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William Delafield Cook: the amazing realism of an Australian landscape artist

Australian Financial Review 15 August 2015

Simon Gregg


This artist, who died In England in March, left a legacy of work that identifies him as one of the most significant Australian landscape painters.

I first met William Delafield Cook at Montsalvat in Eltham in 2009. He was preparing for his survey exhibition for the Gippsland Art Gallery and, as his curator, I was fortunate to meet up with him on each subsequent visit to Australia.

His self-effacing humility caught me off guard, and I must say I enjoyed his company greatly. I was determined to include as many of his recent works as possible in the exhibition, for they had only grown in scope and magnitude since his haystack paintings of the late 1970s and 1980s, one of which was purchased by the National Gallery of Australia in 1977; a later 1983 painting hangs in the foyer of Wesfarmers House in Perth.

Seeing the survey works altogether, in the flesh so to speak, was a revelation.

While Delafield Cook's profile may have dipped in recent years, his late achievements - before his death, at 79, in March in England - are surely among the most significant of Australian landscape painting.
William Delafield Cook, who died in March, had a singular eye for the Australia outback.
William Delafield Cook, who died in March, had a singular eye for the Australia outback. Courtesy of Sarah Delafield Cook

Born in Melbourne in 1936, Delafield Cook - known to his friends as "Bill", or simply as "Cook" by others, including his English wife Sally - had lived in London since 1958.

Nevertheless, he always identified as an Australian artist, visited Australia regularly, and found that, in the latter decades of his career, he was able to paint landscapes of nothing but Australia.

Timeless quality

This distance from his subject contributed to his work's characteristic feel of timelessness, space and distance.

Although he was known for works that were meticulous in the extreme - he would paint each blade of grass or strand of hay in fine detail - his vast canvases always projected an invisible barrier between us and the subject.

So while the detail invites close inspection, the images feel out of reach, as if drawn from the depths of eternity rather than the panoramas encountered on the Hume Highway between Melbourne and Sydney, as often they were.

Delafield Cook achieved his highest profile during the late 1970s and early 1980s, and it coincided with the series of large scale paintings depicting hay stacks. The elemental formalism recalled ruins of Greek temples, which the artist had visited in the 1950s, but imbued with a distinctively Australian colour palette.

Bare essence

Audiences were amazed at the detail and realism in Delafield Cook's paintings, though in truth his works were far removed from photo-realism. He used a camera to record his travels through Australian landscape, to be sure, but he reduced his compositions to their bare essence.

They were remarkable for what they omitted, as well as what they revealed.

He never painted figures, for one thing. This eerie absence of humanity reinforces the sense of timelessness in his work - or of a time long after the age of man. We will see only the scars and abrasions left by man in the surface of the earth, as we attempt to leave our own feeble marks on eternity. But nature will always win out and reassert its dominance.

Delafield Cook last visited Australia in 2013 to receive his membership of the Order of Australia. He was preparing for an exhibition to be staged at Olsen Irwin Gallery in Sydney in 2016 when he died suddenly, in England, on March 29. He is survived by his wife Sally, his two daughters, Sarah and Cissy, and his son, Jonathan, who has carried on the tradition and is also a well-recognised painter.

Getting to know Delafield Cook as I did was an unexpected surprise. Unlike so many other artists his ego never got in the way of his art.

Common to his paintings was a search for elemental, universal truths through the identifiable language of landscape. While the artist himself is no longer here, that search will continue on in his art to ensure its meaningfulness for many generations to come.

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