Obituary: Grenville Cook

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The Independent Online
"Collecting" can be a sterile, simply acquisitive thing. For Grenville Cook, this was never the case. Books were his passion, but not for him the mad accumulation which can fill a house with unread volumes. Books were to be read, researched, described - accumulated, yes, but only until the passion was spent, the books sold, and a new affair begun with a new author (or, sometimes, an old author revisited).

He was born exactly one year after the end of the Great War, at Chiswick House (then a nursing home). Diagnosed as chronically diabetic early in his life, he was among the first to be treated with insulin. Before he was 20, two strands of his life were in place - working at Hamleys in 1938 inspired him to take up conjuring (he later joined the Magic Circle), and at the outbreak of war he was at Watford Art College.

Diabetes ruled out any direct involvement in the Second World War - to his disgust, even stretcher-bearing was deemed too strenuous - and he continued art at Croydon and later Bideford, then on to the "AA", the Architectural Association, in 1944.

After the war, Sir Patrick Abercrombie, Professor of Town Planning at University College London, planned great things for the capital, and Cook became part of the dream by joining the London County Council, almost by accident. He believed in the pre-eminence of the arts, would have liked to be a painter and felt that his socialist idealism combined with his knowledge of architecture could contribute in a practical way to the rebuilding and improvement of London. He became a planner, working on the old "CDAs" (Comprehensive Redevelopment Areas), such as those set up in Finsbury and Stepney. It seemed the right thing to do at the time, but by the late 1960s large-scale, wholesale, demolition and redevelopment, under the control of what had by now become the Greater London Council, was being questioned.

Cook was the senior development control officer for Covent Garden, before and after the move of the fruit and vegetable market to Nine Elms in 1974. Initially he was the main defender of the scheme hatched up by the GLC and a group of favoured developers to raze the area to the ground, to be replaced by an Alphaville of spectacular tower blocks and sunken roads. He became chief bete noire of the Covent Garden Community Association, who fought successfully to end comprehensive development: a Conservative government was forced to stop a Conservative GLC's plans by spot-listing scores of buildings. With years of work in the wastepaper basket, Cook worked until his retirement in 1983 on refurbishment, rehousing and economic revival in Covent Garden.

During all this time, he also collected books. His first passion was for Somerset Maugham. a passion that demanded completeness, a completeness that made his collection invaluable to the bibliographer - in Maugham's case, Raymond Toole Stott. whose bibliography, The Writings of William Somerset Maugham, was published in 1956 (a revised edition appeared in 1973).

Cook intended to write a biography of Maugham, but was overtaken by Ted Morgan. This proved to be a precedent: most of Cook's research, often painstakingly undertaken, and in great depth, was never published under his own name, but often gratefully used by others. He bought, and sold, two Maugham collections. Kingsley Amis, Graham Greene, L.P. Hartley, Charles Causley all came and went.

In the 19th century, his main collecting interest was Dickens, and in particular the literature surrounding Dickens's unfinished last novel Edwin Drood. His substantial bibliographical research was again uncompleted, but is being continued by William Oliver.

Cook's bibliographical hero was the writer and publisher Michael Sadleir, as well as "the biblio-boys", as he called them", John Carter and Percy Muir. He bought and sold two Sadleir collections, and was working on the third when he died.

To be an artist was his early ambition; perhaps his latent late ambition was to be a bookseller. Or rather, to be associated with booksellers and bookselling, which he was able to do, and share information on equal terms with bibliographers and writers whose works he knew intimately. After all, Michael Sadleir was also a creator and seller of book collections as well as a bibliographer. Perhaps it was most fitting that the bibliographical work that was most complete - on Edwin Drood - saw light of day in a bookseller's catalogue based on Cook's own collection, with an introduction by him.

Grenville Cook was a rotund Pickwickian character, softly spoken and gentlemanly in every way. In his later years he suffered a lot from the side-effects of diabetes, which wore him out, but, with the help of his partner Emily Oxborrow, never down and out. His collecting continued until the end. He was, in short, the perfect collector.

Brian Lake

John Charles Grenville Cook, magician, artist, planner and book-collector: born London 10 November 1919; died Watford, Hertfordshire 25 January 1997.