1933-36], a figure on horseback ‘briefly glimpsed that previous Easter in the snow gathering in his lambs’ and recalled from memory.  She used no model in the studio for man or beast but periodically went out into Regent Street to check a detail on a passing dairyman’s horse. The farmer was Ernest Tyson, of Broadrain Farm, Grasmere, who, unusually for a Cumbrian farmer, rode a pony in the fells having lost a leg in an accident. Ophelia tactfully modelled him with two and was pleased when he later gave his reticent approval of the work.  Cast in bronze this is one of her best sculptures, resonating with Young Cheiron [1934], A Shire Horse [1934], a rare experiment in glazed clay, and the wittily titled One Horse Power [plaster 1934], with the farmer holding the bridle.  It may not be insignificant, that in the same period 1928-1936 Alfred Hardiman was sculpting his equestrian statue Earl Haig. In 1936, a major achievement for Ophelia was the full length life-size maquette of Lt. Col. William Flyn Williams D.S.O. Her strongly textured, yet delicate work The Wave [resin bronze, 1936] followed, representing a mother and child striding into the sea and an unexpected marine subject is the plaque Viking Ship.  

Seeking greater exposure, she exhibited at the Royal Glasgow Institute of Fine Arts and the Palace of Arts Empire Exhibition at Bellahouston Park, Glasgow, in 1938.  The following year she showed the bust Dorothy Sandford [1939] at the Royal Academy and the tiny and intimate work Virginia and Diana Nicholson [resin bronze, 1937] at the Royal Scottish Academy in 1939.  The girls were the daughters of Thomas Nicholson, an engineer at Workington.  Upon Caleb Saleeby’s death in 1940, Muriel moved with Winifred and her daughter to Heathwaite, Windermere, the home of their unmarried sister Dorothea Billinge, where Ophelia had spent many holidays.  Of this move, she wrote: ‘I always felt a homing instinct to the north and to the hills’. On one such holiday, Dorothea had taken her niece to the studio of the artist William Heaton Cooper [1904-1995], in Ambleside, having known him since his father lived in Ulverston. So Ophelia arrived looking lovely, with hair streaming wet and Heaton ‘knew at once she was to be my companion for life’.  He asked her to plant some young wild birches and rowans in the garden of what was in 1938 to be his new studio in Grasmere.  Late in 1939, Ophelia’s election to the Lake Artists Society ‘was greeted with applause’ and in a few months, on 25 May 1940, she became Mrs Heaton Cooper.  They honeymooned at the Kirkstile Inn, Loweswater and camped beside Crummock Water. Her uncle Caleb had commissioned her portrait by Henri Riviere [private collection] as a wedding present.  Heaton was the son of Alfred Heaton Cooper [1864-1929], the founding member of the Cooper dynasty of artists and his Norwegian wife Mathilde Valentinsen [b.1863], the daughter of a wool dyer from Balestrand, on the Sogne Fijord, Norway.  

Thus Ophelia joined the Cooper family and brought together the enormously contrasted worlds of St. John’s Wood and the Lakes, where she continued to be enthusiastic about music and loved poetry.  They lived at The Croft, beside the new studio and Ophelia was soon supporting Heaton there and joining him on the fells.  Here, he would paint the distant landscape and Ophelia would paint trees, flowers and animals, the closer and more intimate subjects in view.  As it was wartime, Heaton was often away in Liverpool as a camouflage officer, tasked with disguising the appearance of airfields from Cheshire to Cumberland.  Before her wedding, Ophelia had been in charge of nine women drivers of ambulances for the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry, based in Trafford Park, Manchester.  Heaton was also in the Home Guard and went on painting sorties with Gilbert Spencer [1892-1979], the brother of Stanley Spencer, and his relocated RCA students at Ambleside.  The Dadaist, Kurt Schwitters [1887-1948], having fled the blitz, offered to paint Heatons’s portrait but Heaton, being busy, declined.  Other arrivals from the south were the sculptor Josefina de Vasconcellos [1904-2005] and her husband Delmar Banner [1896-1983].  Rather like the Saleebys, they had mixed in a cosmopolitan milieu of intellectuals, statesmen and artists and like Ophelia, Josefina found herself balanced culturally between London and the Lakes.  This and their mutual experiences of sculpture at the Regent St. Polytechnic were the bases of their friendship.  The Banners lived at The Bield in Langdale from 1940 and the Coopers would sometimes stay at High Hall Garth cottage nearby, when over tea, the two sculptors would discuss recipes and pigments for technical mixes.  Being now also resident in the Lake District, Winifred Bell was elected to the Lake Artists in 1946, six years after her daughter and the same year as the Banners.  She continued with local animal portrait commissions in both oils and watercolour and exhibited at Grasmere.

Through the Lake Artists’ network Ophelia came to know other local artists, including the recently widowed Phyllis Clay [1880-1947], whose sad but serene head she modelled in 1941.  Phillis was an exponent of direct carving and truth to materials and was in a group of independent sculptors including Elizabeth Andrews [1881-1977], Ursula Edgcombe [1900-1985] and Elizabeth Muntz [1894-1977] whose work rarely appeared in salerooms or exhibitions. These women worked within distinctly individual contexts, in contrast to the geometrical abstractions of Barbara Hepworth [1903-1975] who looms large in our perception of direct carving in Britain between the wars.  Ophelia’s work is more intimate in scale and traditional in nature and does not relate to the heroic modernistic principles expounded by Herbert Read.  However, study of her work makes an important contribution to the understanding of artistic activity in the middle of the twentieth century. She was appreciated by the art patron Helen Sutherland [1881-1965], who had moved to Cockley Beck in 1939.  They corresponded and Ophelia attended several of Helen’s musical ‘At Homes’.  Ophelia wrote: 

Creative energy is the greatest power on earth.  It is the divine and natural gift of God to all living       things human and non-human.  To the human is also given the free will to surrender it back to the service of the Creator and so complete the full circle of His design for creative living. 

But motherhood intervened and Ophelia eventually brought up four children: Otalia [b.1943] who trained at Charlotte Mason college and later became a potter; John [1944-2018] who loyally ran the family business for many years; Julian [b.1947] who went to Goldsmiths College, London and has built a successful artist’s career and Clare [b.1949] who read psychology and became a social worker. Though busy with her children, Ophelia did manage to mould the fine head of John as The Young One [1945] and in 1950, the family moved to Winterseeds, a larger house with terrific views, above the village, near Dunmail Raise.

Heaton was a member of the Fell and Rock Climbing Club and had climbed from 1938 with Sir John Hunt [1910-1998], and Alf Gregory [1913-2010].  In May 1953, Sir John, by then a family friend, had led the successful ascent of Everest.  In August that year, he invited the Heaton Coopers to meet the other climbers, including Sir Edmund Hillary [1919-2008], at a reunion at Eskdale Outward Bound School.  Hillary arrived following an incident in a canoe where he had shot the rapids and almost drowned in the river Esk.  Struck by the climber’s physiognomy, Ophelia modelled a vigorous head in clay and cast it in plaster [Heaton Cooper Gallery].  Thus she resumed her career as a sculptor and in 1954, she executed a portrait head of Sir John himself [plaster, Grasmere].  Both works convey the craggy determination of those remarkable men.  In 1955, a bronze cast of Hillary [Te Papa, National Gallery, Wellington, New Zealand], the head Ophelia considered her best, was exhibited at The Famous in Sculpture, the inaugural show of the Society of Portrait Sculptors, adjacent to Josefina’s bust in perspex of Sherpa Tensing Norgay.  The two women sculptors collaborated in several ways, shared orders of material from Alec Tiranti in London and were welcomed at the Lake Artists exhibition, despite their work requiring considerable space.  Again in 1955, Heaton and Ophelia jointly exhibited at the Fine Art Society in Bond St. where both her Everest busts were showcased.  

Also in the mid-1950s she carved A Shepherd and a Lamb from a block of Portland stone which she had selected herself from the quarry: a new medium for her, She had no qualms about using power tools or later on using new materials, like glass fibre, believing that an artist should adapt to the age in which they lived.  This was equally evident in her acceptance of a commission by The United Sulphuric Acid Company to produce a bas relief of an anhydrite kiln [Catalyst Science Discovery Centre, Widnes].  These two works became the foundation of her most important commission.  Sir Christopher Hinton [1901-1983] had commissioned Heaton’s large watercolours of nuclear sites for the Atomic Energy Authority.  The first was of Dounreay, near Thurso, but was painted from models and plans before construction and used at a major conference in Geneva in 1954. Thus Heaton became friendly with Arthur Frearson, the chief architect of Calder Hall, where, during construction, a piece of bog oak was disinterred and given to Ophelia who carved her Oystercatcher from it and the switch for the Queen when she opened Calder Hall in 1956.  Following these events, she was commissioned to produce several major pieces for the AEA.  

Determined to make an impact, she studied books on Russian social realism and engaged with Teilhard de Chardin’s writing on physics and spirituality.  She had always read widely, including books by Rudolph Steiner, Carl Jung, Laurens van der Post and other publications by de Chardin. In this scientific series, which might appear remote from her religion, she viewed Atomic power as benign and peaceful and she wanted in this project to stand up to abstraction in her own terms. Her ‘strong and rebellious character’ is evident in the challenge this held and she had a powerful sense of the potential of art to influence the future development of mankind, here through nuclear power, writing: ‘Art must be the spurs’.  The AEA supported her by re-building, at Winterseeds, a large top-lit stone barn studio, with heavy beams for attaching pulleys.  Here she carved the works, beginning with three large low relief panels, again in Portland stone, bearing complex stylised illustrations of the production of nuclear power [1955; now at Grasmere]. The reliefs are finely chiselled with some details carefully pared down in the sculptural process, having the effect of subtly reducing the shadows.  Next came her two blocky, yet effectively cut, giant allegorical figures representing Thought and Action, carved from two 3.5 ton blocks of the now familiar Portland stone.  On delivery to Winterseeds by low loader, the lorry refused the steep drive and Ophelia surprised the men by showing them how to winch up the vehicle by running a cable round a tree, a technique she had learned in the FANYs.  Thought holds an unbroken atom, whilst Action places a symbolic control rod into the nuclear reactor, which has identifiable scientific symbols of fission incised upon it.  For this she adopted the new technology of an electric chisel slung from the ceiling of the studio, to speed up the roughing out.  Ophelia’s children enjoyed assisting her and Julian particularly recalls how much he enjoyed carving stone in this fashion. The blocks had been installed on iron wheeled trolleys and the rest of the work Ophelia completed using the traditional wooden mallet and cold steel chisels in the extremely draughty barn; the whole job requiring a taxing eighteen months of unremitting work.  During this time she wrote words from a favourite hymn on a beam: ‘Unresting, unhasting, and silent as light’. Thought and Action, massive and much appreciated, are still prominent outside the AEA offices at Chadwick House, Risley, near Warrington. Powerfully lit professional photographs were taken of Ophelia at work on these impressive figures.  She wrote that ‘an artist can be used as a tool of power and purpose if he [or she] will strive towards the deepest longings in his [or her] heart and the highest vision of his [or her] mind’.  

This success led to a further AEA commission of the gleeful Merchild and Dolphins, for a bronze fountain [Winfrith, Dorset, 1960].  Following this experience she wrote: ‘stone speaks less of the artist than does bronze’, but it appears that bronze, a very expensive medium, largely eluded her.  Prior to this, in 1959 Ophelia carved the unique figure St Bede, [673-735] the historian of Jarrow, in white Roman stone, his robes carved like wings, which enhances the campanile of St Bede’s Catholic church, Carlisle.  On his halo is the doxology Gloria Patri. In this project, she was assisted by her friend Josefina and the building was consecrated by Bishop Flynn [1880-1961] on 24 November 1959.  She was not engaged in major commissions after this, as she simply did not need them.

Heaton became interested in the Christian Moral Re-armament movement in 1934 and met the founder Frank Buchman [1878-1961] in Oxford in 1938.  Following this, Ophelia was drawn into the movement in 1938-9, in association with Gordon and June Osmaston, and they devoted their lives to God ‘based on absolute honesty, purity, unselfishness and love’. The children were brought up following MRA recommendations and had a daily quiet time in which they were expected to write down ‘what God wanted them to do’.  Heaton and Ophelia went several times to Switzerland to stay in the Mountain House, the MRA headquarters and centre of reconciliation at Caux, above Lake Geneva and they believed in the importance of MRA influence worldwide in countering communism.  Over time they both became more detached from MRA in different ways but still had old friends in the movement so continued those contacts.  Both of them engaged with the Anglican church in parallel.

After thirteen years at Winterseeds, in 1962 they moved back to The Croft in Grasmere, where a greenhouse was built as her studio. William subscribed to The Studio art magazine until its demise in 1964 and they were interested in contemporary art, attending exhibitions in London and elsewhere.  Aware of the rise of abstraction and determined to explore other media, she executed innovative semi-abstract crucifixions from aluminium and scrap metal from a car breaker and from the smithy floor, such as Breakthrough Cross [1965], for the roof of the lady chapel of Christ the Healer at Burswood Hospital, Groombridge near Tunbridge Wells.  The cross was fashioned of cruel sharp pieces resembling radiating nails and was named by Dr Ben Alexander, who had been inspired by it to make a crucial career decision to go to Pakistan. Ophelia believed that a work of art need not necessarily be beautiful but must be a sincere honest first hand opinion and that abstraction is ‘perhaps only truly understood by those who try to express something greater than themselves, in some tangible form, in their own language.’   Her other semi-abstract work for public buildings includes The Challenge in the foyer of Stubbins Primary School, Ramsbottom and The Man [1963] at Barnet High School for Girls.  She wrote: ‘The artist’s job is to bring back into mundane material living, the eternal, the infinite, the spiritual and make the intangible, the tangible.’ In the late 1960s, when her son Julian was at Goldsmiths College, they had many discussions about art and abstraction and it was evident she was fascinated by the work of Barbara Hepworth and Naum Gabo. When Julian was in Rome from 1969-70, his parents visited Assisi, Arezzo, Siena, Lucca, Borgo Santo Sepolchro and Florence.  Ophelia was also determined to visit the Carrara quarries.  Though well aware of the zeitgeist, she had a sense of being out of date and felt that she had rather ‘missed the boat’. She was capable of being unconventional, as she had shown in the AEA commissions and her recent metal constructions, but largely felt trapped within traditional figuration.  

Ophelia loved animals and the natural world and had been fascinated by the fossils in Portland stone.  Her aunt kept Pekingese dogs but Ophelia, now established in Westmorland, kept a terrier and later, a collie.  She modelled carefully observed shepherds, hound trailers, huntsmen and at least one mountaineer, usually in clay on an aluminium armature, collectively her best remembered work, often radiating emotion and reflecting her mother’s interests as an animal painter.  The Good Shepherd [Grasmere] is more than an echo of her religious work in the 1930s and Gathering shows a shepherd with two ewes and two lambs.  In Westmorland, she was surrounded by manifestations of this powerful Christian metaphor.  Related rural subjects included The Hound Trailer [1970], a sculpture of the Ambleside huntsman Anthony Chapman and a portrait of Dancer of the Warwickshire Beagles.  Each clay work was again cast in plaster and copied in cold cast bronze resin by companies first in London and later in Cumberland, in editions of twelve, following a tenet of the Royal Society of British Sculptors, to allow sculptures to be defined as works of art.  As a southerner, now rooted in the Lakes, these reflect her familiarity with and affection for the tough lives of the farming community.

From 1969-70 she modelled three works celebrating the Wordsworth family: the unique youthful bust of the poet [private collection], the standing figures William and Dorothy [plaster, Grasmere] and Poem [1973] representing a seated young couple listening to Richard Curwen Wordsworth [1915-1993], the actor and Ophelia’s exact contemporary, reading his ancestor’s verse.  In this period Heaton suffered from depression, became rather monosyllabic and communication was difficult.  Ophelia gamely strove to cheer him but then was diagnosed herself with brain cancer and died five months later on 12th August 1975, barely six weeks after her sixtieth birthday.  She is buried with Heaton in Grasmere churchyard, beneath a Lakeland green slate headstone carved in low relief with the head of the Flower of Understanding and the words: ‘Seek ye first the kingdom of God’.  Apart from her undoubted genius in modelling clay and carving stone, her energy and great kindness struck those who met her.  Her premature death, in stark contrast to the longevity of her friend Josefina de Vasconcellos, leaves us wondering what more she could have achieved.  Several of her sculptures are still displayed at the Heaton Cooper Studio and in the garden nearby are Ride of Valkyries [1936] a relief in concrete and Shepherd and Lamb in Portland stone [1960s], works which effectively bookend her career.  At the impressive and moving centenary exhibition A Vital Spirit at Grasmere [2015], her family showed over forty well-lit sculptures representing a wide range of her work, including numerous fragile and carefully preserved works in plaster.  Excellent photographs, drawings, tools and materials greatly enhanced the overall impact.  In an atavistic echo of her work with stone, that of her son Julian Cooper re-creates rugged quarry faces, detailed stone forms and geological textures upon canvas; thus, in a sense, her work lives on. In 2015 she was paradoxically described as ‘a traditional but unconventional sculptor of the 20th century’, words which could equally apply to those of her contemporaries who were more in sympathy with figurative work, but who felt equally compelled to wrestle with abstraction.


  • Mapping the Practice and Profession of Sculpture in Britain and Ireland, Glasgow University, www.sculpture,gla,ac.uk/persons.php accessed 2015, re Bell, Hardiman and Deeley.  
  • Heaton Cooper Studio website www.heatoncooper.co.uk
  • C. Roy Hudleston, An Armorial for Westmorland and Lonsdale, Kendal, 1975
  • William Heaton Cooper, Mountain Painter, Frank Peters, 1984
  • Obituary of William Heaton Cooper by A. Harry Griffin in the Independent 15 August 1995
  • Jane Renouf, The Lake Artists Society: A Centenary Celebration, Ambleside, 2004
  • Heaton Cooper, Reghed exhibition catalogue, 2012 
  • Edward Morris and Emma Roberts, Public Sculpture of Cheshire, Liverpool University Press, 2012
  • Sculpture Journal, 23.3 [2014], p.368-77
  • Exhibition notes: A Vital Spirit: The Life and Work of Ophelia Gordon Bell, for her centenary in 2015, Heaton Cooper Studio, Grasmere
  • Adrian Mullen, Westmorland Gazette, 14 May 2015, review of the above 
  • Cross, David A., Public Sculpture of Lancashire and Cumbria, Liverpool University Press, 2017 
  • ODNB Caleb Williams Saleeby 
  • Births, marriages and deaths records accessed via Ancestry.com March 2020
  • Letters and typescript in the Heaton Cooper archive, Grasmere
  • Telephone interview with Julian Cooper on 9 April 2020
  • Family information