The Colourful World of graphic artist Brian Cook (1910-1991)

Peter Seddon explores the life and work of an Old Reptonian whose innovative graphic art illuminated the world of publishing

Brian Cook was born in Buckinghamshire one hundred years ago. None of his immediate family had any artistic talent. His first serious steps in drawing and painting were taken at Repton School in Derbyshire. By the time he died in 1991 – by then known as Sir Brian Batsford – he had amassed a legacy of illustrative work which had changed the face of British graphic art.

Yet few works by Cook hang in galleries today – and fewer still on the walls of British homes. Despite that his vibrant style is pleasingly familiar even to those with little knowledge of art – and his trademark ‘sunny days’ look has recently undergone a nostalgic revival as a selling aid in the tough commercial worlds of media and advertising.

That conundrum – and Cook’s relative anonymity to the public at large – is explained by the fact that he was never ‘an artist’ in the popular sense. Yet his work entered many a home indirectly. In fact Cook was primarily a designer of dust jackets for the quality range of books published by the family firm B. T. Batsford – and Batsford books adorned with his artwork are now keenly collected by a knowing band of enthusiasts.

Brian Caldwell Cook was born in the leafy confines of Gerrards Cross, Buckinghamshire, on 18th December 1910. His mother was a Batsford – directly linked to the old-established London publishing company which carried the family name. This was to have a great bearing on Brian’s life and career and even his own identity.

When he was 14 he was sent to Repton School. In his own illustrated memoir The Britain of Brian Cook (1987) he recalled his Derbyshire sojourn with fondness and a quizzical humour: ‘It was at Repton School during the four years from 1924- 1928 that I started to paint. When I had the customary farewell interview with the headmaster – Dr GF Fisher, subsequently Archbishop of Canterbury – he said, ‘Well, Cook, all I can say about you is that, if nothing else, you have at least learnt to paint.’

Geoffrey Fisher had summed up his charge succinctly. The departing BC Cook had passed not a single exam and in his own words had ‘displayed perfect laziness in every subject but drawing.’ But that Cook really did have artistic talent, even at such a tender age, there is no doubt, for the evidence from that schoolboy period still exists.

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In the atmospheric audit room at Repton there hangs a pen and ink watercolour of that very room executed by Cook in his final year at school. Few who look upon it now would guess that it had been done by a seventeen year old. Similarly accomplished is his picture of Repton Art School produced when only sixteen. Both images display the innate facility for depicting architectural detail and perspective which was later to serve him well.

Nor did young Cook confine himself indoors. His charming watercolour ‘The River Trent at Repton’ (1928) was again from his final year. Six decades later the artist recalled: ‘The success of a number of Repton painters from my era had much to do with the benevolent guidance of the art master Arthur Norris. But a further key influence was the inspiration of another teacher Harold Gresley (1892-1967) who came from a well-known Derbyshire family of landscape painters. My willows by the Trent are Gresleyinspired trees.’

On leaving Repton, Cook would have liked to train as an architect, but his academic record precluded this. He considered full-time art school, but it was agreed that he should go part-time and in addition earn a living. On several afternoons each week he attended the Central School of Arts and Crafts in London. But primarily he entered the family bookselling and publishing business, of which his uncle Harry Batsford was chairman. He soon ditched the art classes, and Cook’s first few years at Batsfords were spent in a cramped attic in the firm’s offices in Holborn.

There he learnt every intricacy of the printing process and publishing trade. To capitalise on Brian’s artistic talent, he was given the job of producing the dust jackets which wrapped around the volumes. Hitherto these had often been plain in design – their primary function after all was simply to protect the book from getting dirty – and were often discarded by book buyers immediately after purchase. But Batsfords at this time decided on a more decorative and modern approach. Young-spirited Brian was given freedom to develop a whole new style.

His first jacket was for The Villages of England (1932) when he was 21 years of age – an innovatory design in which the picture wrapped right around the book from front to back. In Cook’s own words ‘the colours were, for those days, blatant, bizarre, strident and unreal.’ Helped by new printing technology, he had produced, before the term was widely used, a classic of the art deco age, and almost a precursor to later Pop Art.

More followed in the same vein – blue trees, mauve shadows, brown streets, bright orange roofs and even yellow sky – not a million miles from Andy Warhol in the psychedelic sixties! But the gamble worked – at a time before colour photography had become widespread, Batsford’s boldly-tinted topographical and architectural works sold well. From 1932 to 1939 Cook turned out new jackets continually, and the Old Reptonian became a Batsford director in 1935.

Most of the inter-war titles Cook worked on fall into distinct series which are now highly collectible – The English Life and British Heritage series, the Face of Britain and Pilgrim’s Library – each recording an urban and rural Britain ‘as it was’ before the Second World War. As such the books were patriotic purveyors of stability and hope, full of tradition and the ‘right values’ in architecture, folklore and landscape alike. Cook’s jackets caught the reader mood perfectly – his was the Britain people cherished.

The war changed things. Paper shortages brought an abrupt interruption to mass publishing. Chief-artist Brian Cook joined the RAF. He survived the war – although sometimes mischievously asserting that ‘Brian Cook ceased to exist’ when it was over. That was strictly true – for in June 1946, for business reasons at his uncle’s request, he adopted his mother’s maiden name by deed poll. At the age of 35 he became Brian Cook-Batsford – informally Brian Batsford.

Under this new persona he resumed his art and publishing. New series followed – British Cities and the Little Guides to the counties, the latter including ‘Brian Batsford’s’ impression of the Derbyshire Dales. He also did poster work for the railways and British Tourist Board. His career flourished, and when his uncle died in 1952 he succeeded him as company Chairman, a role he kept until 1974.

He continued to paint but also took up a new vocation. He had first dabbled in politics in 1945, when as Flight Lieutenant Brian Cook he had failed to defend the Conservative seat of Chelmsford at a by-election. He fared better as a Batsford. From 1958 to 1974 he was Conservative Member of Parliament for Ealing South, receiving a Knighthood in 1974. Politics filled a void, for by the end of the fifties his jacket designing had all but ceased – with 150 to his name.

In his later years he lived with his wife Lady Wendy Batsford, herself a keen artist, in a picture-book setting he might almost have painted – the charming Sussex coastal town of Rye. Yet the couple endured a tinge of sadness – ironically, having adopted the Batsford name for reasons of business posterity, ‘Cook’ had produced no male heir of his own. The company struggled and entered administration. In 1999 Batsford Publishers was swallowed by a large group. The ‘sunny days’ had ended.

Perhaps it was as well that the former Chairman did not witness the sell-off. Sir Brian Batsford died aged 80 on 5th March 1991. He would surely be heartened that the Batsford books he produced so lovingly are now keenly collected, and that the ‘Cook style’ is routinely imitated in marketing to evoke nostalgia for ‘better days’.

Repton School produced a talented group of artists in the pre-war era. Each had a different style, but none could claim to be quite as vibrant as Brian Cook- Batsford. The ‘perfectly lazy’ Derbyshire schoolboy might have failed his exams, but in life he passed with flying colours.