Published: December 20, 2011
One artist’s passion spawned a compelling antiques collection, an arresting blend of exquisite textures and forms. Hidden in plain sight in a seaside Cape Cod village, artist, collector and designer Scott Cook has filled his home and studio with treasures.
He has created a magical space. The entry hall hung with all manner of straw hats is a mere hint of the carefully arranged miniature world of the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries. Throughout the house, exceptional, mostly early American cloth dolls, miniature furniture and toys overflow from every corner. These collections have been gathered with the eye of an artist endowed with a refined acquisitive gene.
This artist/collector is patient and dedicated: he travels the Northeast, generally arriving at antiques shows well in advance of exhibiting dealers, eager to be the first shopper on the floor. As he puts it, “One never knows what a dealer has just discovered or taken off the wall at home!” His is also a familiar face at shops up and down the Eastern seaboard, usually accompanied by his handsome bearded collies, Winston and Willoughby.
His circuit takes him through the Pennsylvania countryside, taking in such shows as those at York, Brandywine, Ephrata, Lititz and Chester Springs, Philadelphia and Oley. His northern route takes him to New Hampshire Antiques week and local Cape Cod shows and auctions. His favorites are the shows at York and the New Hampshire shows. He also buys privately. Regardless of source, all his acquisitions are treasured.
When Cook works in his studio, he is attended by cloth dolls of every variety. They are seated in antique miniature chairs, lined up on shelves and set out on and beneath one of two antique drafting tables in the room. Cloth dolls take human and animal forms. In Cook’s collection, dolls in pairs, teddy bears in pairs, dogs in pairs, cats and mice in pairs and single examples vie for space with straw hats, colorful miniature knit mittens and gloves, shoes and socks, and miniature and full-size antique furniture.
In his collecting, Cook was first drawn to the warmth and simplicity of early furniture; his first purchase, made while he was still in college, was a cupboard. What he has always admired is when “you can see where hands have touched it.” Since he began collecting some 35 years ago, he has bought thoughtfully, waiting patiently until the exact object of desire comes up for sale.
Cook says, “As important as condition is in my collecting, there are times when condition may be slightly overridden by rarity. Provenance is valuable when available and accurate, but I feel an object must stand alone regardless of condition, rarity or provenance.” He likens collecting as a spiritual journey, with one object leading to another.
In the shadow of an early Nineteenth Century English dollhouse in the original paint and on a stretcher base, two cloth dolls in bonnets and dresses, one in a wing chair and the other in a lolling chair, enjoy a tea party. A Nineteenth Century dapple gray rocking horse is tethered nearby.
In an upstairs bedroom, a group of Amish dolls is arrayed along a shelf. The dolls, in accordance with the Amish stricture against graven images, have no facial detail. Cook points to a tiny gray Amish cloth mouse, which, he says, “I waited years to buy.” A Delaware dealer mentioned the mouse in response to his inquiry about any cloth dolls she might have tucked away. It was described as “just a little roll of rags in the form of a small gray mouse,” but not for sale. He knew and trusted her taste so he knew it was special. For some years afterward when he checked, it was still not for sale until the year the dealer brought it to New Hampshire Antiques Week for him to consider. In a nanosecond it was his.
Many early New England cloth dolls were made without faces; Cook is not sure why. In some cases, facial detail was sometimes drawn or sewn on later by the owner. Other dolls were given detailed faces, with applied noses and other features; some had carefully defined hands and feet with separate or defined fingers and toes. Cook’s collection covers the spectrum.
One of a pair of early cloth twins in their original checked gingham dresses and dimity aprons bears a handwritten note: “I’m a twin. We were made in 1885 in Calais, Maine, by the Grandma of Martha Risley Harris of Everett. Isn’t it time we had new dresses, slat bonnets and wigs? Our penciled features are fading.” It is remarkable that they have stayed together over the years.
An Eighteenth Century Colchester, Conn., cherry secretary attributed to the Lord or Samuel Loomis group retains the undisturbed original dry surface, original brasses and has great history. It is a repository of Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century receipts belonging to the original owner, one Captain Elias Selden of Haddam Neck, and passed down in his family until 1978 when it entered the market. Cook connected even more with the secretary after he visited Selden’s home, where the secretary first stood, and his nearby grave. Its interior serves as a display space for dolls and miniature decorative accessories and toys.
Cook, who grew up in Jackson, Miss., retains the mannerisms and gentle speech patterns of his boyhood. A visitor to his Cape Cod home and studio is greeted warmly; a fig preserve cake, made according to his mother’s recipe and still warm from the oven, and a bowl of freshly picked fruit are set out on a table that also displays a group of velveteen animals in singles and pairs. Winston and Willoughby wait patiently in the garden.
As a child, the artist gained an appreciation of antiques, tagging along with his mother, a prodigious collector who frequented area shops and traveled through the Northeast to buy. Jackson dealer Edna Bowling was another strong influence in Cook’s collecting. Bowling operated Cottage Antiques and she, too, made regular trips to the Northeast to buy New England and Pennsylvania antiques that she brought back to Jackson and offered for sale at well-attended “openings” in her shop.
Still a schoolboy, Cook studied art with the renowned Jackson artist Marie Hull and sculpture with his neighbor, sculptor Katherine Rhymes Speed Ettl, known for her monumental bronzes. The artist was also active in local theatrical productions, appearing onstage with Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Beth Henley in Summer and Smoke. (They played children.) Other Jackson influences included Eudora Welty, who wrote a blurb for his illustration of the 1998 book With a Whoop and a Holler by Nancy Van Laan.
At college he embarked on a pre-med course, hoping for a career as a pediatrician. When he met with organic chemistry, he switched to business. After college, he tried out several jobs, not sure his artistic efforts would support him. He studied puppetry in Dallas with Master Puppeteer Paddy Blackwood. He moved to Philadelphia to study sculpture with Angelo Frudakis at the Frudakis Academy of Classic Realism, studied with Arthur DeCosta at the Philadelphia Academy of the Fine Arts and taught art to middle school students at a Philadelphia independent school.
Later, he studied with Henry Hensche at his Cape Cod School of Art, one of the earliest schools to teach outdoor figure painting. Cook’s visits to the Cape were more and more frequent until he settled there in 1995.
To say that the artist is multifaceted would be a large understatement. A highly acclaimed painter and sculptor, teacher, designer and puppeteer, he is also a much-in-demand illustrator.
An art project for his students led Cook to create papier mache figures of a goose and a frog that he used as models for oil paintings. He sent photographs of the project to an editor at Alfred Knopf in New York and the result was a contract to illustrate The Gingerbread Boy , published in 1987 . He is the award-winning illustrator of ten children’s books; the 11th, Lapin Plays Possum: Trickster Tales From the Louisiana Bayou, adapted by Sharon Arms Doucet, was released this past November by Pelican Publishing.
It is not clear whether Cook’s paintings and illustrations emanate from his collections or vice versa. Either way, they are interwoven inextricably. His illustrations of cloth animals are suffused with joy; in his paintings, he says he paints the light between the eye and the object. His still lifes with fruit and bears and other cloth dolls draw on the spirit of his collections, and landscapes are of Mississippi and Cape Cod locations. His work is shown in galleries in New England and Mississippi. Of his collections, which are arranged thoughtfully throughout his house and into the garden, he admits, “My setting feeds my soul and my life.” Even in the well-designed garden he effects the unique blend of Mississippi and Massachusetts: four crepe myrtle grow among the native plants.
Attracted to Steiff animals as a boy, he still has his own first Steiff elephant, a boyhood gift. Cook is eloquent about the quality and construction of the animals and the talents of the Steiff family artists who made them. His interest has persisted. He has made several still life paintings of his Steiff favorites, including his oil on canvas “Old Steiff Friends,” which depicts two Steiff bears made in Germany around 1905.
In addition to his roles as artist and designer, Cook also helps collectors arrange their collections. He carries out school presentations throughout the academic calendar as well, using his puppets and sculpted figures to introduce pupils to the process of making art.
For information, 508-888-7728 or www.byscottcook.com .
5 Church Hill Road / Newtown, CT 06470
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