This lady is one of the famous painters of England and she did this in my hometown of Plymouth. Don’t her painting look a lot like Fernando Botero‘s?
Beryl Cook: ‘I expected to paint like Stanley Spencer. It was a great disappointment to me when I realised that I didn’t’
Beryl Cook, who has died aged 81, was a one-time seaside landlady who became popularly known as “the woman who paints fat ladies”; with the possible exception of Jack Vettriano, there was no living British artist whose work was better known to the general public, yet the British art establishment fought for years to keep her paintings out of their galleries.
Beryl Cook painted what she described as “ordinary people enjoying themselves” and recorded the foibles of the British better than any documentary. Vulgar, raucous and straightforward, her paintings were as saucy as the seaside postcards of Donald McGill; she painted plump people in everyday and sometimes surreal situations, with special emphasis on bottoms and bosoms.
Among her cast of characters are fat, uninhibited matrons oozing out of corsets as they cavort on the dance floor; big-bottomed girls in leggings and stilettos wearing the self-satisfied smiles of the sexually alluring; and fat members of the working class lying on the beach, drinking in the pub or guzzling lobsters.
She claimed to paint people fat because “the bigger they are the less background there is to fill in”, yet her technique was not as simple as it seemed: Beryl Cook’s figures were always instantly recognisable types, their expressions eloquent of human emotions from salacious glee to gormless preoccupation, their comic effect achieved with a detached ironical eye which noted the details of their absurdity.
Beryl Cook’s paintings graced everything from stamps to school books, greetings cards and advertisements and she sold her paintings across the world. Yet the critics hated her: Time Out refused to include her exhibitions in its listings and the Tate never bought one of her paintings. Brian Sewell said of her art: “It doesn’t have the intellectual honesty of the Pig and Whistle. It has a kind of vulgar streak which has nothing to do with art.”
Yet infuriatingly for the artistic establishment, her paintings, (produced at a rate of about one a fortnight) commanded up to £20,000 apiece; even more infuriating was that Beryl Cook herself seemed to share their low opinion of her own work. “I know there are some artists who look down on my work,” she said, “and when you compare mine with some of the others, I can see what they’re getting at.”
People invariably wanted to know whether Beryl Cook was fat like her paintings. In fact she was neither fat nor jolly, but thin, almost pathologically shy and extremely neurotic, so much so that several interviewers concluded that her painting was an outlet for the repressed desires and emotions she never dared to express.
She had a disconcerting habit of laughing uncontrollably when uneasy; disabled people or dwarves would reduce her to wheezy hysterics and she could not sit in an audience at a theatre without bursting into fits of nervous giggles. Not surprisingly she rarely gave interviews and never attended private views or publicity events for her own work.
She had such a phobia of formal social situations that she never had people to dinner or went out to dinner: “I’d be completely tied and there’d be no escape whatsoever.” She did her socialising in pubs, but always sat next to the door “because I know I’ve got a means of escape”. When in 1996 she was appointed OBE, she “simply could not” go to London to meet the Queen, though she felt sorry for her family who would have enjoyed it. Instead, she agreed to accept the honour from the Lord Lieutenant in Plymouth, though she vetoed a civic reception.
Despite her fame and wealth, Beryl Cook continued to live a life of breathtaking ordinariness. Only her terraced house, off Plymouth Hoe, where she lived with her husband John, her dogs and two tortoises, reflected something of the cheerful tastelessness of her paintings, with garden gnomes, antimacassars on the velour three piece suite, ancient lamps advertising Guinness and collections of cruets and Art Deco dancing girls.
She was born Beryl Frances Lansley at Egham, Surrey, on September 10 1926, one of four sisters. 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.
In 1948 she married John Cook, a merchant seaman whom she had first met at the age of 10 when his family moved next door to hers in Reading. She spent much of their first decade of marriage alone while her husband was at sea, but after he left the Merchant Navy in 1958 he took a job with a motor company in Rhodesia and the family (their only son, John, was born in 1950) moved with him and lived in Rhodesia for the next seven years.
Beryl disliked Rhodesia: “I didn’t like being so far from the sea and I couldn’t bear the social life which revolved around parties because there wasn’t anything else to do.” She loathed Zambia (her husband’s next posting) even more, and within nine months, the Cooks were back in England.
It was, however, in Zambia that Beryl Cook began to paint, after her husband had given her a child’s paint box for her fortieth birthday. Her early efforts disappointed: “I expected to paint like Stanley Spencer,” she confessed. “It was a great disappointment to me when I realised that I didn’t.”
Back in England, hard up and unable to find a job, she turned again to painting to occupy her time and to decorate the walls of their cottage at Looe, Cornwall.
After moving to Plymouth in the early 1970s, Beryl Cook took in lodgers to help pay the bills. In 1975 one lodger, a young actress appearing at the Plymouth Arts Centre, spotted her talent and suggested to the Centre’s director that he should go and look at her paintings. He persuaded Beryl to give an exhibition; her work was spotted by a national paper and so fame and fortune began.
Beryl Cook did not allow success to go to her head, nor was she ever interested in money, leaving the business side of things to her husband. She continued to buy her clothes from market stalls and remained a regular at the Dolphin pub on the Plymouth quayside. “When I was younger,” she said, “I steeled myself to do so many things I really didn’t want to do. Now I realise I do not have to do anything. Consequently I lead a very happy life.”
Nevertheless her income enabled her to give up taking lodgers and to afford the “luxury” of employing someone else to do the housework. It also enabled her to travel in search of subjects for her paintings and she produced books of paintings depicting low life in New York and London. In 1998 she and her husband, John, moved to Clifton in Bristol.
Despite her prodigious output there was always a waiting list of people wanting to buy her paintings; Whoopi Goldberg and Jackie Collins were among her customers. But it was only in 1996, nearly 20 years after she had her first exhibition, that she had her first public hanging — at the new Museum of Modern Art in Glasgow — of a picture of the Scottish comic character Rab C Nesbitt on the steps of Number 10, Downing Street.
Beryl Cook produced several books of collected pictures and illustrated a number of works by other authors, including Christopher Isherwood’s Mr Norris Changes Trains; The Loved One by Evelyn Waugh, and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark.
Her contribution to The Queen’s Golden Jubilee, The Royal Couple, featured in the Golden Jubilee Exhibition, May 2002, at Art London, Chelsea.
Two half-hour animated films of Beryl Cook’s women who meet at Plymouth’s Dolphin Pub were broadcast in 2004 and won several animation awards. In 2006 the Portal Gallery in London held a comprehensive exhibition of Cook’s work to celebrate her 80th birthday.
A retrospective exhibition of her work was curated by Peter Doroshenko at the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead, in 2007.
Plymouth University will be mounting a major retrospective in November 2008.
Her husband survives her with their son.