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Isabel Cooper at work in the Galapagos

Scanned from WCS Photo Collection (DTR)

Scanned from WCS Photo Collection (DTR)

Here is Isabel Cooper, my grandmother, at work on one of the Galapagos Islands, or possibly on Cocos Island, which is in the Pacific five hundred miles northeast of the Galapagos. Madeleine Thompson of the World Conservation Society shared this picture after I visited her at the Bronx Zoo last week.

Isabel is drawing or painting a frigatebird. This is from when she worked for the naturalist William Beebe on his 1925 Arcturus Expedition as a scientific artist. Most of her scientific art was done shipboard, drawing and painting hundreds of animals, mainly fish, pulled out of nets or caught by the expedition’s staff.

The Arcturus sailed on February 10, 1925, and Isabel boarded the ship in Newport News, a few days later. The expedition’s work included investigating the Sargasso Sea in the central Atlantic, and the Galapagos Islands and Cocos Island and the seas around them, including the Humboldt Current, in the Pacific. Isabel returned home to New York from Panama on July 1, 1925 after almost five months at sea. It was her second ship-based scientific expedition, and her seventh overall. The others took her to the jungle of British Guiana.

In her letters and other writing, it’s clear she liked sitting on a rock or stump, and drawing or painting her subjects. She wrote to Charles from off Indefatigable Island (Santa Cruz), “My procedure in this harbor is to go ashore early and mess around with feeble landscape sketching ‘till it gets too hot even for my sun-helmet, then return to the ship and work all day, except when I play hooky and read or talk or just keep cool in a bathing suit.” [Letter, Isabel Cooper to Charles D. Mahaffie, Sr., from Indefatigable Island, Galapagos, April 10, 1925.]

With the intense work she did over several months on board the Steam Yacht Arcturus, this may be a picture of her taking a break from illustrations of fish, her main work.

For a nice balance, here is a casual painting Isabel made for herself on the Arcturus Expedition also of frigatebirds. This is from the scrapbook she put together on her career.

ICM Frigate Birds Cocos 1925

[Our family curator, my niece Joanna Church, of the Baltimore Jewish Museum, likely will now clutch at her heart having noted the Scotch tape across the top and bottom of this family artefact. Born in 1892, Isabel thought Scotch tape, paper towels, and, of course, sliced bread, were marvels of civilization. I think she would have quite liked PostIt notes, too.]

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