A raw look at our cultural landscape

Julian Cooper's powerful paintings subvert the traditions of his celebrated family and challenge the way we look at nature
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White-out conditions on Mont Blanc have put paid, for the present at least, to an English artist's hopes of pushing plein-air painting in oils to new limits. Instead of capturing the spirit of the notorious Brenva face on his 5ft square canvas, Julian Cooper was confined to a high mountain hut for five days with six morose German soldiers for company.

The 50-year-old Cumbrian ventured out once last week, but the soft snow was waist deep, far too dangerous conditions for attempting a climb to his planned belvedere at 3,500 metres. At the hut he worked on smaller oils, until the fumes from the turps almost choked him in his unventilated alpine quarters.

Cooper's technique, developed on mountain painting trips to Peru and the Scottish Highlands, is to climb with his studio in a ski-bag. For an easel, he anchors a frame made of tent poles to boulders or snow "bollards". A canvas is bulldog-clipped to the frame and he begins to paint with yard- long brushes, returning day after day to work on the picture, trying to translate the anima within the rock and ice through his muscular strokes.

The results can be as uncomfortable for the viewer as conditions can be for Cooper. Tension between man and the rest of nature is a recurrent theme. On Mt Blanc, he had hoped to paint the skiers who traverse the high glaciers in summer, almost oblivious of the grandeur of the natural playground. "In a way, we are all clinically mad. We are perched on this very fragile environment called Earth and yet we carry blithely on debasing it. We are sawing off the branch we are sitting on," he says.

Cooper recoils from the notion of himself as an environmental evangelist. However, the label could be applied, with protest, to his friend and collaborator Terry Gifford, a poet and senior lecturer in English at Bretton Hall College, Leeds University. Gifford believes that, though we are an urbanised society, we still crave contact with nature to "touch base and get a fix on the seasons".

Why else do 250,000 people travel by car to the Lake District on a summer weekend? Why do we cultivate window boxes? Why does the gritty Labour veteran Dennis Skinner watch when the blossom appears on a particular magnolia tree by the Serpentine in Hyde Park and when the leaves fall? Because we are part of it.

Perplexing browsers at the Old Court House Gallery in Cooper's home town of Ambleside is a 4ft 6in by 6ft oil on paper showing an auburn-haired woman on a balcony watching television. On the screen are the skyscrapers of Houston - a frame from the film Paris, Texas - while brooding in the dusk background is a craggy-topped fell and gathering storm clouds. The balcony is Cooper's own. So, in a sense, is the crag, Loughrigg, which lours in several of his works. The painting, entitled Paris, Texas, expresses his belief that the human race, or at least the Westernised part of it, is "poised between two worlds". Television even provides our experience of nature, while outside the real thing lies ignored or used as a consumerist accessory.

The scion of painters, Julian Cooper has been a rebel, trying to shake off the stylistic baggage of his father and grandfather. The soft-hued watercolours produced by his father, William Heaton Cooper, have probably proved more potent in fixing an image of the Lake District in many minds than the sight of the green fell-sides themselves. But the primordial rock of Julian's canvases bears scant similarity to these tourist-friendly, highly saleable landscapes. An abstractionist at Goldsmith's College, London, before moving on to large-scale figure painting, the young Cooper also dropped "Heaton" from his professional name. He is, however, a director of the family paintings and prints studio in Grasmere.

Each Whitsun, Cooper and and Gifford head for the Scottish Highlands together, camp for a few days in a corrie, climb a route of not too strenuous grade, and practise their respective crafts. The poet has the easier task and often finds himself writing about his companion - "the artist's fingers feeling his way up the Earth's hard core" - exploring the form of the rock he will try to paint. Last month their route was Hanging Dyke, on the south side of Ben Macdui in the Cairngorms. Away from the popular trails, they were the only people in its vicinity. Without going solo, ropeless and tentless it is about as raw a contact with nature as Britain offers.

For Cooper, the excursions can be a bit fraught. Not only has the weather ruined his efforts - a 6ft by 5ft canvas of Beinn Lair was physically washed away - but, unlike the poet, he is not a regular climber. "I experience real fear, particularly beforehand," he says. The rational part of him says it is "mad" to carry on in his fifties, but of course he will.

Ask the painter and poet if they come back with any message from these "shamanic" journeys to the mountains and diffidence sets in. First, they go for the sheer enjoyment of place and each other's company and craft. But there is, too, a getting close to the earth and a non-hubristic sense of man's place in things that comes through in their work. "We certainly don't return with a didactic message," says Gifford. "All we can do is contribute another little shift of sensibilities in our culture. If we were to start declaiming, we would cease to be artists and become politicians."

Gifford's crusade as an academic is to rescue nature poetry from the sentimentality and escapism of the "Georgian poets" of the early 20th century - those who, like WH Davies, urged us to find "time to stand and stare" at squirrels hiding their nuts. Man was simply an idle observer of nature, not a part of it. The parallel between WH Davies's pastoralism and the comfortable landscapes of WH Cooper at his most banal is hard to miss.

Travelling home across France yesterday, Julian Cooper was able to reflect ruefully on the powerful natural forces which late 20th century society knows mainly through a TV screen. Two weeks and 2,000 miles of driving wasted and artistic endeavour frustrated. He and Gifford will continue in their gentle way to open minds, but perhaps there is no substitute for raw experience.

Gifford tells a story about a group from a Liverpool comprehensive on a course in the Yorkshire Dales. On the first night, Gifford took the sixth-formers for a walk and got them to gaze at the stars. After two minutes of lying on their backs in snow staring upwards, one demanded: "But why haven't we got stars like this in Liverpool?"

Terry Gifford is co-author of 'The Blue Bang Theory: New Nature Poetry' (Redbeck Press, pounds 6.95).