Matrix – Working with Olive Cook

The cover of Matrix 23

This article, written by Lucy Archer and originally published in Matrix 23, is an evocative and moving tribute to Olive Cook. I recognise so much of my own experience in working with – and being good friends with – Olive for many of the years. It is testament to Olive’s character that Lucy experienced the same convivial hospitality and enthusiasm that I remembered from my time spent with Olive.

Olive Cook by Edwin Smith (1946-47)

I first came across Olive in the Saturday Book, where the articles which she contributed over thirty years from 1942 until the early 1970s demonstrate her remarkable eye, the immense scope of her interests and her bound­ less capacity for enjoyment. Subjects included are as various as Etruscan gold wreaths, Rowlandson prints, French scenic wall­ papers, Victorian lantern slides, roundabout gallopers and Pears soap advertisements. By writing with characteristic enthusiasm about Staffordshire figures, shell pictures or seaside postcards she also did much to encourage a growing interest in the popular arts of the then unfashionable nineteenth century; her pieces on painting included an article devoted to the Pre-Raphaelites. Olive’s husband, the photographer Edwin Smith, was also a regular contributor and his photographs were frequently used to illustrate her text but it was his magnificent black and white architectural photographs, commissioned for the Gordon Fraser postcards of Oxford, which made a dramatic impression on me while I was an undergraduate in the late I 950s. Later I was captivated by the photogravure illustrations in the series of quarto volumes published by Thames and Hudson, where his poetic photographs and Olive’s perceptive commentary combined to inspire a new generation with an enthusiasm for English architecture.

Sadly I never met Edwin, who died in 1971 aged only fifty­ nine, but since then I have come to recognise something of his personality through close familiarity with his work. As Olive wrote in Edwin Smith: Photographs 1935-I971 (London, 1984),

‘Despite his reluctance ever to intrude upon the scene, we are conscious of Edwin’s presence in every photograph, conscious that we are looking through his bespectacled eyes, enriched through them with new and unimagined ways of seeing’. Always referred to as ‘My Darling’, he remained vividly alive in Olive’s conversation and his spirit was present in the house which was their joint creation. Their shared taste was evident in the profusion of delightful and unusual pictures and ornaments in every room. Objects would. be displayed with striking, sometimes surreal effect. My favourite was a pair of glove lasts set at the top of a high window in the book-lined studio, like disembodied hands with outstretched fingers raised to heaven or perhaps plummeting helplessly to earth.

I only got to know Olive herself towards the very end of her long life, when I was fortunate to have the chance of collaborating with her over the selection of no fewer than three hundred and fifty of Edwin’s photographs to illustrate a book I was writing on pre-Reformation architecture throughout England, Scotland, Wales and the whole of Ireland. When this daunting undertaking was first commissioned by Collins, it seemed vital to use pictures which would provide much more than just practical information, images in which, as Olive was to write in Matrix 18, ‘…record becomes both art and revelation’. ‘Photography has immensely enriched our knowledge and understanding of architecture’, she wrote in the same article: ‘the camera in the hands of a photographer who is himself moved by the imaginative power of a great building can inspire the spectator of his print with the ardour and insight of his own response.’

I felt that Edwin Smith’s exceptional photographs would provide precisely what I wanted and so I wrote to Olive to ask whether it might be possible to use them in this case. Her reply was characteristically encouraging and led to my first visit to the Coach House in 1985, when we had an excellent lunch and much congenial talk among the exuberant jungle of rampant vegetation in the conservatory. After that there was a hiatus. Collins was taken over and in due course the division responsible for my book went independent and became the Harvill Press. It was not until 1995 that Olive and I began our task, which lasted on and off for about two years.

Working with Olive allowed unlimited time for talk on every subject under the sun. I would arrive around ten o’clock and we always started with plenty of chat over coffee at the kitchen table. Then we went up to the studio and gave our undivided attention to the photographs which she laid out in rows all over the floor. We assessed about thirty to forty images at a time, advancing chronologically from prehistory to the close of the Middle Ages. Before each session Olive had got out a range of suitable views of the buildings or architectural features mentioned in my text. Edwin had travelled almost everywhere and if, as occasionally happened, he had not photographed the building I had singled out, we seldom had problems finding a comparable one to illustrate. Olive would disappear into the strictly private sanctum where the archive was kept; no one else was ever allowed in there. Her retrieval system worked perfectly and she would be back with the photo­ graph she wanted within a few minutes. There were hard decisions to take. Did one choose the more poetic view or the one which conveyed more information about the building in question? Must one reluctantly leave out an irresistible photograph because it duplicated another which was already making the same point? A letter which she enclosed with an additional print she posted on 2nd March 1999 illustrates this balancing of considerations:

‘I hope you will like this photograph of Cashel, though it shows little of Cormac’s Chapel. It does include the Round Tower and St Patrick’s Cross and the marvelous siting of the broken building against the passionate [indecipherable word] sky. The landscape photograph shows more but it is less atmospheric and also might be difficult to accommodate.’ Years of experience of layout and production lay behind all suggestions. We never found it difficult to reach agreement in our selection, though I did have some qualms about just one of Olive’s choices. This is a view of the famous twisted spire of Chesterfield seen rising most inconspicuously on the skyline in the background of a photograph entirely dominated by a handsome black and white cow. Olive said that every book needs some variety! On the same principle, I noticed that when she arranged flowers in a vase there was always one non-conformist bloom, perhaps in a clashing colour or taller than all the rest.

Olive loved ‘the mediaeval world, its all-embracing celestial vision and the security of its ancient limitations’ (Matrix 20). Her amazing memory was as impressive as the breadth of her knowledge and her insights into all aspects of the buildings we were considering.

‘Here is the photograph of Launcells’, she wrote to me on 11 February 1999· ‘I remember there was a sacred well quite close to the church and at that time (now 40 years ago!) one or two people had hung little torn pieces of cloth on a bush beside the well, as the Irish do, to invoke the saintly intervention in cases of illness or accident.’ A letter she wrote after we had been telling her about a holiday on Exmoor in October 2001 sums up her impressive ability to summarise the essentials: ‘It made me long to revisit Dunster for I am horrified to find that though I remember the wonderful aspect and atmosphere of the little town, the market cross and the view of the castle, I can’t recall any details of the interior of the castle except for one of the most sumptuous plaster ceilings I have ever seen and I could not describe more of the priory church than the tower and the screen’.

The lengthy periods spent assessing and selecting the photographs for the book were tiring for her but, as always, she resolutely resisted help and it was some time before she would trust me to gather up each batch in the right order and re-carpet the floor with the next half-dozen rows. Picking our way between the photographs was quite tricky; I reverently removed my shoes but once or twice I came across a print with Olive’s rubber-soled footprint on the corner.

At about midday she would go downstairs to finish cooking and we sat down to the three-course meal she considered essential. We ate in the kitchen; the precarious conservatory was out of bounds by this time. Her vegetarian or fish dishes were invariably delicious and generously laced with garlic, which came wafting home with me when I got back in the evening. Lunch took a long time because there was so much to talk about and it was over meals that Olive would range widely over her copious reminiscences where she had total recall. This was just the period when she had become a regular contributor to Matrix and the subjects she covered in her articles were among her many fascinating topics of conversation. She talked about her childhood, schooling and undergraduate years in Cambridge, where her father worked at the University Library. Then there were memories of life in Hampstead, working on publications at the National Gallery under Kenneth Clark, the precious years of her life and work with Edwin and anecdotes about numerous artists and friends.

Events in the distant past came back to her with the utmost clarity and the conversation would go off at a tangent as enjoyable recollections occurred to her. She spoke of the paintings displayed week by week in the entrance hall at the National Gallery and the lunchtime concerts held there, both of which did so much to keep up the morale of Londoners during the war. People whose lives had once touched hers, perhaps only briefly, came instantly to life. There were the ladies from the country who came up to town to cook lunch in the canteen set up for the concert-goers, which later catered for war workers and civil servants as well and had she said, a wonderful friendly atmosphere. There were Harrison the printers who always delivered the concert programmes by 10a.m. and without mistakes; they did not even fail on the morning after they had been bombed during the night. There was a most affecting vignette of the heartbroken mezzo soprano Elena Gerhardt, persuaded not to cancel her performance on the day Dresden was bombed and singing as the tears ran down her cheeks. Olive remembered the scientific advisor Ian Rawlins, who masterminded the evacuation of the National Gallery’s paintings to the Manod Quarry in Wales with consummate skill and the head warder she described as a British Israelite, who taught him­ self Welsh in the hope of converting the population of Ffestiniog while he was there. Then of course there were her stories about Kenneth Clark. Olive got on very well with him and she quoted him telling her she talked with such energy that he could hardly keep up with her.

The exhibitions of recent British painting held at the National Gallery, the changing display of work by Britain’s war artists and the ‘Recording Britain’ scheme, initiated by Kenneth Clark and organised by Arnold Palmer from an office in the basement, all brought Olive into contact with a great many contemporary painters. Her remarkable capacity to analyse and evaluate whatever she looked at, and then encapsulate it in words, is seen very clearly in her descriptions of the patterned papers designed by Tirzah Garwood (Matrix I0) and Peggy Angus (Matrix I6). Her contacts with artists she admired continued when she became English representative of the Carnegie Institute from 1952 to 1964. Later in 1985 she was a prime mover in setting up the Fry Gallery in Saffron Walden with its important collection of the work of the artists of north-west Essex. Even in old age she continued to make use of her sure eye for artistic ability, encouraging both painters she admired and new talent she had spot­ ted to exhibit work at the Gallery’s Annual Picture Sale.

Olive resigned from the National Gallery in order to have more time for her own writing and painting. She had contribute to the ‘Recording Britain’ scheme and went on to win second prize in a painting competition in Sicily in 1952. Her impressions of the months she spent in Agrigento are vividly described in her introduction to Walter Hoyle’s ‘To Sicily with Edward Bawden’, published by the Previous Parrot Press in 1998. She had many affectionate memories of the friendship of the local people and a painted board from a Sicilian cart still hung on her kitchen wall half a century later. In 1956 she became a visiting tutor at Denman College near Abingdon, running painting and architecture courses for the Women’s Institute. As well as painting, Olive had a special gift for collages, which gave vigorous expression to her unfailing enthusiasm for visual delight wherever she found it.

These pictures were put together with practised certainty and many were dashed off at great speed as birthday and Christmas cards for her friends. They made use of cut-out pieces or torn off fragments of every kind of hoarded item made of paper or card and when she wrote in April 2001 to thank me for a present I had brought back from India, I realised why she added: ‘I treasure the paper bag in which it is wrapped’ .

Olive also continued to paint throughout her life but she is much better known as a writer and especially for the architectural books she produced in collaboration with her husband Edwin Smith, whom she married in I 954. He originally trained as an architect, saw himself primarily as a painter, but made his living and his reputation as a photographer. They met in Hampstead, when he became the tenant of the top floor fiat in the house where she was living. She often told the story of their first encounter, when she saw his bare legs going up the stairs and was ‘deeply moved’. Olive’s memories featured numerous artists, such as Stanley Spencer and Hilda Carline. She and Edwin befriended Stanley Spencer, who she said was dreadfully lonely after he had parted from Hilda. They used to go to Cookham on Sundays and while Olive cooked lunch, Edwin would help Stanley pin up his pictures in progress; there was not enough fiat wall space and Edwin was good at attaching them neatly where they ran round the corners of the room. Among their Essex friends were many of the Great Bardfield painters, including Tirzah Garwood (Matrix I0), her husband Eric Ravilious, Edward Bawden and Sheila Robinson.

Olive often reminisced about staying with Peggy Angus at Furlongs in Sussex, which she described as ‘a centre, now legendary, of creativity and conviviality’ (Matrix 16). There was the enchanting camaraderie of singing and dancing in home-made fancy dress at the ‘midsummer revels’ round a dewpond in a hollow on the downs or walking across the muddy November fields to the Bonfire Night celebrations at Firle and returning home with boisterous jollity in the moonlight (The Saturday Book No.17, 1957). The acute physical discomfort in the little brick and flint house, which included the two ‘picturesque and purgatorial privies’, was all part of the Furlongs experience. Edwin once found a field mouse nesting in their bedding and carried it carefully outside to a place of safety. It was he who eventually insisted that when they next visited, they should go and sleep at the pub. Another favourite destination was Southwold and Olive most evocatively described ‘the special character of this Suffolk seaside town where, during the early years of our marriage, Edwin and I used to spend a summer month or two’ (Matrix 17)· Their affection for East Anglia determined that when they came to move out of London in 1962, they looked eastwards and settled in Saffron Walden. Their first house was off the top of the High Street but after through traffic was routed down it, their road became too noisy and so they bought the Coach House on the northern edge of the town, at the end of a long drive and looking out on to open fields.

When they first married they travelled everywhere by bicycle and train and only gave in and bought a car when Edwin lost patience after all his photographic equipment had fallen off the bicycle carrier into the road on the way from Hampstead to Liverpool Street Station. Their Thames and Hudson book on English Cottages and Farmhouses, published in 1954, was an elegiac cele­bration of England’s rustic vernacular architecture. Olive remembered with pleasure the hospitality of the owners of these delightful and unspoiled buildings, who would ask them into their homes and sometimes insist that they stayed the night. Even at the time they were both painfully aware that in a few years ‘that tradition and the reassuring sense of continuity it engendered’ (Matrix 19) would have vanished for ever. Olive often spoke of her distress at the twentieth-century destruction of the natural world and the threatened future of the planet. Everything has a beginning, a middle and an end, she used to say, and our civilisation is heading for extinction. Fortunately even this gloomy conviction could not destroy her zest for life. After she had accidentally set fire to her kitchen inI 997, she was entranced by the amazing spectacle of the burnt-out room and the smooth velvety texture of the black pall which defined every object: and coated every surface. Small domestic felicities gave her great satisfaction.’I have put the flowers in a blue jug with amoretti in relief on it,’ she wrote on 8 April 2001.

‘The tulips stand out, they are so rich in colour, and so EARLY’. Perfectionism was part of her nature, even at the age of eighty-eight.

‘Some shingle was delivered this morning in a great pile’, she told me on 1 July 2000, ‘and I am exhausted after spreading it and cross because the stones are the wrong colour’. The baneful effects of twentieth-century prairie farming quite literally affected her daily outlook. ‘I look through my windows . . . across a sweep of almost hedgeless fields’, she wrote (Matrix 19). ‘The fields, once a patchwork of diverse crops, delighting the eye with contrasts of colour, have been uniformly planted with rape’. It was a bleak and featureless prospect: from the kitchen window but her garden, with its weathered statues and luxuriant greenery, was a constant pleasure. ‘Isn’t it wonderful to have snow?’, she wrote on 30 December 2000. ‘Before it came primulas were out and now a little purple cluster still braves the cold and defies the snow right opposite the front door’.

After lunch, if we felt we had done enough for the day, we would take the afternoon off and set out for a drive to visit some of the local places which were special to her. Not having a car herself, she enjoyed these excursions and it added an extra dimension to one’s own interest and pleasure to experience them in her company. Olive had no religious belief but she loved churches.

‘It was such pure pleasure’, she wrote in May 1998, after we had visited one of her favourite Saxon buildings, ‘on that shining afternoon. I always feel refreshed and exhilarated after a visit to Strethall, the high solitary place and the beautiful articulation of the little church are so moving.’ She responded to countryside with equal intensity and wrote the following April that ‘I thought the landscape at Tilty seen through the sun-shafted rain was altogether enchanting.’ Olive fought fiercely for the preservation of both buildings and landscape. Her life was enriched by art, architecture, literature, music and friend­ ship. I think of her as an agnostic. ‘If there’s nothing out there,’ she once said to me, ‘why is it that all the things one minds about matter so much?’

When we got back from these expeditions Olive would insist on tea and cake before my journey home. The talk continued unabated and it was always a wrench to drag myself away. Throughout this time we also corresponded. Her earliest communications were letters (always in brown envelopes) but after we got to know each other she took to writing on old picture postcards, some from Edwin’s Gordon Fraser series, or more often on the backs of his actual photographs. On one of these she commented that ‘This picture of Trinity could be a full-page illustration for your next volume.’

Other missives used the blank side of a page from an illustrated bird book and a cardboard mount with a watercolour of a man astride a pedalless bicycle. Whatever they were written on, her letters were invariably affectionate, enthusiastic and very much to the point. Although I did not know it at the time, Olive was eighty-three when we began work together. She told me she had found it very difficult to come to terms with the shock of Edwin’s early death; she said that she went to pieces afterwards and would not face up to it. Then she had a serious road accident when she was knocked off her bicycle and badly injured. The surgeon who patched her up said to her: ‘Your life’s a miracle, now you must make something of it’ and that was when she began to pull herself together. By the time I knew her she had trouble with walking because of painful arthritic knees, while an agonisingly aching shoulder, the legacy of her accident, prevented her from getting any proper sleep at night. Her deteriorating eyesight was an anxiety too; yet her energy was phenomenal and she continued to work in a very disciplined and highly productive way. Her zest for life remained irrepressible. ‘I haven’t been in touch, (though I think of you VERY often) because I am having a lot of trouble with my shoulder and for the first time FEEL as well as know that I am fast heading for the tomb’, she wrote on 14 August 1998 but added: ‘a great nuisance just when the weather is at last so exquisitely seasonal and when there is so much I want to do’. She always had new work coming in and her immediate reaction to any request for her to write something or to make Edwin’s photographs available was to agree and go out of her way to help. She invariably made guests warmly welcome, throwing herself into enjoying their visits with her infectious enthusiasm and bursts of gleeful laughter. Her life was filled with a phenomenal number of friends and she was unstinting and single­minded in her affection for them all. She relished the company of the young and often recounted the clever and interesting things her friends’ children had said or done. How did she remember it all? I think it was because of her exceptional interest and emotional involvement in all the concerns of those she loved.

Lucy Archer’s Book, with photographs by Edwin Smith

Architecture in Britain and Ireland 600-1500 was published by the Harvill Press in October 1999, less than three years before Olive’s death. It was designed and typeset in Minion by the Libanus Press and was beautifully produced, both casebound and in paperback. At my request Olive had written the Foreword, where she expressed our shared belief that ‘it is both salutary and reassuring to look at our present and into our future out of the past.’

‘It is a source of wonder’, she wrote, ‘that despite overpopulation and development on a scale unimaginable in the Middle Ages, despite destruction and neglect, philistinism and misguided restoration, so much survives to make its consoling and affecting visual impact.’ The book was well received and it was the greatest satisfaction to us both that so many reviewers responded with delight to Edwin’s ‘warm and romantic eye’.

Lucy Archer’s book is available from Amazon. It contains a wonderful collection of some of Edwin Smith’s best photographs and an absorbing and informative text.

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