THE paintings and the early photographs show a pretty little girl growing into a lovely young woman. She has red-gold hair, full lips and she looks at the camera with the steady level gaze of one who is already learning to notice and remark what she sees. She does not seem to smile much but the old sepia tints still capture to perfection the charming idyll of a happy and comfortable Edwardian childhood, with little Eileen and her elder sister Eva forever playing in the glorious garden wilderness that was their family home.

Their father, George Soper, an artist who was also a botanist with a fascination for flowers and trees and the countryside, bought the land in the first decade of the century, built a house for his wife, Ada, and his two daughters and they moved there in 1908. Eva was seven and Eileen just three. As much attention was paid to the planning of the garden as the house and it soon grew into a beautiful place with rare ferns and bamboo, beds of iris and roses, shrubbery and woodland and everywhere wild roses and clematis and wisteria riotously climbing through the trees.

It must have been a magical place to grow up, a difficult place, indeed, ever to leave to make your own way in the world and Eva and Eileen never did. They went out, of course, as children and initially they seemed an ordinarily happy family leading a conventional family life, but as they gradually grew older they retreated from what others would call the real world.

Their parents died and gradually the house, which Eileen had named ``Wildings'', became more ramshackle and the four acres of the garden more unmanageable. The wildlife haven that had been so carefully planted by George Soper became a jungle - though no less desirable to the animals and birds for that - and, in a way, the house became a sort of prison for the two ageing sisters, trapped as they were by the passage of time, by the passion they had developed for living creatures, and by fear of disease. They were not an ordinary couple of old spinsters by the time they died within a few months of each other in 1990. They were, on the contrary, distinctly odd and certainly unconventional - but they do seem to have been happy in their way.

One other governing feature of their lives was art. Their father was an accomplished painter and illustrator who enjoyed considerable fame before his death, aged 72, in 1942. He was an illustrator for periodicals and magazines, he illustrated scenes from the Boer War for the Graphic, he drew Red Indians for the Boys' Own Paper, he was commissioned to illustrate The Water Babies and Alice in Wonderland and Lamb's Tales from Shakespeare.

Best of all, he recorded in etchings and wood engravings a way of life in the countryside that was vanishing: his work is a marvellous evocative testament of the sights and scenes of rural Britain in the first half of this century. He taught himself almost entirely - and developed his skills, too, with the changes in illustrative artwork - and he taught his daughters: Eileen drew and painted and although Eva initially did as well, her main contribution was helping making etchings, running off the prints in the studio built as part of the house.

Shortly before the sisters died they had to be taken into care: Eileen into hospital with a ruptured blood vessel and Eva, too, because she was crippled with arthritis and had for many years been reliant solely on her younger sister for care. Inside the house, their advisers and friends found an extraordinary scene: it was impossible to move. The rooms were crammed with the accumulations of the family's life. They had kept everything: papers, letters, lawnmower repair bills from 70 years before, 3000 jam jars - kept so that they should not have been thrown on a rubbish dump by the local authority and thus constitute a risk for badgers cutting their paws - and paintings, sketchings and etchings, thousands of them.

There was one painting in particular which no-one could fail to notice. Most of them were in drawers and boxes and piles in the studio and around the house, mice were nesting everywhere in drawers and clothes and slippers and even eating some of the sketchbooks, but there was this one portrait on the easel. It had clearly been there for many years, although it had been painted long ago in 1925. It was of Eric Liddell, the Scottish Olympic sprinter, the legendary figure made more famous still years after his death by the portrayal of him in the film, Chariots of Fire.

Liddell's family was friendly with the Sopers and he stayed with them as a child; at a later point when he was in his early twenties he sat for her. No-one knows what happened, perhaps nothing; perhaps there was a youthful romance. But Eileen did write a poem ``To E.L'' which Duff Hart-Davis reproduces in his book, Wildings, published in 1991 after the sisters' deaths. She wrote much poetry, but this is the only example of anything remotely romantic. It is wistful; was it fantasy, who knows ? It describes a walk and how together they engraved the initials E and L lichen-deep (because loath to mar the beauty of the tree) with a silver key. The first verse reads:

``We walked the fields of June,

When lifting skies,

Blue as the speedwell, tossed

The white clouds flying

Over the hills rise.

There was a peewit crying.''

And it concludes:

``Progress has cleared

The sunken way.

On fallen leaves

The beech is lying.

Nothing remains of that fair day

Save a lonely peewit crying.''

Eric Liddell followed his calling to God, became a missionary in China, and died as a prisoner of the Japanese in 1945. There was something, however, that prompted Eileen to want his portrait within sight. Its presence had a startling effect on those who saw it, there in the midst of the chaos of 80 years, and one of them was the gallery owner Chris Beetles. Today he still shakes his head with wonder as he describes the house, dilapidated inside, overrun by the garden outside; tendrils from the creepers on the trellis outside holding the French windows together, welding them so that nothing opened. ``It was like something out of Sleeping Beauty,'' he recalls.

Beetles has now mounted an exhibition of over 1000 preliminary studies for etchings which opens at his London gallery next week. It follows a big exhibition last summer - when the Scottish National Portrait Gallery bought the painting of Liddell - an event which so moved one of the visitors that he bought the Sopers' house from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. Chris Beetles had been called in by those dealing with the sisters' estate to handle the extraordinary collection of artwork for their wills. He has always specialised in illustrators and was probably the only art expert capable of doing justice to what had happened at Wildings.

The sisters wanted their garden left to the RSPB and for the Artists' General Benevolent Institution to benefit from the sale of their work. Chris Beetles and an assistant Fiona Pearce have had the extraordinary task of sorting through all the papers, cataloguing the art work, handling the copyright and selling the many thousands of paintings and sketches on behalf of the beneficiaries.

Like her father, Eileen Soper was also immensely successful in the course of her own lifetime. You know her illustrations without realising it. She made her first etching when she was 13 and at the age of 15, in 1921, she became the youngest person ever to exhibit at the Royal Academy. She had two small prints accepted for exhibition and when it became known that she was still, really, a girl she became famous.

She exhibited again the following year and she became popular and famous on both sides of the Atlantic. She sold prints to Americans, to the Royal Glasgow Institute of Fine Arts and even, in 1924, to Queen Mary (for #4 14s 6d). The drawings are enchanting ones mostly of children, playing, running, on the swings, at the fair, on the sands. There is an economy of line but much movement and their success is not surprising.

It led to Eileen Soper becoming an established children's book illustrator, most famously for Enid Blyton. She was one of the most successful illustrators to work with the author, notably on the ``Famous Five'' books but in 24 years she worked on over 100 Enid Blyton publications. In 1950, Enid Blyton wrote to her collaborator enthusing about the artwork for Five Go off to Camp and adding: ``I have praised your illustrations, end-papers and jackets most fulsomely to Hodder and have said how l ucky it was that we hit on you at the beginning for this series, because a good artist really does help to `make' the series''.

She also wrote and illustrated some books of her own, pretty little sentimental stories with titles like Moles and Moonshine, Chuckles for Spring, and Frolic Fawn, although not all of them were published and she did a lot of work illustrating pamphlets on family health. She did not illustrate established classics, such as her father had done - although she did do Alice in Wonderland in 1947 - but throughout her life she worked tirelessly.

But her most serious and prolific output had animals as the subject; particularly latterly she became almost obsessed with badgers and with the muntjac deer which had arrived in the garden. She produced her own book about badgers - based on 500 hours of personal observation from night-time expeditions to various setts - and the house almost became an extension of the garden. The women had to protect themselves from the birds which made free in the house, disturbing papers on the desks, pecking at books, waking them; at night the badgers would sometimes come up to the house. We know this because Eileen was also an enthusiastic and energetic correspondent and conducted a number of friendships by letter.

But as the sisters grew older they retired even more from the world. One of the lessons they learned from their father was an irrational nervousness of disease and they lived all their lives under the shadow of this fear. They were terrified of catching anything, specifically cancer - which they could not even refer to by name but termed ``the dread disease'' - which they believed could be transmitted as an infection. It was to stop them visiting public places, going out, even from receiving visitors. When they recognised the handwriting on an envelope as that of a cousin whom they knew was suffering from cancer, they picked it off the doormat with tongs, laid it on the stone hearth, burned the doormat, and summoned help from a friend to open it.

It is a wonderful story, that of the Sopers: they were eccentric, but also content. They boiled their tea for 20 minutes to destroy the germs, boiled their clothes-pegs before they allowed them to contact their clothes - and allowed squirrels and mice and birds to eat from their hands and infest their house and possessions. They also created a wondrous place for wildlife in a changing world. And they saved it. The garden of Wildings has been left as a sanctuary for birds and animals, just as the sisters wanted it.