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Beryl Cook

Beryl Cook, self-taught artist (although she modestly described herself as a “maker of pictures”), died on 28 May 2008. She was 81.

By all accounts she was a very private person, the antithesis of the larger-than-life characters in her paintings. The Times comments:

Attracted to the bright lights so long as they did not shine on her, she preferred to sit on the periphery of the action with her husband and a drink, looking on in shy appreciation as any of life’s extroverts who felt like doing so provocatively twanged bra straps or nonchalantly juggled with wine bottles.

The Guardian notes (as do the other newspapers) that the art establishment never regarded her as a true artist:

[H]er work had been on postage stamps along with Renoir and Rodin, but never in the Tate or the National galleries. The chief criticism was that she was unserious – nobody in a Beryl Cook is having a bad, sad time. Brian Sewell spat that hers was a “very successful formula which fools are prepared to buy”, anti-art without “the intellectual honesty of an inn sign for the Pig and Whistle – a vulgar streak”.

(The Times adds that “Cook, an experienced judge of the performing arts, endearingly forgave him because he was, she said, so entertaining”!)

Her early life wasn’t always easy. The Daily Telegraph has this to say about it:

Her father, an engineer, walked out on the family when she was very young and her mother, an office worker, moved to Reading where Beryl and her sisters were supported by their paternal grandfather.

Beryl went to Kendrick Girls’ School, Reading, but left school aged 14 to train as a typist. During the war, she became a showgirl, but out of shyness soon gave it up. She also worked briefly but unsuccessfully as a secretary before helping her mother run a tea garden near Hampton Court.

Despite her huge commercial success (her paintings regularly commanded five-figure fees, and she often produced one per fortnight) her home life remained endearingly simple; this from The Independent:

Beryl and John Cook’s life in Plymouth was a quiet and a very happy one, with Friday nights down at the Dolphin, their favourite pub, on the Barbican, then perhaps next door for fish and chips. Life in the Dolphin was well documented in her paintings, most famously in The Wake: Beryl and John were just about to go into the pub one day when someone came flying out of the door with a black eye. The mourning had clearly got out of hand.

There seems to be a consensus that if there was one thing that made Beryl Cook’s paintings stand out, it was her flamboyant, shrewd but sympathetic observation of the people around her. In her own words, as quoted in The Times:

[I]t was the people who interested her. “I hope it doesn’t become too noticeable that the people get larger and the backgrounds get smaller (or non-existent) in the public house pictures,” she wrote in a compilation of her work, Beryl Cook: The Bumper Edition (2000). “It was to save me the trouble of painting all those bottles on bars, partly because I am lazy, but also because I’m very impatient to get on with painting the people.”

(Beryl Frances Cook (neé Lansley), born 10 September 1926 in Egham, Surrey, died 28 May 2008 in Plymouth, Devon.)