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William Delafield Cook: Artist hailed as one of Australia

Independent 13 May 2015

Frank Field

William Delafield Cook, the quiet hero of Australian art, was one of those rare artists whose works, due to his considerable following, have gone straight into public and private collections as soon as the last brush stroke was dry. His monumental canvases, which pay tribute to both the beauty and ruggedness of Australia's landscape, are owned by big-name private collectors, from Kerry Packer to Rupert Murdoch, from Lord McAlpine to the Westfield owner, Frank Lowy.

He took the London art scene by storm in the 1970s with several sell-out shows at Cork Street's Redfern Gallery, but Delafield Cook's name was put firmly on the British art map when Elton John bought almost an entire show. Together with fellow Australian artists such as Sidney Nolan, Brett Whitely and Arthur Boyd, he has commanded some of the highest prices for contemporary art in Australia and in this country ever since. Delafield Cook's career, spanning more than 60 years, was recognised in the Queen's New Year's honours list of 2013 when he was made a Member of the Order of Australia.

Delafield Cook was one of a number of highly talented Australians who in the 1950s set sail for Europe to explore the culture of the old world. Like Clive James, Barry Humphries and Germaine Greer, Delafield Cook liked what he saw and made his life here, but always remained fundamentally Australian with his eye for the light, space and colour unique to his homeland. Though London-based, he stuck fast to his subject matter, his vision of the Australian landscape intensified by the distance and time spent away. His deadpan focus on a hillside, a rocky outcrop or a single tree, painted in his precise, painstaking strokes, imbue everyday Australian scenes with an intense stillness and strangeness which has led to a new understanding of the land.

Born in Melbourne in 1936, Delafield Cook was destined to be an artist. His grandfather, also William Delafield Cook, was part of the Victorian Heidelberg School of Painters. As a boy Delafield Cook was a formidable draughtsman, fascinated by observing his world through telescopes, binoculars and cameras, always focusing and framing what he saw.

His interest in recording the natural world always marked him out. During his national service in the 1950s he was constantly called away from his duties to complete watercolours for the commanding officers who had recognised his talents and wanted to squirrel a picture away before their young recruit returned home.

As a young man, from his earnings as a teacher, he was able to travel to Europe, where he was delighted by the reception he received in London. This passionate antipodean artist, with his honest good looks and new-world energy, impressed the art establishment. This generated invitations from the British Council to take up scholarships at the University of Perugia and British School in Rome and introduced him to many leading British artists such as Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth and Patrick Heron.

Returning to swinging London in the Sixties he found himself exhibiting alongside new stars such as David Hockney, Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud at the Young Contemporaries shows. While studying and eventually teaching at the iconoclastic Corsham School of Art, he began working with Howard Hodgkin, Gillian Ayres and Adrian Heath. Here he met his future wife, art student Sally Bovington, which was the beginning of a lifelong creative partnership of more than 50 years.

The dilemma of home never left him however, and the solution was to conduct his life like a never-ending Grand Tour, moving between homes in London and Sydney and working in art communities in Berlin, Deia and Paris, with Sally and three children happily in tow. Delafield Cook used his camera as he moved around, though its role was strictly contained. He used it as other artists use their sketch books, to store the images and impressions on which he might base later work.

Nobody who knew this artist could remain unaware that the theme that occupied much of his thinking was our own mortality. Whether he was painting hillsides, dams or great rock formations, Cook was dealing with a sense of time as immeasurable against the acute poignancy of our short lives. He said, "I've long seen the world as a series of theatre stages. We players move in and out but the world endures long beyond us". Mankind merely brushes against these scenes. Human presence is implied, but only just - a rough track through the trees, a broken fence, a small collection of anonymous houses huddled together at the foot of a vast hillside.

Delafield Cook was one of life's gentle geniuses, with a constant fascination for mankind's attempt to civilise his own nature. He was in this sense, like his art, standing against so much of modern life. His sense of what was proper ran through his life like a golden thread. He determinedly sidestepped art fashions and, with his characteristic wry sense of humour and quiet wisdom, remained steadfast to his own unique vision.

I was a friend of William Delafield Cook for nearly 50 years. Few people were more cultured, few people possessed a greater knowledge of art and classical music, few people were better able to teach, few people valued other people only by the quality of their character, and few people were more straight. Cook had all of these qualities and became one of Australia's great artists.


William Delafield Cook, artist: born Melbourne 28 February 1936; Order of Australia 2013; married 1962 Sally Patricia Bovington (two daughters, one son) died London 29 March 2015.

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