Olive Cook

Olive Cook 1912-2002

Reprinted from Saffron Walden Historical Journal No 4 Autumn 2002

Olive Cook, writer, historian, artist and passionate campaigner died on 2 May 2002 at Radwinter Road Hospital. She was one of the positive forces in our small community and her death has impoverished this little town. Olive has been a quintessential English woman who loved her native land in an informed and all embracing way and was prepared to fight to preserve what was of lasting value and cultural or historical importance. Her ideas and aspirations were often well ahead of her time.

Olive Cook was born in Cambridge on 20 February 1912 and educated at Perse School for Girls and Newnham College, where she studied modern languages. From 1937 she worked as a Supervisor of Publications for the National Gallery. She became friends with many artists and started painting herself.  Soon after the war she wrote Suffolk (1948), Cambridgeshire: aspects of a county (1953), and Breckland (1956). Those publications reveal Olive’s feel for the countryside and an exceptional awareness of beauty.

In 1954 Olive married the love of her life, the photographer and architect Edwin Smith, and together they produced some outstanding books which not only depict and inform about the wonders of English architecture, but also reveal the complex social and cultural forces that created such heritage. Edwin Smith’s stunning photographs are perfectly matched by Olive’s immaculately researched writing. Her prose is deceptively accessible, yet the writer has a gift of sharing with the readers her considerable knowledge of subject matter, as well as her feelings and passion for the theme she is writing on.  Books such as: English Cottages and Farmhouses (1954), The English House Through Seven Centuries (1968), English Abbeys and Priories (1960), English Cathedrals (1989) are well worth reading as they are classics of their genre.

Olive Cook and her husband moved to Saffron Walden in 1962 first into one of the tall, red-bricked houses on the corner of Audley Road and East Street and later into the Coach House at the Vineyards on Windmill Hill, which they renovated and greatly enhanced.  They became actively involved with the town. Together they provided the driving force behind the idea of creating an Arts Centre in Saffron Walden, using the old Maltings in Gold Street, and initiated a special fund towards the project.  Regrettably the interests of the developer were allowed to rule the day over the long-lasting benefits for the whole town. One of the last of the maltings in the town was destroyed, making way for bland and stylistically unsuitable houses. The project was transferred to the, then unused, Corn Exchange in the Market Place and provided equipment and funds for what became the town’s thriving Arts Centre. Many of Edwin’s original architectural ideas were incorporated in the final design of the refurbished building. Depressingly the people whom we elect to run our affairs are as uninformed and unimaginative today as those who allowed the Maltings in Gold Street to be demolished or to pull down the façade of the Rose and Crown Hotel. The Borough Council who were then the owners of the Corn Exchange did not see its potential as a focal point for the community nor did they anticipated the imminent and huge increase in its monetary value. They abdicated responsibility for the renovation and maintenance of the building to the County Council, which decided to close the Arts Centre in 2000, depriving the town of its focal point and major cultural asset.

Edwin died in 1971, but Olive continued to campaign throughout her life to enhance, protect and enrich the life of community where she lived, always seeing the bigger picture outside personal self interests and quick profits. She firmly opposed environmentally damaging developments as expressed in her work dealing with the inquiry into Stansted Airport called The Stansted Affair (1967) and described by the media as a  ‘telling angry indictment’. She also wrote Anstey – The Sense of Continuity in a Hertfordshire Parish (n.d.). commissioned by the Nuthampstead Preservation Association, with evocative photographs by Edwin Smith. Her analysis of the impact of Stansted Airport over 40 years ago has proved chillingly accurate as communities affected by the airport found out to their cost.

Olive tried to save a rare example of 1920s architecture in Walden – the showroom that formed part of Raynham’s Garage in the High Street.  Predictably, yet again the developers profited and the building was destroyed, yet with knowledge and imagination it could have been incorporated into any scheme. However the battle to stop development of the Vineyards on Windmill Hill was successful. She was also responsible for listing the Corn Exchange, Barclays Bank, the Town Hall and the General Hospital in London Road for which we must be grateful to Olive, as without her the town would look very different today.

Olive and Edwin were also regular contributors to The Saturday Book, an annual publication which started its existence in 1941 and continued for 34 years. Olive introduced readers to a particular artist, or a type of art, such as miniatures, animal painters, or portraiture, and would stimulate readers’ interests, compelling them to visit museums and art galleries to seek out more and expand their knowledge. Edwin’s excellent photographs appeared in many issues, informing and shaping the readers’ tastes in photographic art and promoting photography as means of artistic expression. Both Olive Cook and Edwin Smith had wide-ranging interests and were avid collectors of all kinds of ephemera, such as Staffordshire pottery, folk art, 18th and 19th century domestic implements, optic toys and all kind of objects, which in the 1940s and 1950s were considered to be worthless junk. Today as these objects are becoming scarce, we are aware of their value and importance, yet Olive and Edwin were aware of it 60 years ago. They informed their readers about the craftsmanship and artistry that went into creating everyday items, and of their interest, beauty and collectable value.

Olive and Edwin were involved with artists from Great Bardfield and formed life long friendships with many, especially Edward Bawden and Sheila Robinson who both subsequently moved to Saffron Walden.  When looking at works by artists like Eric Ravillious, Edward Bawden or Sheila Robinson, it is noticeable how the aesthetics of The Saturday Book influenced their work and how they in turn influenced the style and appearance of The Saturday Book. The stylised Staffordshire figures, the pots and jugs that stood on Sheila Robinson’s window ledge, or Edward Bawden’s dresser, appear in many of their lino-cuts and drawings. Those objects also appear in many articles by Olive and photographs by Edwin and the cross-influence between Great Bardfield artists and aesthetic awareness of Olive’s and Edwin’s are undeniable.

Olive was one of the founding members of he Fry Art Gallery, and wrote The North West Essex Collection: an Introduction (1988), a survey of the artists represented in the collection at the Fry Art Gallery.  The Fry Gallery has a selection of paintings by Olive and Edwin, as well as some of Edwin’s Photographs, and their work has been exhibited there on several occasions.  There is also a small collection of Edwin’s photographs at the Town Library where readers can also find a set of The Saturday Book, and all books written by Olive as well as those written by her and illustrated by Edwin.

I hope that the reader has found my opening statement that: “Olive has been one of the positive forces in our small community and her death has impoverished this little town ” fully vindicated.

Zofia Everett

1 thought on “Olive Cook

  1. Mrs menell

    Wonderful summarisation of Olive and her inexhaustible creativity and inspiration. Thank you
    I was her neighbour and she inspired me very much


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