52 Weeks of Inspiring Illustrations, Week 13: John Cook’s unusual perspectives …

This week’s illustrations come from an album of watercolours of St Andrews compiled by John Cook in 1797. It contains the usual views which one might expect to see in this sort of scrapbook: St Andrews from all angles, featuring its distinctive skyline of spires and towers, much the same now as then. But there are also portraits preserved in this album, featuring some of the significant and insignificant inhabitants of the town at the end of the eighteenth century. Unusually, many of these are only shown from the back. These powerfully evocative portraits are full of delightful wigs, brightly-coloured coats, bandy legs, knee breeches and stockings. Almost caricature-like, they bring to life many local men and a small number of women, and, thanks to the captions added by the artist, we can identify some of them.

Page 28 of John Cook’s album of watercolours: 18th century portraits of St Andreans, from behind (ms38799).

Excerpt of page 26 of John Cook’s album of watercolours: 18th century portraits of St Andreans, from behind (ms38799).

Excerpt of page 29 of John Cook’s album of watercolours: 18th century portraits of St Andreans, from behind (ms38799).

Page 25 of John Cook’s album of watercolours: 18th century portraits of St Andreans, from behind (ms38799).

So, why did Cook paint these rear views? Was it just that he couldn’t paint faces? Some of the profiles and full-face paintings which are pasted into the scrapbook do show some strange-looking people, and he does seem to have had particular difficulty with noses!

Page 27 of John Cook’s album of watercolours: 18th century portraits of St Andreans, from behind (ms38799).

I think he just liked looking at things from a different perspective. This view of St Mary’s College must have been done from on top of the wall which extended from the end of the west range across the garden. It shows in sketch the part of the north range which had accommodated the stables and carriage house of the Principal’s House. This was rebuilt in 1828 when the present archway was formed.

Page 11 of John Cook’s album of watercolours: a sketch of St Mary’s College, St Andrews (ms38799).

Excerpt from p. 26 of John Cook’s album, showing the West Sands (ms38799).

Cook also painted views of St Andrews which obviously look unusual to us today, either because the subject of the painting has changed or it contains something out of place to our eyes. This familiar perspective of the town from the West Sands requires a second look (left). Can anyone out there in the blogosphere identify this two-wheeled, single-horse carriage or cart? Is it a gig? Can it be more specifically labelled?

Even this view of St Mary’s (below) requires today’s viewer to remove walls and trees from the foreground to map to make the painting equate to the present quadrangle.

Page 10 of John Cook’s album of watercolours: a sketch of St Mary’s College, St Andrews (ms38799).

So who was this John Cook? There is an inscription in the album, recording its donation to the University Library in 1904, which outlines his career: lived 1771-1824, minister of the parish of Kilmany in Fife 1793-1802, and occupant of two chairs in the University. He studied and taught in the University under the ‘Hill regime’, when the institution was dominated by George Hill, Professor of Greek from 1772, and Principal of St Mary’s College from 1791-1819. Hill was the outstanding Scottish theologian of the day and leader of the Moderate party in the church but his nepotism has become part of University legend. At one time, six of the thirteen posts on the University senate were occupied by members of his family. Psalm 121 was proverbially popular in St Andrews at this time: “I lift mine eyes to the Hills, from whence cometh my help…”

Excerpt from page 3 of John Cook’s album of watercolours: a sketch of St Andrews from the south (ms38799).

Page 14 of John Cook’s album of watercolours: a sketch of St Leonard’s Chapel, St Andrews (ms38799).

John Cook, the painter whose work is featured here, held successively the Chairs of Hebrew (1802-9) and Biblical Criticism (1808-24). He married his cousin Elisabeth, eldest daughter of George Hill, since his mother Janet was George Hill’s sister. His father was another John Cook, Professor of Humanity (1769-73) and Moral Philosophy (1773-1815). His brother George was Professor of Moral Philosophy (1828-45) and his son, yet another John Cook, was Professor of Ecclesiastical History (1860-68).

The Hill-Cook dynasty contained 36 professors over 150 years. The genealogical details are spelled out in an appropriately backwards and upside-down Register full of biographical information about our Professors, which records the births of, and sadly the deaths of some of, the painter’s 12 siblings and 7 children, as well as the 12 children of George Hill.

This nice album is an unusual form of legacy from one of our academic forebears.

RH

One response to “52 Weeks of Inspiring Illustrations, Week 13: John Cook’s unusual perspectives …

  1. It’s a wonderful album – reminiscent of John Kay’s Edinburgh worthies, but full of its own character and not at all derivative, I think.

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