Robert Manuel Cook

By Spivey, Nigel | Antiquity, December 2000 | Go to article overview

Robert Manuel Cook


Spivey, Nigel, Antiquity


(4 July 1909-10 August 2000)

`Deplorable' was one of his favourite words. But among the many things that Robert Cook found deplorable, young people were not included. For three decades after his official retirement as a university teacher, he savoured their company and supported their efforts. So it is that his death, which came not long after his 91st birthday, is resented down several generations. Laurence Professor of Classical Archaeology at Cambridge from 1962 until 1976, specializing in the classification of archaic East Greek pottery (`Wild Goat', `Clazomenian', `Fikellura' and so on), Robert Cook was both an unlikely and unwilling candidate for cult status. Yet that is what came about: a sort of veneration, itself rooted in the pleasures of irreverence.

As a scholar, Cook was accurate and incorruptible. His brisk esteem for the Classical past is evident enough in the book he wrote for Glyn Daniel's `People and Places' series, The Greeks till Alexander (1962); while his commonsensical assessments of Greek art are probably best found in the handbook of Greek Painted Pottery which he wrote in 1960, and is deservedly still in print today. Flashes of drollery there however indicate an academic who did not take himself, nor anyone else, too seriously. He scorned all theorizing, and was quick to spot a bluffer; but he also goaded his students to take issue with his own opinions. If, at a conversational level, this entailed making mischievous remarks, then so be it. He would commend a squirrel-shooting neighbour, for example: maintaining that all animals were mankind's natural enemies and warranted extermination. Faced with a nonsmoker, he would argue that the lungs needed a good coating of nicotine, to protect them from infection (he was the sort of hardened pipe-puffer that picks up a cigarette as if reaching for a breath of fresh air).

He was devoted to his wife Kathleen, with whom he did much travelling around Greece and the Aegean; together they wrote an archaeological guide to Southern Greece, complete with estimates as to how many gallons of Retsina a tourist needed to consume before gaining a taste for that wine. But after she died, in 1979, he diligently learned some culinary skills, and made a practice of inviting people round on a Saturday night. Guests were rarely the parochial great and good; more likely their rebellious offspring, or some undergraduate encountered in Athens, or a lonely research student who had helped him negotiate the ever more savage library security system. …

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