National Treasures

08225lGunnie Moberg (1941-2007) was a photographer, painter and designer, born in Sweden and an Orkney woman by adoption. A small grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund has enabled Orkney Library and Archive to acquire and conserve her archive. A website has just gone live to begin to tell the story of Gunnie Moberg, her work and her important place in Orkney’s remarkable post-war cultural life.


There are photographs of the natural world of the Northern Isles, including birds and seals (a particular love), of the ancient past, of friends and her connections with George Mackay Brown and other Scots artists. But the page that sent a shiver up my spine was the archivist’s thoughts about the intimacy of handling a person’s leavings;

Today in the strongroom I came across a note from Gunnie, perhaps to herself, it has cup rings and a torn edge. I think it helps me think about what makes her vision of Orkney so important. It was her recollection of the artist Paul Klee’s quote: ‘Art does not reproduce the visible; rather, it makes visible.’

In the last years of her life, I got to know Olive Cook, writer, painter and archivist of her late husband’s photographic legacy. In her nineties, she still lived alone in the home she had made with Edwin Smith, 30 years after his death. He was a living presence, always referred to by Olive as ‘my darling’.

A pastel sketch by Edwin Smith of Olive Cook and (knitting) his mother. It was given to me by Olive at our first meeting in the 1990s/
A pastel sketch by Edwin Smith of Olive Cook and (knitting) his mother. It was given to me by Olive at our first meeting in the 1990s.

She had hoped that the house, with its handmade wallpaper and  collection of books, papers and artworks would be preserved after her death.But it went to auction, although her personal and professional papers were acquired by her former Cambridge college. When we heard about the sale, my wife, Carol Crowe, went to Cambridge and rescued some of the things that had least value to collectors – the folios of artwork from the 1930s, old sketchbooks, postcards Olive and Edwin had exchanged and so on. The jetsam of a life. One day we shall have to find a good home for it, for the sake of their work and its contribution to mid-20th century English art. But also for the sake of the remarkable woman that we were lucky enough to know.


Last week the art world was frothing excitedly at having ‘saved’ a Constable landscape for the nation, at a cost of £23 million. Apparently, it was ‘unimaginable that this particular painting might have ended up anywhere other than in a UK public collection’. It’s a fine painting and an important piece of English cultural history, but I can’t say  I would have minded particularly if the residents of Los Angeles, Tokyo or Buenos Aires had got the chance to enjoy it in their public collections. We are not really deprived of Constables paintings in Britain’s galleries. But £23 million?

The Gunnie Moberg archive was saved – yes, really saved – at the cost of £78,500. There are many Gunnie Mobergs and Olive Cooks who have helped make our culture what it is. These are truly, in Carol’s words, national treasures. We should celebrate them more than we do – and appreciate them while they are still alive.


  1. Yes, a tragedy that Olive Cook’s house and its contents were sold – the contents not even first offered to her old friends – when she had been so sure it would all be kept together. She was a remarkable woman indeed. I got to know her in the mid-1970s as an editor at Thames & Hudson, and knew her till her death.
    And good indeed that Gunnie Moberg’s archive is safely stored in Orkney, that so distinctive part of the world. The seal is splendid.
    And I agree with you entirely about the Constable. It would have been safe elsewhere. But it proves impossible too raise such money for a historic building that is otherwise lost altogether.

  2. Thanks so much for your thoughts. It’s lovely to hear from one of Olive’s friends. She had a great gift for friendship (as well as for writing, art, cooking, interior decoration and everything else). And she was a marvellous story teller. She once told me about a trip to Sicily that she and Edwin made in 1946 to take part in painting competition. She remembered every detail of every train, pensione, meal and encounter: it took three hours of a Sunday afternoon and it was one of the most vivid and enjoyable conversations of my life.

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