Samuel Joshua Cooper (1830-1913) was born in Barnsley, Yorkshire. He was the son of a prosperous colliery owner and linen manufacturer. On the death of his father he inherited a considerable fortune, leading to his early retirement. He lived primarily at Mount Vernon, near Barnsley but also owned Cowick Hall, near Snaith, where part of his collection was also kept. Between 1862 and 1912 he formed the collection now at the Cooper Art Gallery, Barnsley. Several nineteenth-century French and Italian paintings were acquired by Cooper during his frequent visits to Europe. He bought these either from dealers or from the annual official exhibitions and salons held in these countries. Several works are also known to have come from a local dealer, Edmund Bates in Leeds. Although it is known that he acquired the majority of nineteenth-century works between 1862 and 1891, as these are detailed and recorded in a notebook written by him dated 1891, it is not known when he purchased the old master paintings and, therefore, he may have either inherited them from his father or acquired them after the notebook was written.
The original bequest comprised 275 paintings and drawings, over half of which were continental. There are a number of Dutch old master paintings of a high quality, but it is the French works that predominate in the collection. These are in the main works by academic Salon painters but also include a number of examples by Diaz and Isabey, painters from the Barbizon School. On his death Cooper bequeathed the paintings to a board of trustees with the provision that they establish a public art gallery in Barnsley.