A Colourful Past

31st December 2018

With his pioneering use of colour printing techniques, Brian Cook’s illustrations are ripe for rediscovery by a new generation and they are now being reissued for the publisher Batsford’s 175th anniversary.

Words by Oliver Bennett

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The interwar years are often seen as a time of change; of old rural ways challenged by urban influence and the impending catastrophe of World War II. Perhaps, partly, that’s why the work of illustrator Brian Cook has such emotional resonance. His dust-jackets for Batsford's British town and countryside books, most notably the 1930s Batsford Heritage Series, are now highly collectable and this year, the 175th anniversary of Batsford, they’re being repackaged for a new generation. Cook’s artworks have been reprinted on stationery, postcards and notebooks, and books such as Sussex, Kent and Surrey 1939 by Richard Wyndham, featuring Cook’s cover art, are being reissued.

Cook’s career began in less than glorious fashion at Repton School in Derbyshire where the headmaster told him: “Well, Cook, all I can say about you is that, if nothing else, you have at least learnt to paint.” Driven by this damningly faint praise, in 1928 he attended the Central School of Arts and Crafts and became an illustrator specialising in the UK. His debut, in 1932, was The Villages of England. He went on to produce more than 100 dust jackets for Batsford, the family publishing company begun by his greatgrandfather, Bradley Thomas Batsford, in 1843. Cook’s work put Batsford on the map as he mastered using the new medium of the wraparound dust-jacket as a decorative device. From cluttered offices in Holborn in London, Cook created travel posters and illustrations in his heyday and was rewarded with a directorship of Batsford in 1935.


Then came WWII and for Cook, the RAF. Immediately after the war he changed his surname to Batsford at his uncle Harry’s request, and became chairman of the publishing firm in 1952. The change was timely. By the 1950s his style had grown less fashionable, and by 1958 Brian Caldwell Cook Batsford had become a Conservative MP, holding the Ealing South seat until 1974. That same year he was knighted, adding to a host of other honours including chairmanship of the Royal Society of Arts.

Although he always had fans, to some critics Cook’s style came to seem overly nostalgic. For example, his works have been called “winsome and sentimental” by design writer Stephen Bayley, citing his imagery of “rolling downs, fluffy clouds and church spires”. As with John Betjeman’s poems, they have an evocative, elegiac mood. 


But Cook’s illustrations were far more innovative than they might appear now. He pioneered the use of the Jean Berté process, a watercolour printing method that uses soft rubber plates to print inks, similar to Japanese woodblock printing. As Cook recalled, “We decided to make an experiment… The strength or intensity of colour used on the machine could produce a variety of different effects quite unintended in the original drawing.” Hence the dramatic sense of contrast in Cook’s pictures, almost as if he were seeing Britain more intensely.

Indeed, the most sensational aspect of Cook’s work remains his colours – his purple hills, yellow fields and emerald churches, all of a brightness and intensity that has seen him cited as a precursor to Pop Art and Andy Warhol. As the architect and artist Hugh Casson noted in his introduction to the 1987 volume, The Britain of Brian Cook, it would be a mistake “to treat them [Cook’s images] merely as curiosities, for at the time they were in the forefront in the arts and techniques of production and presentation and their young designer was a true pioneer.” Ever the hands-on artist, Cook personally badgered the Batsford printers at the South Bank “so that if the result was unsatisfactory, it was my fault and not theirs”.

As well as professionally, Cook seems to have been restless geographically. He and his wife Wendy, also an artist, lived all over Britain, settling in Rye, looking over the type of landscape he would once have painted. He died in 1989, in nearby Winchelsea, by which time he would have known that his vivid palette and picturesque subject matter was being appreciated anew. 

Sussex, Kent and Surrey 1939 by Richard Wyndham, with cover artwork by Brian Cook, will be published in April by Batsford.

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