Olive Cook Papers

Scope and Content

This collection consists of the personal and business papers of Olive Cook (1912-2002), writer and artist, and her husband Edwin Smith (1912-1971), photographer and artist. They were donated to Newnham College, where Olive Cook had been a student, by the executors of her estate, Geoffrey Lewis and W.J. Bellamy, in 2003. Although they range from the 1930s till her death in 2002, most cover the last third of the 20th century.

Olive Cook's archive consists of personal letters and postcards; greetings cards both from her husband and their many friends in the artistic community (all handmade); many research notebooks and drafts of texts for books she wrote herself and those she collaborated in with Smith; short stories and articles (she wrote regularly for The Saturday Book and Matrix); masses of business correspondence, especially after Smith's death when she handled all the requests for copies of his photographs; sketchbooks and drawings; and photographs. There is also material about the Fry Art Gallery in Saffron Walden, which Olive Cook helped establish in 1987, and where her paintings were frequently exhibited; material on exhibitions; reviews; environmental causes that she championed, such as the fight against the development of Stansted Airport; and samples of the materials they both collected, for possible use in collages, inter alia. Cook inherited Smith's estate on his death, 29 December 1971, and towards the end of her life deposited his huge photograph collection of some 60,000 negatives at the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) along with their letters to each other. The remainder of his papers became part of her archive at Newnham. Just a few personal letters from friends are here and those from him to Olive on trips to Europe and Scandinavia, but the business correspondence with his publishers is extensive, and tracks the development of the production of his important works. There are also notebooks, some with autobiographical material. There are many examples of his art: sketchbooks from the 1940s and 1960s; a box of loose drawings/paintings, cut-outs/cards; research on clowns, circuses and fairgrounds that includes programmes from the 1930s; exhibition materials; reviews and clippings. Important are examples of Smith's professional photographs of people, buildings, and landscapes, as well as personal shots of himself and Olive.

Finally there is a group of papers devoted to artist friends of Cook and Smith such as Peggy Angus, Edward Bawden, Oskar Kokoshka, and Zdzislaw Ruszkowski.

Administrative / Biographical History

Olive Muriel Cook was born in Cambridge on 20 February 1912, the daughter of Arthur Cook, a librarian at the University Library for 56 years, and his wife, a dressmaker for Robert Sayle (John Lewis Partnership). She was educated at the Perse School before gaining a scholarship to Newnham College in 1931, where she read Modern Languages. She obtained her MA in 1942.

Her first job was that of art editor for Chatto and Windus, followed by supervisor of publications at the National Gallery (1936-1945), where she worked with Kenneth Clark and Arnold Palmer. She met and became friends with official war artists including Eric Ravilious, Thomas Hennell and Stanley Spencer, and it was during this time that she met Edwin Smith, whom she married in 1954. In 1945 she left the National Gallery to devote herself to her own writing and painting and she and Smith started to write and illustrate articles for The Saturday Book edited by Leonard Russell, to which they both contributed annually until Edwin's death.

She wrote 'Suffolk' in 1948, 'Cambridgeshire: Aspects of a County, 1953', and children's books illustrated by George Adams in 1954. That same year saw the publication of 'English Cottages and Farmhouses' with text by Cook and photographs by Smith, their first major work for Thames and Hudson. After their marriage they lived in Hampstead where they had a large circle of artist and writer friends. More joint books followed including 'English Abbeys and Priories', 'British Churches', 'The Wonders of Italy', 'The English House Through Seven Centuries'.

They moved to Saffron Walden in 1962, where Olive Cook pursued her passion for the preservation of the countryside, her book 'The Stansted Affair' presenting the case against the development of the airport (1967). They purchased the Coach House in 1967, remodelled and decorated it in their own inimitable way (see photos in Series 9). Sadly, Smith died of cancer at the early age of 59, leaving Cook devastated. However, a woman of great spirit, she rallied and continued to further the reputation of her beloved husband, producing 'Edwin Smith: Photographs 1935-1971' in 1984, and continually promoting his work through exhibitions and in books of others, such as Lucy Archer's 'Architecture in Britain and Ireland 600-1500'.

Her own writing also continued: she wrote the libretto for 'The Slit Goose Feather' composed by Christopher Brown, 'Tryphema Pruss', illustrated by Walter Hoyle, as well as the introduction for his 'To Sicily with Edward Bawden'. And, in the 1980s she along with Iris Weaver was instrumental in establishing the Fry Art Gallery in Saffron Walden, writing biographical sketches of the artists of the North West Essex Collection deposited there.

Olive Cook had an enormous capacity for friendship, as the hundreds of cards in her papers attest, and although she had no children herself, she was clearly a great favourite with those of her many friends. Right up to the end of her long life, messages came pouring in. She died on 2 May 2002, aged 90.

Edwin George Herbert Smith was born on 15 May 1912 in Canonbury, London, the only child of Edwin Stanley Smith a clerk and his wife Lily Beatrice. After leaving elementary school he was educated at the Northern Polytechnic, transferring to the architectural school at the age of sixteen. He then won a scholarship to the Architectural Association, but for financial reasons gave up his course and worked as an architectural draughtsman for several years, most notably for Raymond Myerscough-Walker. >From 1935 he became a free lance photographer, though painting remained his first love, working briefly for Vogue as a fashion photographer, but mostly concentrating on the mining community of Ashington in Northumberland, the docks of Newcastle, and circuses and fair grounds around London.

In 1935 Smith married Rosemary Ansell, daughter of Henry Ansell, a confectioner. Their son Martin was born in 1941, but the marriage ended in divorce two years later. By this time Smith was living with Olive Cook, whom he married in 1954. Smith was also a writer, producing photographic handbooks, including 'All the Photo Tricks' (1940), for Focal Press. But he is best known for his photographs of architecture and landscapes, both of Britain and Europe. His books include: 'English Parish Churches' (1952), 'English Cottages and Farmhouses' (1954), 'The English House Through Seven Centuries' (1968), 'England' (1971) 'Pompeii and Herculanaeum' (1960) 'Rome: From its Foundation to the Present' (1971). Many were collaborations between him and Cook: his photographs, her text.

In addition to his photographic output (60,00 negatives are now at RIBA), Smith was also a prolific artist. When at home, not a day went by without him drawing or painting. Throughout his life Smith produced water and oil paintings, drawings, linocuts and woodcuts. And in later years at Saffron Walden, he drew up architectural plans for local properties. It was only after his death that exhibitions of Smith's work appeared.

He became ill in the spring of 1971, but his cancer was not diagnosed until a few weeks before his death on 29 December. There is a poignant account in one of his notebooks written by Olive and addressed to him three months after he died, recounting in detail his last day.


The papers were in great confusion when deposited at Newnham, with very few in any semblance of order. As a result the following series were imposed: Olive Cook, Series 1-4; Edwin Smith, Series 5-7; Photographs, Series 8; and Other Artists, Series 9.

Conditions Governing Access

For access to the Collection, contact the College Archivist, Newnham College, Cambridge.

Other Finding Aids

A catalogue is available online in the JANUS catalogue.

Archivist's Note

Collection description by Newnham College Archives. Submitted to the Archives Hub as part of Genesis 2009 Project.

Conditions Governing Use

Limited photocopying is permitted within the terms of copyright legislation, although copying of some items including fragile material is at the discretion of the College Archivist.


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Geographical Names