While beginning his career as an illustrator at the turn of the twentieth century, George Soper established a reputation as a painter and, especially, a printmaker of a wide range of rural subjects. In turn, his daughter, Eileen, was influenced by his skills and sympathies from an early age. George Soper was born in South Hornsey, Middlesex, on 2 May 1870, the fifth of seven children of the horticultural sundriesman, George Robert Soper, and his wife, Elizabeth (née Cogan). By 1881, he was living with his family at 1 Sandford Place, Hackney, though he was educated at a boarding school in Ramsgate, Kent.
From the mid 1880s, Soper lived with his family at 300 Amherst Road, Stoke Newington, and undertook an apprenticeship with the printer and stationer, George Sydney Waterlow. His fellow apprentices included Charles Robinson, the painter-illustrator brother of William Heath Robinson. His debut as an exhibiting artist occurred in 1890, when he had a painting accepted by the Royal Academy of Arts.
After a period of two years in the 20th Middlesex Artists’ Volunteers (1894-6), Soper began work as an illustrator with contributions to the children’s magazine, Golden Sunbeams, which appeared alongside those by Charles Robinson and members of Robinson’s circle.
Other periodicals that published his work, and especially images of war, in the early years of the twentieth century, included Lloyd’s Weekly News, The Graphic, The Captain and The Boy’s Own Paper. From 1897, he also illustrated books, beginning with children’s adventure and historical stories. It is possible that he was in a partnership with his brother, John, who has also served as a stationer’s apprentice, but, if so, then this was dissolved in 1900. In 1897, George Soper married Ada Lehany, the daughter of an Irish boot-maker, at St Mary’s, Stoke Newington, and they settled initially at 12 Palmers Green Villas, Southgate, Enfield. Ada gave birth to their elder daughter, Eva, in 1901, and – following the family’s move to Slades Hill, Enfield – to the younger prodigy, Eileen Soper, in 1905. In 1908, George moved his family out of London to Harmer Green, near Welwyn, in Hertfordshire. There he helped design a new home, at 42 Harmers Green Lane, which was originally called ‘Hill Lodge’, and renamed ‘Wildings’ by his daughters after his death. In its garden, he cultivated exotic plants.
In 1908, George Soper illustrated The Water Babies, the first of a number of classic gift books for Headley Brothers. His contributions to these volumes reveal his ambition to emulate a wide range of illustrators from Randolph Caldecott to Arthur Rackham.
In turning to work as a painter and printmaker, Soper continued to draw on his strengths as an illustrator in order to convey the maximum amount of information, especially that regarding the activities of the rural environment. His earliest dated prints were produced in 1911, and show views of Lanslebourg, a village in the French Alps, though most of his sketching tours would take him across England. In 1913, he exhibited his first etching, The Wash Tub, at the Royal Scottish Academy.
Some sources suggest that Soper took lessons in etching from Sir Frank Short as early as 1905. However, it is more likely that he first experimented alone with the medium, before studying printmaking with Short at the Royal College of Art during the years 1916-20. He worked extensively as a printmaker during the 1920s, and was elected an associate of the Royal Society of Painter-Etchers and Engravers in 1918, becoming a full member two years later.
George Soper continued to produce prints until 1940, but when the etching boom ended, he diversified his activities, and also supported his daughters in their artistic endeavours. He died on 13 August 1942.
The estate and copyright of George and Eileen Soper are in the care of the Chris Beetles Gallery through Longmores Solicitors on behalf of the AGBI. The gallery mounted a highly successful retrospective in June 1995, and followed it with a show devoted to Eileen’s achievement as a printmaker.