A very brief history and case evolution of J. Cooper & Sons
Given the queries raised by people contacting me I thought it would be useful to outline roughly the position regarding the fish taxidermy produced by John Cooper and his later relatives, I will illustrate some of the cases so that the changes to groundwork and case structure can be seen- therefore the reader should gain an estimation as to whether the cases they are looking at are genuine and from what era.
The earliest known cases prepared by John Cooper are from around 1840, there are very distinctive labels however these will not be covered here. The earliest cases tended to be very basic, the reeds and groundwork were so simple that they may confuse someone as to whether these are indeed genuine Cooper cases. In addition, the earliest cases tend to be ‘flat fronted’ and most were not gold written with bow fronted cases and ‘wrap around’ glass coming later.
Many of the earliest cases will not have the original glass as naturally, over a 170 year period, these will have been broken. Original glass adds to the value, and is an essential requirement for some collectors. Original glass can be identified as it tends to appear rippled and also contain air ‘seeds’. If the glass appears to be totally flat and perfect then it is almost certainly not original.
The early fish themselves were rarely painted, fins on roach, rudd and perch may have been reddened and trout may have had their spots painted in but, by and large, the fish were merely varnished resulting nowadays in a ‘traditional’ light brown finish- not seen as particularly attractive to some but hugely collectable to others.
Bow fronted cases, and also wrap around glass, became more popular, and was far more expensive than flat glass, from around the 1870s and onwards. Cases can present in many ways, most have gilt edged glass, most have a Cooper label at the back of the case (top left or right usually, occasionally on the roof of the case) but sometimes with no Cooper label at all-have a look for a glue mark at the top, if you see that and no label have a look in the reeds as often the label will peel off over time.
Some cases will have no details of the fish shown, not as illogical as it seems as most anglers will have known how big the fish was and what it weighed/when they caught it, some have hand written labels and some have gold written details on inside of the glass. All these ‘extras’ would have been charged for by Cooper and so many chose to avoid them, the gilt edging/lettering is real gold leaf-not some cheap substitute-and needs a skilled craftsman to achieve the results and was charged for by the letter, so it paid to have a short surname! Most Cooper lettering is easily identifiable.
The groundwork, which many correctly maintain is almost as important as the fish itself, continued to evolve and for me Coopers were at their best during the 1890s toward the end of the Victorian era. Moving on through the First World War years naturally general materials were in short supply so many cases are not gold lined and also numerous cases were only half reeded, the other half being a painted background-basically any case between around 1914 and 1919 could have been pieced together with what was available so there are no ‘rules’.
All cases from the earliest days will quite often have noticeable cracks in the backboard-especially the long cases such as the pike where there may be more than one crack-this is not unusual and is merely the wood boards used separating/cracking slightly-these will let in dust and possibly spiders, ideally some tape should be run down the back to stop this occurring.
Rare wartime case of dace and two ruffe-again note lack of reeds and also lack of gilt edging.
Beautiful Crucian carp from the early 1920s-again note the change of backboard colour more toward the 'Aqua' colours
The glass used in any of the cases is never glued in place by taxidermists, the tape and paste used alone is more than robust enough to hold the glass in place, please never be tempted to put any glue on the glass as this makes it almost impossible to renovate, refurbish and re-tape.
The move into the 1920s started to see the fish being painted and given a more realistic finish, the background colour moved from a light sky blue more to an aqua finish in keeping with the period at the time. For a short time in around 1932/1933 the fish were given a green wash over their backs before Cooper sold out to Griggs in 1934.
The company still traded as Cooper but, with Griggs’ influence, the fish started to be painted more heavily and again resulting in some superb late 1930s ‘aqua’ cases which are sought after- this evolved further through the Second World War-unsurprisingly again there was a shortage of materials for the cases and so these can be more unpredictable.
From 1945 onwards Griggs took the cases into what are currently the most sought after scale painted ‘conifer’ cases. These cases, rather than being reeded in the usual manner, used conifers instead of grasses for reeds and appear very simple but the fish themselves evolved with further more detailed painting. The results of these fish are some stunning cases if they have been kept out of direct sunlight, these cases appear to be as fresh as if they had been prepared yesterday. Probably at his peak the cases from around 1949 to 1952 continue to see huge demand. If these cases have been kept in sunlight or the wrong conditions then the colours can fade badly and become very difficult to restore and are far less valuable.
Early Griggs roach from the mid 1930s-again early signs of basic scale painting.
Lovely Griggs common carp from around 1950-really showing the scale painting for which this period is known.
Griggs chub from the early 1950s again showing the paint work being used at this time.
A very late Griggs case of two tench-1960 so one of the last-note no Cooper label and the common use of a plaque rather than gold writing.
These cases continued up to around 1960 when J. Cooper & Sons ceased trading, in the final years there are no Cooper labels in the cases so this should not cause concern. Also, Griggs tended to use hardboard for the back of the case, again this cheap material has fooled many people into thinking that the cases are not genuine but, in reality, cases have always been built using the cheapest materials available at the time-these days modern cases being made out of MDF are not a surprise and no doubt Cooper would have used such material had it been available to him all those years ago. I hope that this summary and also the associated photographs will give everyone a chance to feel a little more confident when looking at cases for the first time but, if in any doubt, please contact me at any time and I will be more than happy to comment on any photographs you send through.