Childhood drawings by Edward William Cooke
This is a joint entry between Terri Dendy (in italics) and Melanie Vandenbrouck about the beautiful encounters Museum staff make in the stores.
As a Documentation and Audit Assistant within the Collections Management department I spend my day enhancing the records we hold on the collections management database (MIMSY XG) and hiding away behind the scenes auditing the collection. Royal Museums Greenwich has a remarkable and envied rolling audit programme with annual checks on the majority of the museums holdings, including an ongoing audit of the Prints and Drawings Collection.
Auditing is an incredibly important cog in the museum machine. Regularly checking that the locations, descriptions and numbers held on the database match the tangible object means that the museum can be completely accountable for its collection.
Nonetheless auditing large collections is a fantastic perk of working in documentation, it’s always thrilling to see the objects that aren’t on display and often see the museum’s unusual holdings. Auditing the Prints and Drawings collection does really highlight how diverse the collection can be, especially recently when among the numerous drawings of boats and ships Melanie and I encountered drawings from esteemed marine painter Edward William Cooke. The collection now carefully categorised by his age show the development of his art from the age of four.
The collection is enchanting and in the earlier drawings his work is no different to that of any other four year old with adults in enlarged hats and depictions of cats and elephants.
My favourite drawing is one that really reflects his surroundings – the printing press. As the son of an engraver Edward would have spent much of his childhood in the presence of such a piece of equipment and the company of artists that allowed him to develop his skill into the established painter.
Edward William Cooke (1811-1880) was a marine painter whose successful career was matched by a prolific output. Raised in an artistic family, he showed a precocious talent, as can be seen from the remarkable collection of early drawings that have come to us.
His earliest drawings are very touching, and one is able, leafing through the albums, to see his progress, how his hand became more assured, precise and his style more personal. He is also an acute observer of the world around him.
He was trained by his father, the engraver George Cooke (1781-1834), and some touching letters interspersed among the drawings show how the hard-working pupil was trying to impress his teacher: ‘My Dear Father’, he writes in 1820, ‘If I write a very good copy and do another sum, may I model toms [sic] ear for thomas boys [sic]’.
Two years later, he writes again: ‘As I have Drawn a good many of your curiosities, may I now do what you so long promised me, that is, may I sketch them in a manner superlatively well cribbly and accurate’.
Like most artists, Cooke learnt by copying: many of his drawings reproduce the work of earlier artists, which he would probably have known from prints. He (or his father, who may have chosen his early models) seemed to have had a fondness for Dutch pastoral landscapes and animal subjects: several of his drawings are inspired by Nicolaes Berghem [Berchem], Paul Potter or Karel Dujardin.
As Cooke’s draftsmanship improved, he went from copying ‘flat art’ to copying sculpture – and the usual model for that being the antique (several of the sketches are evidently taken from busts and reliefs in the British Museum). But the portraits he made of people around him, such as the profile of Mrs Eglinton, or the studies of infants’ hands and feet (possibly those of one of his younger sisters).
He also had a sense of humour, and among more serious, academic drawings can be found caricatures, droll characters and genre scenes.
Interestingly for an artist who made his fame as a marine painter, there are remarkably few drawings of ships, boats and coastal scenes among the childhood albums.
By the time he reached adolescence, Cooke had little to envy in the draughtsmanship of his elders.
In terms of painting, he famously benefited from the advice of his father’s associates, David Roberts and Clarkson Stanfield, making sketches for the latter in 1826. He first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1835, aged 24. As he reached artistic maturity, Cooke soon came to be considered one of the principal followers of Stanfield, then the foremost marine painter in England. (The reputation of doyen of marine painting fell on his shoulders at Stanfield’s death).
These delightful drawings and sketches are not the only treasures the Museum holds from this artist: there are many more (Cooke was an inveterate traveler and drew constantly on his journeys), as well as paintings, making the National Maritime Museum the principal repository for this fascinating artist’s work. Many of the drawings can be seen at the Caird Library by ordering the objects through Collections Online.