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Arthur William Douglas Cooper (1911–1984)

by Gerard Carney

Having just read a reference to ‘the Australian’ Douglas Cooper (1911–1984) in Anton Gill’s biography of Peggy Guggenheim, my interest was immediately sparked when the following week I saw at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, attached to the rear of a painting by Juan Gris (hung at right angle to the wall to enable one to view the painting on each side) an old label of Douglas Cooper, Chelsea, London. After further investigation, I discovered that the origins of this latest gift to the Met can be traced back to the success of an emancipated Australian convict, Daniel Cooper (c.1785–1853).

In 2014 New York’s Metropolitan Museum hosted a major exhibition, Cubism: The Leonard A. Lauder Collection (20 October 2014–16 February 2015) to celebrate the promised gift by Mr Leonard Lauder of 81 outstanding works of art by Braque, Gris, Léger and Picasso. Twenty of those paintings were originally collected by the art historian, Douglas Cooper, in the 1930s.

(Arthur William) Douglas Cooper was born at Chelsea, London, on 20 February 1911 to English-born parents, Major Arthur Cooper and Mabel (née Smith-Marriott). However, Douglas’ Australian roots extend back to the earliest years of Sydney. But for the phenomenal financial success in Sydney of his great, great, great uncle, Daniel Cooper, it seems unlikely that such an art collection would ever have been amassed. No Uncle Daniel, no trust fund, no collecting by Douglas. So, to that extent, the Met’s latest gift is due, in part, to the financial success of his forebear, an emancipated convict.

Born at Bolton, Lancashire, in c.1785, Daniel Cooper was convicted in 1815 at Chester for stealing, and sentenced to transportation for life. He arrived in Sydney in January 1816. After a conditional pardon in 1818, he established himself in business as a merchant. Daniel had extraordinary success in shipping and in 1826 bought the harbour estate of the disgraced Captain John Piper—over 1,100 acres comprising much of Woollahra and Rose Bay. Upon his death in 1853, childless, his English born nephew, also named Daniel Cooper, inherited most of his uncle’s estate at the age of 32.

The Cooper business continued to prosper with the nephew becoming the first speaker of the inaugural Legislative Assembly of New South Wales in 1856. He was knighted in 1857 and made Baronet of Woollahra in 1863. After Sir Daniel’s death in 1902, the business was run from England by his sons, Daniel and William. Daniel, the 2nd Baronet died childless a few years later, leaving William to continue the dynasty. By the 1920s, William and his son, Arthur, had sold all their Australian property except for over 25 acres in Double Bay, which were dedicated in 1917 as a public park, still known today as Cooper Park.

Douglas, the art historian, was Arthur’s eldest son. He inherited a fortune of £100,000 from a trust fund in 1932 when he turned 21. Having studied art history in Marburg-in-Hesse and at the Sorbonne, Douglas decided to use a third of his inheritance to acquire what soon became the finest collection of cubist art in the world. He purchased the bulk of his collection during the 1930s, carefully selecting only works created by the original cubists, Braque, Gris, Picasso and Léger, between 1907 and 1914.

During World War II, Douglas’s talents were put to good use in air force intelligence as an interrogator in Alexandria and Malta, before joining the Monuments and Fine Arts branch of the Control Commission for Germany to pursue Nazi loot.

After the war, Douglas spent the rest of his life as a prolific art historian and curator of exhibitions. A fascinating insight into his character is given by Sir John Richardson, the acclaimed biographer of Picasso, who lived with Douglas for a decade in the 1950s in Provence, in his 1999 memoir, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice: 'Anglophobia made for the outlandish accents, outré clothes, and preposterous manner that Douglas cultivated.' (p 19)

As with all collectors of great art, Douglas no doubt pondered the future of his collection after his death. The masterpieces he donated or sold to public institutions include the following:

—After being honoured, as the first foreigner, with membership of the Patronato, he gave the Prado two masterpieces: Juan Gris’s Portrait of his wife, and Picasso’s Nature morte aux pigeons (1912).

—He sold Picasso’s Homme a la clarinette to the Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection in Madrid.

—He bequeathed to the Kunstmuseum Basel a 1907 drawing by Picasso for the Desmoiselles d’Avignon.

—Regarded as the most important painting of his collection, Three Figures (Nudes?) under a Tree (1907-8) by Picasso is one of the star attractions of the Musée Picasso in Paris. Douglas originally offered to donate this work to France on condition that it establish such a museum.

Among the works he sold, which eventually ended up in a public collection, is a mural by Léger, Les Trapézistes, which Douglas commissioned for the stairwell of his Chateau de Castille in Provence. Designed but not entirely executed by Léger personally, Douglas sold this work to Paul Haim in Paris in 1977 after selling the chateau. This work was eventually acquired by the National Gallery of Australia from a dealer in New York in 1981.

Douglas Cooper died in the Royal Free Hospital, Camden, London, on 1 April 1984. His adopted son, William (Billy) McCarty-Cooper, inherited the bulk of his art collection. Most of these works were sold through Christies in New York at their auction on 11 May 1992. It appears that around 20 works were purchased at that time by Mr Leonard A. Lauder.

All great collectors deserve to be remembered, not only for the works they acquire, but for their intellectual discipline, stamina, and discernment. Few achieve a degree of immortality as the founders of great galleries or museums. While Peggy Guggenheim achieved this in Venice, Douglas Cooper appears not to have shared that ambition. Nonetheless, he ought to be remembered for his contribution to the Leonard A. Lauder Cubist Collection when it finally comes to rest at The Met.

Gerard Carney is a former Dean of University of Queensland Law School, an expert on constitutional law, and a recent graduate of the New York School of Interior Design who combines these interests in researching the history of the map of Australia, and the history of design.


  • James Jervis, The History of Woollahra (Municipal Council of Woollahra; 1960)
  • John Richardson, 'Obituary – Douglas Cooper (1911-1984)', The Burlington Magazine, vol 127, no 985 April 1984, p 228ff
  • John Richardson, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (1999)
  • Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004 and accessed 25 October 2020). 


In 1985 John Richardson began his tribute of his longtime partner with the sentence, ‘One point that Douglas Cooper, the controversial English art historian who died last year, would want his obituarist to emphasize is that he was not Australian’. It greatly irked Douglas that people linked him to Australia because it was the source of his family’s fortune.

Douglas never told Richardson that Daniel Cooper, the original source of his family’s wealth, had arrived in Sydney as a convict. He was also not the only convict in the family. Sir Daniel Cooper (1821–1903), who inherited his convict uncle’s wealth, married Elizabeth Hill, the daughter of convicts, William Hill (Ganges, 1797) and Mary Johnson (Britannia, 1798) in 1846.

Delving a bit further into the family tree you find Douglas also had a connection to the Sydney Wentworth family. The Hill’s granddaughter (and Douglas’s grandmother) Alice Hill, married her cousin William Cooper. Alice’s sister Mary Jane married D’Arcy Wentworth’s grandson, Fitzwilliam Wentworth, making the irrepressible Bill Wentworth (1907–2003), the first federal minister for Aboriginal Affairs, Douglas’s second cousin. Given Douglas’s loathing of his Australian roots he probably never met Bill Wentworth. A pity, as the two men, both larger than life characters, may well have enjoyed each other’s company.

Original Publication

Citation details

Gerard Carney, 'Cooper, Arthur William Douglas (1911–1984)', People Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 16 June 2024.

© Copyright People Australia, 2012

Life Summary [details]


20 February, 1911
London, Middlesex, England


1 April, 1984 (aged 73)
London, Middlesex, England

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