Private collection, United Kingdom
Beryl Cook (1926-2008) was an English artist best known for her original and instantly recognisable paintings of ordinary British life. Often comical, her works picture people whom she encountered in everyday life, including people enjoying themselves in pubs, girls shopping or out on a hen night, drag queen shows or a family picnicking by the seaside or abroad.
Cook was born in 1926 in Surrey, England, one of four sisters. She left school at fourteen and worked in a variety of jobs. Moving to London in 1943 Beryl became a showgirl in a touring production of ‘The Gypsy Princess’. She also worked in the fashion industry, which inspired her life-long interest in the way people dress and how they look.
In 1946 Cook married her childhood friend John, who was in the Merchant Navy. When he retired, they briefly ran a pub. Their son John was born in 1950, and the following year they left to live in Southern Rhodesia. This move was to prove a turning point for the artist. One day she picked up some paints belonging to her son and started a picture. She enjoyed it so much she could not stop. She painted on any surface she could find, scraps of wood, fire screens and most notably a breadboard, as can be seen from her famous early painting of Bowling Ladies.
In 1963 the Cooks returned to England to live in Cornwall where Beryl began to paint in earnest. They moved to Plymouth, where in the summer months they ran a busy theatrical boarding house. Beryl loved Plymouth, a thriving, lively seaside town full of pubs, fishermen and sailors and she and John enjoyed going to their local bars and watching flamboyant drag acts. Beryl would concentrate on painting in the winter months, recreating her personal views of Plymouth in vivid oils on wooden panels. Eventually an antique dealer friend persuaded her to let him try and sell a few. To her surprise he sold them very quickly. Bernard Samuels of the Plymouth Art Centre became aware of this ‘local phenomenon’ and in 1975 he finally convinced her to have an exhibition. It was an enormous success and the show received a great deal of publicity, which resulted in a cover and feature in the Sunday Times Magazine followed by a swift phone call from London’s Portal Gallery. The following year, Beryl Cook had her first London exhibition. It was a sell out and the start of an exceptional relationship with Portal, where she exhibited continuously for 32 years.
She recorded human frailties and the absurdities of human behaviour with her own unique vision. Beryl’s personality though was in great contrast to her paintings. She was a shy and private person, often depicting the flamboyant and extrovert characters she would love to have been. She preferred to observe a crowd of people, her acute eye missing nothing. She recorded in minute detail scenes of everyday life and had an almost photographic memory.
In 1995 Cook was made an OBE and numerous documentaries have been made about her including an animated film based around a series of her paintings. She has also had numerous retrospectives including at The Baltic in Gateshead in 2007 and The Bristol City Museum and Art Gallery in 2011.
Her work can now be found in public and private collections worldwide including the Glasgow Museum of Modern Art, Bristol City Museum and Art Gallery, and Plymouth City Art Gallery.