William Delafield COOK, A haystack Enlarge 1 /1

William Delafield COOK

Melbourne, Victoria, Australia 1936 – England 2015

  • England from 1959, with visits to Australia

A haystack 1976 Place made: Melbourne, Victoria, Australia
Materials & Technique: paintings, synthetic polymer paint on canvas

Dimensions: 198.0 h x 274.5 w cm
Acknowledgement: Purchased 1977
Accession No: NGA 77.515

William Delafield Cook’s paintings of haystacks reveal the extraordinary in the seemingly ordinary aspects of reality, as a humble structure made of straw takes on the appearance of a classical temple set in an open landscape. The works relate to the artist’s early appreciation of Greek temples and ruins, as well as his fascination with William Henry Fox Talbot’s early photograph, A haystack 1844.

Delafield Cook understood the ‘magic’ that early photographers felt about being able to hold or fix an image in time. He was also inspired by the films of Michelangelo Antonioni and Joseph Losey – particularly the effect of the intense, protracted scrutiny of the camera ‘gaze’ on a seemingly inconsequential aspect of reality, disrupting our normal consciousness and creating a bristling tension.

Delafield Cook painted several haystacks at intervals from 1976 through the 1980s. This was his first major painting on the theme, inspired by his impressions of one of these structures on a hill, encountered in the countryside around Geelong in Victoria.

It was one of those parched dry hills in summer and this golden shimmering thing, this structure, was sitting up there. It reminded me so much of being in Greece and coming across temple sites ... of travelling in a landscape that every now and then would resonate with a monumental kind of statement.1

Delafield Cook set the temple-like structure in the centre of the painting, which he worked on in his studio at the University of Melbourne where he was artist in residence. The image has an architectonic feel. The artist built up the surface in delicate layers; working from a dark ground to the light sky, gradually painting minute strands of dry grass and straw with fine sable brushes. The palette is deliberately limited; the raking light at one with the golden, parched straw of summer. The atmosphere is eerily motionless, as though physical and mental space are as one.

While Delafield Cook was working on A haystack in Melbourne, Fred Williams came to his studio and admired the painting, later recommending it for acquisition by the National Gallery of Australia. The haystack remains an enduring image: an ephemeral  ‘house of straw’ rendered monumental and held forever on the canvas.

Deborah Hart

1 William Delafield Cook in Deborah Hart, William Delafield Cook, Sydney: Craftsman House, 1998, p.156.


Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010
From: Anne Gray (ed), Australian art in the National Gallery of Australia, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2002