Thomas Cocke: Architectural historian

Sunday 23 October 2011 01:18

Thomas Cocke was the leading authority on the history of the restoration and repair of England's parish churches and cathedrals between the Reformation and the mid-19th-century Gothic Revival. That had been the subject of his Courtauld Institute doctorate in 1982 and set the scene for his subsequent career in conservation.

In pursuing this under-studied subject, he embraced both the medieval and the classical worlds, and this broad knowledge was reflected in his membership of a wide range of professional groups, charitable bodies and learned societies. His most recent role, as Chairman of the Mausolea and Monuments Trust, exemplified his passion for championing the less fashionable but no less deserving areas of conservation. He combined his wide knowledge of architectural history and ecclesiology to great effect in the service of the Church of England. Yet, he also found time to support the parish churches where he lived in Cambridge and Suffolk, to be an Extra Member of Court in the Skinners' Company, an ex-officio governor of Tonbridge School and to co-found the Pevsner Memorial Trust.

Cocke was born in 1949 and educated at Marlborough College. There, he consolidated a remarkably early interest in history by gaining the Townsend History Prize, before winning an Open Scholarship to Pembroke College, Cambridge. He was awarded a first in History and the Hadley History Prize in 1970. His growing passion for architectural history led him on to an MA at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London and his first publication, "Pre- 19th-century attitudes to Romanesque architecture in England" (which appeared in The Journal of the British Archaeological Association in 1973), was a forerunner to his PhD.

He joined the expanding History of Art Department of Manchester University in 1973, teaching post-medieval art history. He also began a long involvement in adult education, with the Open University and subsequently at Cambridge and elsewhere. He was at his most eloquent when on site, interpreting the complexities of a historic building to students. In 1973, too, he married Carolyn Clark, "the best decision I ever made", and they quickly established a reputation for entertaining in great style, promoting lively conversation around the dinner table.

In 1976 he returned to his roots in London, joining the Royal Commission on the Historical Monuments of England as a Historic Buildings Investigator. Working also from the Salisbury and Cambridge offices, he came to acquire a deep understanding of the fabric and history of all types of ancient buildings, becoming increasingly focused on parish churches and cathedrals.

In Cambridge, he became involved with the architectural life of the city as a member of the Listed Buildings Panel and teacher at the Faculty of Architecture and Darwin College, where he was elected a Fellow in 1987. His doctorate was completed in time for him to curate an exhibition on the 18th-century architect James Essex at the Fitzwilliam Museum in 1984 and to make important contributions to the "English Romanesque Art 1066-1200" exhibition at the Hayward Gallery (also 1984) and its successor, "The Age of Chivalry", at the Royal Academy in 1987.

His desire to preserve, as much as to understand, the ecclesiastical heritage led to Cocke's membership of the executive committee of the Church of England's Council for the Care of Churches, from 1981 until his appointment as the full-time secretary of the council in 1990. He was immediately faced with the challenge of getting the new Care of Churches Measure to work. The measure required much greater co-operation between Diocesan Advisory Committees, the national amenity societies, English Heritage and local planning authorities. Hard work among his wide range of contacts reassured many that the system was the best way to harness the specialist knowledge existing in the voluntary sector.

Cocke was well aware of the antipathy towards historic buildings that existed in the Church and in 1993 engineered the first debate for many years in the General Synod, "Mission in Mortar". To his great disappointment no senior churchman championed it, but it started a change of direction, initially leading to the appointment of an archaeologist to the council's staff. The changes he initiated in the council's operations were more successful. Following IRA bomb damage, in 1994 the council moved from All Hallows Church, London Wall, to Little College Street in the heart of Westminster and close to Church House. He was adept at placing particular people where they could be most useful and effective. This skill helped him to rationalise the council's 12 expert committees to four, and to overhaul its grants programme effectively.

The arrival of the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) in 1995 promised to bring untold riches, but it was quickly overwhelmed by expectations and government rules on additionality. Cocke joined the HLF's small Places of Worship Advisory Committee, to help the trustees fund the repair and improvement of places of worship in partnership with English Heritage. Once again, his own academic credentials as well as his numerous contacts reassured sceptics in the Church and heritage bodies alike that lottery money was an acceptable resource essential to encourage well-disposed but impoverished congregations.

The decision to leave the council in 2001 was entirely his, essentially motivated by an ever-present wish to advance his career, but partly because he regretted the proposed restructuring of the council. His appointment as chief executive of the National Association of Decorative and Fine Arts Societies (Nadfas) brought his encyclopaedic knowledge of English fine arts, his long experience of supporting volunteers and his management skills together to help restructure the charity.

His enthusiasm to leave a legacy celebrating the history of the charity resulted in the commissioning of Behind the Acanthus: the Nadfas story (2008), by Helen Clifford. Cocke's vision was to tie publication in with this year's celebration by Nadfas of its 40 years of education and conservation in heritage and the arts. He took early retirement in 2006, hoping to write and to work in his core area of interest, but this was not enough and led to ill health, clinical depression and his untimely death by drowning.

He was a devoted family man and a generous host to a wide circle of friends. He was elected a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries in 1983, serving on its Council from 2004-08, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts in 1997 and always maintained that he was an honorary member of an American Indian tribe.

Richard Halsey and Hugh Richmond

Thomas Hugh Cocke, architectural historian: born London 19 February 1949; Lecturer, History of Art Department, Manchester University 1973-76; Investigator, Royal Commission on the Historical Monuments of England 1976-90; FSA 1983; Member, Faculty of Architecture and History of Art, Cambridge University 1985-2000, Fellow, Darwin College 1987-2001; Chief Executive, National Association of Decorative and Fine Arts Societies 2001-06; Chairman, Mausolea and Monuments Trust 2005-2008; married 1973 Carolyn Clark (one son, one daughter); died 23 April 2008.

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