William Delafield Cook (1936-2015)

May 15, 2015
William Delafield Cook, A haystack, 1978
William Delafield Cook, A haystack, 1978

In an article of 1979, Bryan Robertson, a curator who did much to advance the cause of Australian art in London, wrote that William Delafield Cook’s paintings seemed to have “no discernible ‘Australian’ qualities.” Yet Cook, who spent much of his career living and working in Britain, remained devoted to the Australian landscape, never showing the slightest interest in England’s green and pleasant fields.

The artist, who died in London on 29 March, after a short illness, proved that one can paint pictures of near photographic exactitude, and be as opaque as any Minimalist. Charming, urbane and softly spoken, Cook’s public persona was as immaculate as his paintings. Of all wellknown Australian expatriates, he was probably the best equipped for life in England. His adaptation began in 1962 when he married his English girlfriend, Sally Bovington. Bill and Sally would form an inseparable partnership, becoming one of the great double acts in world art. Add artist son, Jonathan (b.1965), and the Cooks were ready for any event, any occasion.

Like many people, I used to think of Bill and Sally as one indivisible entity. Although they made their home in England, they undertook frequent trips to Australia, living in Sydney and Melbourne for long periods. Deborah Hart, author of the definitive monograph on the artist, (popularly known as The Cook Book), refers to Australia as Cook’s “spiritual home”.

Cook tended to agree. “If I’m painting Australia,” he said, “… I’m painting, among other things, my thoughts, my childhood, my sense of place, where I belong.”

It is one of the paradoxes of Cook’s career that he ‘belonged’ in Australia, yet lived in England. Another mystery was his need to make work that was rigorously impersonal yet driven by an urgent need to enter into a dialogue with the past. Cook’s sense of history began with his grandfather, also named William Delafield Cook (1861-1931), a Melbourne landscape painter associated with the artists of the Heidelberg school.

As a young artist in Melbourne, Cook painted abstracts in emulation of the Parisian avant-garde. When he travelled to Europe in 1958 he was exposed to many different influences that would occupy him for the next decade, while he made a living teaching at British art schools.

Cook’s work continued to evolve in a hesitant way, showing the influence of Pop Art and a range of other styles until the late 1960s, when he decided to hone his skills by making detailed drawings of the furniture in the family home in Putney. These black-and-white drawings in charcoal and conté crayon helped Cook discover his artistic identity. He became a photographic realist, albeit with a strong Pop sensibility.

Having spent much of his early career as a teacher, Cook had a well-developed knowledge of art history that he utilised in a series of paintings of museum interiors. Perhaps the best example is A French Family (1978-80), which won the Sulman Prize at the Art Gallery of NSW in 1981. It depicts a wall in the Louvre with three Ingres portraits of members of the Rivière family.

A French Family (1978-80)

A French Family (1978-80)

Cook’s work came to wider attention through the Haystack paintings he began in the mid-1970s. The initial inspiration came not from Claude Monet but from an 1844 photograph by Henry Fox Talbot. In many ways Cook’s haystacks were a repudiation of Monet. Finely detailed and sharply lit, they were compared to Greek temples. The deadpan approach extended to the titles, with every work in the series being called A Haystack. The first haystack painting, from 1976, was purchased by the National Gallery of Australia, while the Queensland Art Gallery acquired a picture from 1981-82.

The Haystacks proved so popular that Cook could have continued painting them indefinitely, but he had other plans. In the 1980s, as he entered his fifties, he turned to the Australian landscape, producing paintings that added a new dimension to a wellworn genre. His views of hillsides and rocky outcrops combined classical, often symmetrical compositions with the intractable informality of the Australian bush. He was keenly alert to the effects of light, depicting hillsides wreathed in shadow against pale, bright skies.

Cook painted a typically deadpan view of Hanging Rock, the scene of Joan Lindsay’s novel, Peter Weir’s movie, and a painting of 1875 by John Ford Paterson. Many of Cook’s landscapes of the 1980s and 90s echo the pictures of the Heidelberg school, but with a mixture of glare and shadow unknown to those would-be Impressionists.

An interest in art history prompted Cook to follow in the footsteps of famous artists. He would paint his own version of Strath Creek Waterfall (1980), 118 years after Eugene von Guérard. Fascinated by the way a motif would change over time, Cook would revisit places he had painted himself only a few years previously.

A waterfall (Strath Creek) by William Delafield Cook

A waterfall (Strath Creek) by William Delafield Cook

Time was the artist’s enemy. His work tries to stop the clock, making moments last for eternity. He was the antithesis of the Impressionist who tries to record the subtle, fleeting effects of light; and utterly unlike the Expressionist, who filters his observations through his own – usually tortured – subjectivity. Cook’s paintings strive to be timeless, objective and monumental.

He used acrylics that gave his canvases a flat, dry appearance, well suited to views saturated in harsh Australian sunlight. Invariably he would produce these pictures in his London studio, working from photographs. It was another quirk of his methods that he felt the need to distance himself from a subject before beginning a large picture.

Cook never made any attempt to disguise his reliance on photography. On the contrary, it was fundamental to his manner of working and to the crisp, detailed appearance of his paintings. He sought a kind of anonymity in his work, even while painting on a large scale. It was as if he was revisiting the Romantic era and systematically draining the overwrought emotional content from these scenes. In place of the blend of fear and delight that Edmund Burke discerned in the Romantic Sublime, Cook substituted a cool, metaphysical frisson.

This feeling was enhanced by the absence of figures, as Cook refused to paint people. As a consequence many find his paintings cold and forbidding. For his admirers they are permeated with an eerie stillness, as if they depicted a world from which humanity has fled. Some viewers never get past the dazzling, painstaking technique which meant that some pieces took years to complete.

Undoubtedly the most shallow criticism of Cook’s work is that it is “old-fashioned” in its realism. More than almost any artist of his generation Cook demonstrated that realism is a style that continually reasserts itself anew. His paintings are intensely modern in their reliance on the camera and their refusal to use the landscape as a vehicle for sentiment. He will be forever known as a man of contradictions: a fastidious technician who played down the value of technique; a wholehearted Australian who chose to live in England; an artist who was in love with history but free of nostalgia.

William Delafield Cook is survived by his wife, Sally, his son Jonathan, his daughters Sarah and Cissy.

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday May, 2015