‘Birthplace of the Co-op’ immortalised in new painting by Stephen Campbell

A new painting of Toad Lane in Rochdale, the site of the very first co-operative food store, has been unveiled in Manchester. ‘Birthplace of the Co-op’ by Stephen Campbell was...

A new painting of Toad Lane in Rochdale, the site of the very first co-operative food store, has been unveiled in Manchester.

‘Birthplace of the Co-op’ by Stephen Campbell was commissioned this year by David J. Thompson, a US-based author and active co-operator, and is now hanging in the reception area of the Co-op Group’s Angel Square.

David Thompson was born in Blackpool, England, to parents who worked for the Blackpool Industrial Co-operative Society. He emigrated to the United States in 1962 and is now president of California’s Twin Pines Cooperative Foundation.

He is the author of Weavers of Dreams: Founders of the Modern Cooperative Movement and over 400 articles about co-operatives. He was inducted into the US Cooperative Hall of Fame in 2010.

“I have a long-standing interest in northern English artists,” said Mr Thompson, whose mother, Una, introduced him and his brother Philip to painters L.S. Lowry and Helen Bradley at an early age.

In the late 1970s, Mr Thompson wrote to Helen Bradley and asked her if she would do a painting of a co-op. Ms Bradley wrote back that she would so immediately as she had fond memories as a child of shopping at the Lees store of the Oldham Co-op. The result was ‘Friday Afternoon at the Co-op’, one of her last paintings.

In 1994 another painting of Toad Lane, ‘The Spirit of Cooperation’ was created by a Leeds-based artist Trevor Stubley (1932-2010), to mark the 150th anniversary of the original shop, which started trading on 21 December 1844.

Trevor Stubley's 'The Spirit of Cooperation'
Trevor Stubley’s ‘The Spirit of Cooperation’

Mr Thompson spotted Stephen Campbell’s distinctive style on the Clark Art website, and “was attracted to its unique artistic qualities”.

“In early 2016, I contacted Mr Campbell and inquired whether he would do a painting of the original Co-op Shop at Toad Lane. The artist immediately said yes and has produced a truly memorable depiction of the ‘Birthplace of the Co-op’.”

Born in 1985, Stephen Campbell grew up in of Salford and in 2007  was awarded a BA (Hons) in Interactive Arts by Manchester Metropolitan University. He makes his paints in his studio using his own recipes, and keeps the materials as environmentally friendly as possible.

The 36 x 24″ painting uses his trademark distorted perspectives, and its depiction of the site includes two blocks of flats – two of the ‘Seven Sisters’ that are part of Rochdale Boroughwide Housing, an independent multi-stakeholder housing co-operative.

“Even though my paintings have a fish eye lens feel about them, I don’t just copy from a photo directly,” said Mr Campbell. “I prefer to paint on location and I did so on this occasion.

“My approach to painting is all about context and putting the viewer in the location; to ignore the buildings and area around the museum I thought would be too nostalgic so I chose to make the original shop the main part of the painting surrounded by its accompanying buildings and the flats in the background, which I thought were very important to the outcome – representing something of the original roots of the co-operative and involving Rochdale of the 21st Century.”

Mr Campbell visited the area several times, and spent time in the museum. “I enjoyed learning about the start of the co-operative movement,” he said. “It is a philosophy I admire and I am proud that it started in Rochdale.”

'Birthplace of the Co-op' at its current home in Angel Square
‘Birthplace of the Co-op’ at its current home in Angel Square

David Thompson contacted the Co-op Group, and CEO Richard Pennycook took up the offer to display the painting. Mr Thompson has offered the Group the opportunity to steward the painting for two years and make it available to themselves and others to display.

“As long as there are places in Britain that want to show it, then as far as I am concerned they can,” he said.

“I think it is key to find a British shepherd to oversee the painting’s journey over the next two years. At the end of the two years, I would likely bring it to the US for a similar round of public showings. At some point I would be open to an arrangement where one of the co-operative groups in the UK would be the permanent steward of the painting.”

Mr Campbell has suggested there may be opportunity to purchase prints of the painting in the future, although this is still undecided.

“The story of Toad Lane is one of the great stories of shared endeavour,” said Ed Mayo, secretary general of Co-operatives UK. “It is wonderful that thanks to the efforts of David and the work of this artist, we have a new re-telling of the story on canvas.”

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