Who Was John Cooke? A Murky Matlock Mystery

Dr Alec Hamilton is an Arts & Crafts expert and former Trustee of the Friends.
His book, Arts & Crafts Churches, is available to order from Lund Humphries. Use offer code CHURCHES2020 at the checkout to receive a 20% discount and free UK postage. You can order up to 5 copies at this price. Offer valid until 30 August 2020.

The Friends’ church at Matlock Dale, Derbyshire, St John the Baptist (1897) was designed by Guy Dawber (1861-1938). There was an article about it in The Builder’s Journal, 3 April 1901, pp 148-9, giving some useful detail – unusual to find craftsmen’s names like this:

The coloured east window is by Mr Louis Davis, the figures round the pulpit by Mr Cecil Fabian, the plaster ceiling by Mr George Bankart, the decorations and painted altar-piece by Mr John Cooke. The interior decorations are not yet complete.

Louis Davis is quite well known – to Arts & Crafts aficionados, at least: there is a rather good Wiki page listing his major glass. George Bankart crops up pretty often as a plaster-worker – he did a lot of leadwork too. Cecil Fabian is infinitely more obscure, but he can be identified.

Which leaves John Cooke. (And, come to that, what ‘painted altar-piece’? There isn’t one.)

When I started my research, I assumed – as had others – Cooke was, must be, the rather distinguished portrait painter, John Percy Cooke (1870-1939). That is, until further investigation revealed that there were more Cookes in the case.

Most significantly, there was plain John Cooke (‘not-Percy’) (1866-1932), who was elected to the Art Workers’ Guild in 1899. (Dawber was elected in 1897.) This John Cooke painted an important Guild image, which still hangs today in the Guild’s meeting hall in Queen’s Square: ‘G Blackall-Simonds, The First Master, with Gerald Horsley and Mervyn Macartney… Painted by John Cooke MDCCCCIX - X’ – there is his name at the bottom of the frame, painted by his own hand. He also painted the Guild’s Master, Laurence Turner, in 1925.

In the 1901 census there is a John (no mention of Percy) Cooke, 35 (right sort of age) ‘artist-painter’ (right description) boarding at the Temperance Hotel, 3 Dale Road, Matlock (right place): only a short walk from the Chapel. Is this the John Cooke who joined the Guild in 1899? It seems possible. So, he might well have painted an ‘altar-piece’ at Matlock. However, if this means a reredos with a biblical scene or theme, it is not there now. Was it ever? And if it was, why has it gone? And where is it? That’s odd enough.

But what about ‘the decorations’?

Could – would – this rather talented portraitist really have painted the panelling in the chancel, even as a young man? Such a monotonous tradesman’s paint job seemed unlikely to me, somehow, even for a young artist. I was not convinced.

I dug around in the census (thank you, Ancestry.com). And there I came across an equally credible, even perhaps better, candidate for the decorator of the church: John Cooke of Wirksworth, Derbyshire, three miles to the south of Matlock Dale.

In the 1881 census John Cooke was living, with his wife and three sons, at 62 West End, Wirksworth. He was 66, and listed as ‘Painter and General Dealer’. (In the 1861 census he is unequivocally ‘house painter’.) His eldest boy, John, 26, is a cabinet-maker. The second boy, Edwin, 20, is a painter. The youngest, Albert, 17, is a painter and carver.

In the 1891 census John Cooke senior (now 76) is a ‘joiner’. Edwin is still at home, 29, and still a cabinet maker. By a happy chance the eldest boy, John, now 36, appears on the same page – he has married, and is living a few doors away at 66 West End. Albert, the third brother, the wood carver, is now living at 67 West End.

Call me fanciful, call me crazy. But surely the possibility must exist that the painting and decorating firm of John Cooke (and Sons? – including John Cooke Jr), was responsible for the chancel painting, and perhaps for some of the woodwork too. For we do not have names for any of the wood-work – choir stalls, pulpit, rood.

Yes, you cry, but look at the colour palette and the design of the panelling in the sanctuary. Surely that is the work of a daring young painterly eye, not a plodding Derbyshire tradesman! But how involved was Dawber? Didn’t he set the tone? Unresolved!

Hang on a tick. In 1929, ‘The church was closed on Sundays December 1st and 8th for Painting and Re-decoration under the Direction of Mr E Guy Dawber ARA, Architect of the Church.’ It is entirely possible, then, that the current interior colour scheme of the chancel dates not from 1897, but from 1929 – and, on examination, one could argue it is perhaps more 1920s than 1890s.

I think it unlikely that the by then rather eminent Guild Brother John Cooke would have been asked to schlep all the way to Matlock from London to do the re-paint. But those chaps from Wirksworth: what could be more convenient than to ask the Cookes – all now in their 50s and 60s – to come back and re-do their father and grandfather’s handiwork for old times’ sake?

And then… the editor of this blog, Clare Kirk, is not one to let a mystery go by. She got the bit between her teeth and decided to resolve the whole Cooke nexus. A-ha!

First and foremost she was able to find that John Percy Cooke, artist, was nowhere near Matlock in 1901. Far from it – he was living in Southport, Lancs. (And he died in 1944, not 1939.)

The John not-Percy Cooke staying at the hotel in Matlock in 1901 was not him at all. Not-Percy was an accomplished painter, who specialised in portraits and landscapes, and has work in the National Portrait Gallery.

Very well, then. Next question…Did John ‘not-Percy’ Cooke paint anything at Matlock? Or was that – as I rather hope – the Wirksworth Cookes? Could they even have been related?

Goodness me. There is still – as so often – yet another mystery to be solved.

Photo of John Cooke's painting at the Art Workers' Guild Hall © Roger Johnson via Flickr.