I once met…Olive Cook

Olive Cook photoI had first met the writer and wife of the brilliant architectural photographer Edwin Smith, in 1984 at Saffron Walden Museum, where I was a museum assistant. I was helping her with an exhibition of her late husband’s photographs. I recall that she called everyone ‘ darling ‘, which I saw as suggesting that she had once been in the theatre. I don’t remember anything more about her.

Fast forward to the late 1990’s and I was actually sitting with her in the kitchen of ‘The Orchards ‘, the famous home outside Saffron Walden that she and Edwin had once shared. Having visited various artists’ homes over the past two decades, including that of John and Myfanwy Piper at Fawley Bottom, I should have been prepared for what greeted me there, but I wasn’t. In the sitting room I seem to remember bright modern pictures and sculpture and art books covering every surface, with a lot of wickerwork and hand knitted rugs and potted plants. Rather Bloomsburyish, I thought, but in a nice way. The kitchen was more practically furnished, but in the same rather genteel-arty style. It also had a typically smell about it, an odour of old money artist that I’d noticed about the Pipers’ kitchen. Perhaps it was the drains. But I liked this comforting smell.

I was here with Olive to record her memories of Geoffrey Grigson and had brought my trusty tape recorder with me. Alas, while trying to locate a power point I discovered that it only took round pin plugs. Apparently, according to Olive, the whole house was the same. Neither before or since have I ever encountered such a house. At least not in the UK. The interview went ahead, however, with me taking notes. Olive didn’t have a lot to say about Grigson, which was a pity, but she was happy to recall some interesting anecdotes about the genesis of England, that memorable collaboration with Grigson that featured some of Edwin’s greatest photographs.

After the formal interviewer Olive invited me to stay for a meal. She decided that pasta would be a good choice, so she stepped into her larder and came with some spaghetti covered with mould. After washing and boiling it she found some cheese or sauce ( I can’t exactly remember) and we tucked in. Surprisingly it wasn’t bad. The talk then turned to artists. At one point I mentioned that I didn’t rate Michael  ‘Minotaur’ Ayrton. That turned out to be a mistake, because it transpired that Olive rather enjoyed his visits to ‘The Orchard’ in the sixties. However, we both agreed on the utter vacuity of Damien Hirst’s art. Olive had seen him at some art show or heard him on the radio and complained that he couldn’t even speak properly.  [R.M.Healey]


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