Pan-Giorgionism: Herbert Frederick Cook (1868-1939) as art writer.


Even in a period of fluid professional boundaries and fast moving social change the life and work of Herbert Cook appear enormously productive, if somehow difficult to narrate in a linear manner.

Cook is first and foremost, as Andrea Geddes Poole demonstrated, an excellent example of upward mobility in Britain in the early 20th century: he was the member of the fourth generation of a merchant family, whose integration into aristocracy was facilitated by their patronage of the arts. An active businessman and a barrister, Cook devoted himself to various philanthropic causes, such as the National Art Collection Fund (now Art Fund) which he supported from its inception in 1903. Cook was also one of the founders of the Burlington, one of its most important financial supporters during its early financial crisis of 1903-1904, part of its consultative committee from its very beginning in 1903 until his death in 1939, and its contributor from 1903 until 1926 (see the bibliography provided here).

Cook’s involvement in the art world was not of mere financial support. His grandfather, Francis Cook, had amassed one of the largest collections of fine art in the country, kept at Doughty House in Richmond, and Herbert was a competent scholar and writer of art as well as a collector himself. Herbert’s approach to art was definitely ‘hands on’: he organised exhibitions and compiled their catalogues, he did so especially for the Burlington Fine Arts Club, but also for other galleries, and notably he put together the 1913 Spanish Art Exhibition at the Grafton Galleries. His patronage continued in parallel with his curatorial activity: it was him who donated anonymously the first £10,000 for the acquisition of Velazquez’s Rokeby Venus to the National Gallery. In 1916 Cook was nominated trustee of the National Portrait Gallery and in 1923 trustee of the National Gallery.

As Geddes Poole noted, although a baronet – he succeeded his father Frederick to the title in 1920 – and therefore nominally an aristocrat, Cook should be distinguished from the other aristocratic members of the National Gallery board. The Cooks’ wealth and prestige was of relatively new origins. Cook was a man of business: his entry in the Who’s Who identified him firstly as a partner in Cook & Sons, the warehouse on which his great-grandfather had founded the family fortune. As Geddes Poole writes, ‘Cook’s wealth was not based on land but was the product of a draper’s enterprising assistant seizing the opportunity presented by the peninsular war.’ (p. 23) Although Cook did purchase a country house in Dorset he did not seek to found a landed dynasty and can be seen as an example of ‘amphibious’ businessman who retains and refreshes the source of his wealth while acquiring sufficient real property to be accepted by the county.

By the mid-1890s Cook, who studied at Balliol College (Oxford), was a barrister and a contributor to prestigious art journals such as the Gazette des Beaux-Arts where, for instance, he published a detailed account of the archival history of Leonardo’s Virgin with Saint Anne cartoon, then in the Diploma Gallery of the Royal Academy (now London National Gallery) . In those years Cook’s methodology was at the forefront of art history: precise archival research and Morellian connoisseurship. Cook did not hesitate to criticise works of art in the family collection – for instance in his Burlington 1907 article (No. 19 in the bibliography here), he described a portrait attributed to Ambrogio de’Predis in his family collection thus: ‘here is Ambrogio sleek and insipid, Ambrogio if you will in a dull and listless mood’. When in the winter of 1894 the (in)famous exhibition of Venetian painting opened at the New Gallery, in which the three hundred paintings exhibited still had the rather optimistic attributions given to them by their owners, Cook sponsored and wrote the preface for the pamphlet written by Bernard (and possibly Mary) Berenson in which many of these attributions were disputed. Of 33 Titians in view, Berenson affirmed, only one was painted by him, none of the 8 paintings thought to be by Bonifacio de’Pitati was genuine and neither were thirteen listed under the name of Paolo Veronese. Of 18 or 19 paintings attributed to Bellini only 3 were genuine.

In these years authenticity was a main concern of art history and the catalogue raisonné was considered the apex of scholarly publications. In 1900 Cook published a monograph on Giorgione in which he included a catalogue raisonné of his works. If Cook’s methodology was sound, sometimes his results were not so and in his enthusiasm for Giorgione he ascribed to this artist works that are no longer considered to be autograph. In fact, both Berenson and Fry accused Cook of ‘pan-Giorgionism’, namely to believe that every high quality Venetian painting was by Giorgione.

If one attributes ever plausible work to Giorgione, one is bound to get it right sometimes. In fact, one of the works for which the majority of the art-historical community has confirmed Cook’s opinion against Fry and Berenson is the Allendale Nativity, to which Cook referred as the Beaumont Adoration (illustrated here, Washington, National Gallery of Art). Cook recognised the uneven quality of this work,  describing it thus:

‘one of the most poetically conceived representations of this familiar subject which exists. The actual group of figures forms but an episode in a landscape of the most entrancing beauty, lighted by the rising sun, and wrapped in a soft atmospheric haze. […] The figures, on the other hand, are weak, very unequal in size, and feebly expressed, except the Madonna, who has charm. The lights and shadows are treated in a masterly way, and contrasts of gloom and sunlight enhance the solemnity of the scene. The general tone is rich and full of subdued colour.’ (p. 21)

The argument that Cook applied to sustain his attribution to Giorgione is stylistic: this work, even in its perceived weaknesses and in its uneven quality, is consistent with Giorgione’s characteristics. And here, crucially, is where Berenson and Cook diverge: for Berenson it was a matter of recognising Giorgione’s ‘quality’, and Berenson felt Cook did not possess this skill; whereas for Cook it was important to establish what Giorgione’s stylistic characteristics where – positive and negative.

‘Some may object that the drawing of the shepherd is atrocious, and that the figures are of disproportionate sizes. Such failings, they say, cannot be laid to a great master’s charge. This is an appeal to the old argument that it is not good enough, whereas the true test lies in the question, Is it characteristic? Of Giorgione it certainly is a characteristic to treat each figure in a composition more or less by itself; he isolates them, and this conception is often emphasised by an outward disparity of size. The relative disproportion of the figures in the Castelfranco altar-piece, and of those of Aeneas and Evander in the Vienna picture [now known as The Tempest] can hardly be denied, yet no one has ever pleaded this as a bar to their authenticity. Instances of this want of cohesion, both in conception and execution, between the various figures in a scene could be multiplied in Giorgione’s work […]. Moreover, eccentricities of drawing are not uncommon in his work, as a reference to the “Adrastus and Hypsipyle,” [now known as The Tempest] and later works, like the “Fête Champêtre” (of the Louvre), will show.’ (p. 23)

Cook was sure this was an autograph work by Giorgione: ‘I have no hesitation, therefore, in recognising this “Adoration of the Shepherds” as a genuine work of Giorgione, and, moreover, it appears to be the masterpiece of that early period when Bellini’s influence was still strong upon him.’ (p. 24)

Herbert began to gather a personal collection to be stored in his own house around 1910. These works were later kept at at Doughty House, together with the collection that his father, Frederick Cook, had inherited from his father Francis. During his lifetime Herbert acquired at least 64 paintings, including Titian’s Portrait of a Lady,’ La Schiavona’ (London, National Gallery) that he identified as Caterina Cornaro and attributed to Titian and Giorgione. In 1913-1916 the whole Cook collection was catalogued by T. Borenius (Italian pictures), J. O. Kronig (Dutch and Flemish pictures) and M. Brockwell (all others) – Elon Danziger has pointed out the impeccable scholarly care with which the catalogue was compiled. When Cook’s father died and Herbert ascended to the family title, he nominated Brockwell as collection curator. In the 1920s their firm, after suffering badly during the war, was in decline, and Cook, after he unsuccessfully attempted to change its fortune, resigned in 1931. The last years of Cook’s life were spent in ill health and he died in May 1939. After his death the collection was slowly dispersed and the last works were sold by Christie’s in 2005.

Some aspects of Herbert Cook’s life, such as his involvement with the family collection and his activity as a trustee have been explored but we are still awaiting a reassessment of his work as an art historian. Such work is perhaps of less interest to contemporary readers than Fry’s or Berenson. Nevertheless Cook was not merely a patron of the arts but a careful scholar and curator who contributed to advance the study of art as a discipline with a sound method, based on the combination of archival research with direct knowledge and close examination of the artworks. Cook’s writings, especially the ones produced in the years around the turn of the century, deserve a new reading and a new investigation.

BP, March 2014.


Herbert F. Cook, Giorgione, London, 1900 (copy available online:

Elon Danziger, ‘The Cook Collection, its founder and its inheritors’, The Burlington Magazine, July 2004, Vol. 156, pp. 444-458.

Andrea Geddes Poole, Stewards of the Nation’s Art. Contested Cultural Authority 1890-1939, Toronto Buffalo London, 2010, pp. 22-24, 195-198.

Attributed to Giorgione, The Adoration of the Shepherds, 1505/1510, oil on panel, Washington, National Gallery of Art.

Ambrogio de’Predis (?), Portrait of a Young Man, formerly Herbert Cook Collection.


Herbert Frederick Cook’s writings for The Burlington Magazine:
1. ‘Three Unpublished Italian Portraits’, March 1903, Vol. 1, pp.184-187.
2. ‘Two Alleged ‘Giorgiones’’, June 1903, Vol. 2, pp. 78-85.
3. ‘Some Notes on the Early Milanese Painters Butinone and Zenale. Part I’, January 1904, Vol. 4, pp. 84-94.
4. ‘Some Notes on the Early Milanese Painters Butinone and Zenale. Part II’, February 1904, Vol. 4, pp. 178-185.
5. ‘Some Notes on the Early Milanese Painters Butinone and Zenale. Part III: Zenale as a Portrait Painter (conclusion)’, May 1904, Vol. 5, pp. 199-203.
6. ‘The Wings of a Triptych’, September 1904, Vol. 5, pp. 573, 575.
7. ‘Two Early Giorgiones in Sir Martin Conway’s Collection’, November 1904, Vol. 6, pp. 156-157.
8. ‘The Identification of Two Painters’ Portraits’, March 1905, Vol. 6, pp. 450-455.
9. ‘The ‘Savoldo’ in the National Gallery’, August 1905, Vol. 7, p. 398.
10. ‘The True Portrait of Laura de’ Dianti by Titian’, September 1905, Vol. 7, pp. 449-455.
11. ‘The Bramantino Portraits from San Martino di Guznago’, November 1905, Vol. 8, pp. 135-141.
12. ‘Identification of an Early Spanish Master’, November 1905, Vol. 8, pp. 129, 131.
13. ‘Some Venetian Portraits in English Possession’, February 1906. Vol. 8, pp. 338-344.
14. ‘The New Haven Pollaiuolo’, April 1906, Vol. 9, pp. 52-53.
15. ‘Notes on Pictures in the Royal Collections Article IX-‘The Lovers,’ at Buckingham Palace’, May 1906, Vol. 9, pp. 70-75+78-79
16. ‘The Nation’s New Raphael, October 1906, Vol. 10, pp. 2+29-30.
17. ‘Notes on the Study of Titian’, November 1906, Vol. 10, pp. 102-109.
18. ‘A Re-Discovered Velazquez’, December 1906, Vol. 10, pp. 169+171-173.
19. ‘A Portrait of a Musician, by Leonardo da Vinci’, November 1907, Vol. 12, pp. 91-93+103.
20. ‘Pacheco, the Master of Velazquez’, February 1908, Vol. 12, pp. 295+298-300.
21. ‘The Concert at Asolo, after Giorgione’, April 1909, Vol. 15, pp. 38-39+43
22. ‘The Newly-Discovered ‘Leonardo’’, May 1909, Vol. 15, pp. 108-109+112-113.
23. ‘The Picture Attributed to Conrad Witz in the Cook Collection’, June 1909, Vol. 15, pp. 173-174.
24. ‘Some Early Portuguese Paintings’, July 1909, Vol. 15, pp. 232-233+236-237
25. ‘Four Early Catalan Paintings’, August 1909, Vol. 15, pp. 308-309+311
26. ‘Venetian Portraits, and Some Problems’, March 1910, Vol. 16, pp. 328-329+332-334
27. ‘Francesco Napoletano’, February 1911, Vol. 18, pp. 290-291
28. ‘Baldassare D’Este’, July 1911, Vol. 19, pp. 228-229+232-233
29. ‘Leonardo da Vinci and Some Copies’, December 1911, Vol. 20, pp. 128-130+132-133
30. ‘The Portrait of Ginevra dei Benci by Leonardo da Vinci’, March 1912, Vol. 20, pp. 345-347
31. ‘Further Light on Del Mazo’, September 1913, Vol. 23, pp. 322-323
32. ‘More Portraits by Sofonisba Anguissola’, March 1915, Vol. 26, pp. 228-236
33. ‘Further Light on Baldassare D’Este’, June 1915, Vol. 27, pp. 98-99+102-104
34. ‘A Note on Spanzotti, the Master of Sodoma’, December 1918, Vol. 33, pp. 208-209
35. ‘A Giorgione Problem’, January 1926, Vol. 48, pp. 22-25
36. ‘Dr. Justi on Giorgione’, June 1926, Vol. 48, pp. 311-313



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