Martyn Gregory Cook (1958-2019) was a rare and very special individual, a very fine colleague and good friend to many. An extraordinary man of influence and perception, Martyn was witty, wise, wonderfully kind and exceedingly generous.
To write personally about the very happy and amazing experiences we shared over a forty-year period is today still hard, as indeed it was when with a sad and heavy heart, I performed the role of Master of Ceremonies for a Memorial-Celebration of his life.
This took place Thursday April 11, 2019 at Sydney in the historical surroundings of the National Art School at Darlinghurst, in one of its restored colonial heritage buildings.
Hundreds and hundreds of people gathered to bid him a fond farewell and I was reminded how we never know the true value of a moment until it becomes a memory.
More recently a founding director of The David Roche Foundation House Museum and Gallery (TDRF) in North Adelaide, as well as Australia’s leading authority on English and European antiques in a sterling career that spanned four decades, Martyn Cook passed away suddenly in the early hours of Tuesday April 2, 2019 at Sydney.
Each person present at his memorial had a special memory of a moment spent with a great man, one who valued highly their participation in his life. The crowd flowed out of the historical space into the courtyard, where hundreds also watched the ceremony on TV, remembering their friend and colleague by using technology, perhaps the one thing he never quite managed to master himself very well.
Martyn Cook’s personal philosophy on life and his pursuit of excellence, which would always be ongoing, had already been embraced when we first met in 1980. He looked for all the world as if he had just stepped out of an elite tailor’s shop on Saville Row.
Intrigued and also very definitely charmed by this cheeky 22 year old, we met at Paul Kenny Antiques, a very chic ‘Regency style’ salon in Hargrave Street, Paddington, a suburb of Sydney, where he was working at the time.
The suburb was a hive of activity, busily undergoing restoration and rejuvenation by the ‘baby boomers’. Full of historical houses, Martyn Cook was indeed, the right man in the right place at the right time.
When we met, he left me wondering momentarily at least, where all the hutzpah he so daringly showcased had come from, as he dazzled with his knowledge both theoretical and practical.
Put on the spot by his ‘boss’ Paul Kenny’s absence, he lectured ‘off the cuff’ both brilliantly and authoritatively to adult students of Anna Clark, a decorative arts lecturer from England, whom I was assisting part-time.
He towered over me with his impressive six-foot seven-stature, holding out a huge hand to shake mine, which was completely swallowed up in the experience. He smiled warmly and I knew instantly, my world had changed forever.
“I’m Martyn Cook” he said boldly… on that fateful morning,
“…that’s Martyn with a y” he said firmly.
There was an immediate connection, as I instantly replied when shaking his.
“How do you do Martyn with a y, I am Carolyn McDowall, that is McDowall with an a, not an e”… I answered seriously…
… and we both paused for a few seconds looking at each other intently, then joyously laughed out loud together.
Laughter became an important part of his routine and certainly integral to every moment we spent together over the forty years of true friendship we treasured. If you ever had the chance to meet and spend time with Martyn, I am sure it was your happy experience too.
During the first year following our encounter of the special kind, I discovered Martyn had previously spent a few years in the hairdressing trade, winning apprentice of the year three times.
His pathway had already been set; leading him to follow his passion and to always pursue the highest possible standard of excellence for the rest of his life.
He explained how one day his life changed forever when a very high-profile society lady hairdressing client invited him to her home one weekend for a ‘do’ she was holding.
This is where he viewed, and had been amazed by her collection of furniture, which she explained were antiques a phenomenon he had neither beheld, or experienced at home as a teenager growing up in country northern NSW.
At this point Martyn was in himself quite shy, I know, you’re amazed, but it’s true. That encounter however changed his life’s direction because he had an immediate reaction and all that inner strength he had came rushing to the surface, helping him to move forward, rapidly.
He began by reading every book on antiques he could find at the library nearby, from those lent to him, or recommended to purchase by others.
By this time his personal presentation was wearing ‘le style Anglais’, although I have it ‘on authority’, at first his shoes were by Alan Macafee, prior to the Oxfords he wore hand made by Mr. John Lobb.
Martyn’s grasp of ‘Englishness’, led many people to believe he had been born into its aristocracy. His charismatic beautifully-spoken voice helped that image – he puzzled most of the people most of the time.
Martyn’s good fortune was to be born with a photographic memory and I witnessed him using it first-hand on many many occasions.
We would be working away and he would remember a table like one he had been looking at purchasing. “I have seen this before” he would say, and then skimming along a shelf of his growing library, would pull out a sale catalogue from the 70’s. He would open it and lo and behold, there was its twin.
At Paul Kenny Antiques on that first day we met I inquired if he knew about Regency antiques, having just discovered his boss Mr Kenny, who had agreed to give the talk to Ms Clark’s students, was absent in London.
He re-assured me… he had read all the books. “I can do it” he said as he confidently walked out from behind the desk where he had been sitting, striding purposefully towards his new target market.
Introducing him to Anna Clark and to all her ladies, who had paid well for the privilege of hearing Mr Kenny speak, I saw her eyes widen in ‘horror’ thinking how would this young man with Boticelli curls know anything about antiques at all?
After all, he was so much younger than she was. What have you got me into Carolyn ! Let’s face it, at that point a London import, Anna Clark was truly steeped in the arts; apart from her own very impressive family history (related to Kenneth Clark – Civilisation), she had been studying for years at the Sorbonne in Paris and Courtauld Institute of Art in London before arriving in Australia.
She also had gained extensive practical experience while working for Sotheby’s in London before coming down under. So, who was this guy?
We were all soon to find out, and I have to say, this spontaneous talk his first, remains for me the most amazing of all the brilliant talks I heard Martyn give throughout his lifetime, and there were many.
Indeed, Martyn and I would end up lecturing to students of design history and the decorative arts together at a much later date. For more than a decade in Sydney and Brisbane, he generously encouraged my endeavour to found a specialist design history and the decorative arts teaching academy.
Those who attended the Diploma Course knew how privileged they were to be in the presence of someone with his amazing knowledge and skills, and they were always thankful, enjoying the experience.
Essays on his subject abounded because he was so inspiring.
Over the years my admiration for Martyn’s vision and insight grew, as he just as gradually, became an encouraging, empowering and enriching influence on so many people, including my own family.
My three sons were 8, 10 and 12 and very impressionable, when they first met Martyn and he became a role model par excellence during their formative years.
Whenever they saw him he brilliantly kept them laughing aloud with his seeming silliness, and as they matured and grew into young men, dazzled them with his wondrously witty commentary.
When he left their presence, whether they knew it or not at the time, he had inspired and empowered them to think about what really constitutes a good life.
His influence, I would like to believe now he is physically gone, will continue on for us all in so many subtle ways. Their memories of him are so fondly drawn.
Our personal relationship as it strengthened over the years became all about an enduring friendship; for just on forty years he was quite simply my bestie.
We rescued each other on more than one occasion from difficult situations, as we invested in each other and success.
Working both for him, and with him in a number of different capacities over the time we were both colleagues and friends, I would observe Martyn always had the courage to be true to self, while trusting his inner force for good within.
He phoned regularly, usually very early, just as the day began. We visited each other often, from the day I found myself, following a divorce in 1999 by default a resident of Brisbane, to when I arrived in Melbourne to retire at the end of 2009.
During the last decade or so, he lived in Adelaide but we were in touch as often as his work would allow, usually weekly.
If it went for two weeks or more, especially when he was away, we would catch up when he returned, talking as long as time and all the others clamouring for a minute of his time, would allow.
It’s good to remember his adoring, and adored dogs Ella and Billie, who were intrinsic to Martyn’s love of life. They went just about everywhere he did and they adored him too.
Walking on Bondi Beach at dawn with Martyn and a mutual friend Mac, as well as breakfasting and feeding the ducks in Centennial Park with the Sunday, or weekday regulars, was a special treat I wouldn’t have missed for the world.
We breakfasted, lunched and dined, attended events, had trips away together in those early heady days or, simply just had a coffee with the regulars at the Coluzzi Bar in Kings Cross.
Will never forget the morning we were there and the late Lady Mary Fairfax arrived in her hot pink track suit wearing stilettos. While everyone else remained speechless, his great wit prevailed.
There was also a famous dinner with Melbourne’s living legend at the time, designer John Coote. Together with some very notable people in the ‘arts industry’ both international and local, we enjoyed a memorable dinner at Florentino’s, Melbourne. I was the only girl with seven guys sitting at the ‘famed’ centre table! Jokes abounded!
When his client and mutual friend from North Adelaide David Roche (1930-2013) passed away, I helped him sort through the fragile goods he was taking by hand from David’s other house at Woollahra in Sydney, where we also re-discovered our mutual passion for the movies, especially Star Wars.
When he was first organising Fermoy House North Adelaide to be a house museum before staff had arrived, he flew me over to help set up the many different rooms with David’s wonderful pieces.
In my experience, Martyn was always inordinately kind, especially to me even when I was being a pain in the neck.
He was the very epitome of what a best friend is meant to be; someone who will help pull you up when you need it, but never ever put you down. He always had my back and was always non-judgmental.
When I suffered a personal crisis in 2000, he hopped onto a plane without any fuss and arrived in Brisbane from Sydney where he surprised me as he wanted to personally offer both hope and his help.
His kindness and generosity will always be remembered by my sons. Martyn phoned three times from Adelaide during his last week, including the day before he went to Sydney for a final treatment for his illness, …
He couldn’t believe during the last year, when I was suddenly diagnosed and operated on for bowel cancer, that we had both ended up having a terminal illness at the same time.
One of my wonderful memories during this last year was his unexpectedly arriving at my door to pick me up in an Uber to take me out to lunch as a surprise and to spend the afternoon together at the NGV, before he headed back to Adelaide.
Every time Martyn phoned during the last six months he signed off by asking me to remind him he was coming to Melbourne just before Xmas; he was anxious not to forget.
He wanted so much to join my three sons and my friends, who are helping me reach my goal of making it to December 20 to see Episode IX of the Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, the last in the original movie series we all enjoy.
During his career Martyn Cook admired wonderful and beautiful things both big and small, especially those that reflected the skill of others, who also had a keen eye for beauty of form.
He visited every dealer’s premises he could as his knowledge and experience grew, while committing what he saw to that extraordinary memory of his. It helped him to find many fine and wondrous things for both clients and friends.
One day driving back from Paramatta, we stopped at a second hand shop on Parramatta Road, where we conducted a quick reconnoiter of the premises. Arriving out at his car he handed me $500 and said ‘no bargaining’ and sent me back to buy a small table of the English ‘pie crust’ type he had pointed out to me during our brief encounter.
Once back inside, I secured the table for $350, bargaining was in my blood! Cross, but happy he sent it off to England where it fetched an absolute fortune at auction. It was at the height of antique fever.
Like all of us, Martyn Cook was not immune to making mistakes along the way, but he always learned from them. He did his best to stay on good terms with all his clients, as well as those from all walks of life and all backgrounds, who worked with him on a daily basis. They were loyal to him right back.
He helped many people feel better about who they were by helping them increase their overall confidence in self. If you were having a bad hair day, he was someone who cared and would always ask if he could help.
Otherwise he instinctively knew when he should let you be alone, because that was what you needed to get through. He was entirely selfless.
Martyn Cook’s loss is deeply and keenly felt. He will always be remembered and mourned by his loving family and friends, his local, national and international colleagues, his many acquaintances in the antique trade, including all those who supported him throughout his life with essential services.
Added to that list are his friends and followers on social media, for whom he was not only the very best of men but also a best pal.
How do I know this? Because during the week after he passed they shared their stories with me via texts, messages, emails and phone calls, letting me know just how they felt, while asking me to offer their love and condolences to his family.
Everyone dies, but not everyone lives to have a positive influence on others or to make a difference.
We need to seek Martyn Cook in the heart of his amazing life, while celebrating his inspiring presence in ours.
Martyn loved the stories attached to much loved and admired items, especially those related to royalty.
The weekend before he died he related to me how he had just found something wonderful in an auction. Elated by his success; purchasing his ‘find’ for TDRF at a good price. This always made him happy.
He phoned too as he wanted to let me know he had just donated his library of books to TDRF, the reason being he wanted me to do the same.
He knew I have an excellent small but very well-chosen range of books on design history and the decorative arts, which would aid their educational aims in the future.
Deep down, knowing how ill Martyn was, after he had ended his third call that week on the Sunday before he died on the Monday night, I was left feeling very unsettled.
He said he had phoned to ‘just to hear the sound of my voice’, which made me both teary and thoughtful, reflecting on what a positive and loving impact he had made on my life and that of my family for such a long time. And, there are many people with a cavalcade of stories to tell about their encounters with this great man. Also, I haven’t really touched the surface with mine.
Today it is difficult for us to articulate what has enriched so many generations past, but the qualities and values great men like Martyn Cook have individually held, and honoured, are still worth seeking.
Dearest much-loved Martyn you will be missed forever. My boys, Paul Ross and Craig and I will always hold you in a special place in all our hearts.
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are…*
Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2019