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Level 6, Te PapaPrevious Exhibition
Walter Cook – ‘an obsessive collector’
Between 1965 and 1990, Walter Cook built a major collection of European domestic ware, which traverses the rise of modernism. Retrace the footsteps of this self-confessed ‘obsessive collector’, uncover his influences, and explore the wider story of European domestic design in New Zealand.
Each item stays true to the golden rule: ‘Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.’
British designer and social reformer William Morris, 1880
Walter and his wife Adriann gifted the collection to the nation in 1992.
Walter Cook was born in 1941, the son of an artistic mother and a clergyman father. He grew up in provincial New Zealand.
Childhood visits to museums inspired Walter’s love of collecting. His well-read father introduced him to the Arts and Crafts movement and to the ideas of British designer and reformer William Morris (1834–96), who would influence him greatly.
The quest begins
In 1961, Walter moved to Wellington as an apprentice gardener. He spent his free time reading about art and design and exploring the inner-city second-hand shops. These would provide most of his collection over the next three decades.
A gift to the nation
Walter believes in what he calls ‘old-fashioned ideas such as the public good and collective ownership’. His decision, in 1992, to gift his collection to the people of New Zealand was in part a protest against the individualistic New Right policies of the time.
I suddenly felt like a stranger in a strange land … I decided that it was time for me to discard much of life’s baggage … to lighten the load and prepare for flight.
The ideas of British designer and social reformer William Morris (1834–96) were a major influence on Walter Cook’s approach to collecting. Morris advocated the revival of handcrafting – a reaction against burgeoning mass-production.
Morris also believed that art should be available to everyone: ‘What business have we with art at all unless all can share it?’ For this reason, he was seen by art historian Nikolaus Pevsner as a forefather of modernism, which embraced functional designs and took them to a wide audience. Somewhat ironically, mass-production – which Morris had opposed – facilitated this access.
Ideas like these fuelled Walter’s collecting pursuits. Pevsner’s book Pioneers of Modern Design, which featured Morris, became Walter’s key guide as he built his collection through the 1960s, 70s, and 80s. By the time the collection was gifted to the nation, it traversed pre-modernist works from the late 1800s, transition pieces like art-nouveau pewter, and post-1945 modernist designs from Europe.
‘The addictive habit’
Wellington’s antique and second-hand shops brought Walter Cook face to face with the objects behind the theories and styles he’d been reading about. His first purchase initiated him into what he called ‘the addictive habit and thrill of hunting quarry in second-hand shops’.
Travis Antiques and Odds and Ends were among the shops that enjoyed Walter’s custom in the 1960s. In 1978, he moved to Thorndon, becoming a regular at nearby second-hand shops like Pleasant Place Antiques and 302 Tinakori Road. He also bought new pieces, mostly from James Smith’s department store, which imported the latest modernist designs from Europe.
Walter’s collection is a remarkable showcase of European style. Perhaps equally remarkable is the fact that he amassed it mainly from shops within walking distance of central Wellington.
I have no idea what it was in my character that led me to become an obsessive collector.
Walter Cook in ‘The Confessions of an Obsessive Collector’, Turnbull Library Record 40, 2007
The European connection
Walter Cook’s collection reflects what many New Zealanders were buying in the 20th century – domestic ware from Europe. Walter was interested in their ‘conscious or unconscious cultural decisions’ in making those purchases – in what influenced and informed them.
A major influence was the 1906–07 New Zealand International Exhibition in Christchurch, which celebrated the country as a proud ‘Britain of the south’. The exhibition attracted almost 2 million visitors – more than double New Zealand’s population at the time. The catalogue from the British display guided Walter as he searched for similar items second-hand some 50 years later. He found it particularly valuable as ‘it covered the whole of the British Arts and Crafts movement’.
New Zealanders kept up with European trends through other exhibitions too, as well art journals. Local shops encouraged and met their desires. Modernist items were all the rage from the 1950s, bolstered by a wave of European immigration after World War II. Walter, like others, pursued the latest designs – through the Wellington department store James Smith’s.