Sunday, 20 September 2009





When Beryl Cook died, she was the subject of a large number of obituaries. Some of them were predictably condescending, which I suspect she would not have minded a bit. The really telling thing, however, is what has happened since then on the Web. If you go to the site maintained by The Times, still regarded as the British paper of record, and look for the paper’s Obituary Archive, you will find a section within it devoted to ‘Artistic Genius’. The subtitle is ‘Artists and makers who changed the way we see’. And what is the illustration that the site’s designers have chosen to head this section? A Self Portrait by Beryl Cook.


Further down the computer screen are Robert Rauschenberg, Jörg Immendorf, Sol LewItt, Bernard Meadows, Patrick Caulfield, Eduardo Paolozzi, Agnes Martin, Allan Kaprow, Nam June Paik, but Beryl lords it triumphantly over them all. Without, I think, actually meaning to tell us this, The Times, in its Internet incarnation, has made a valid point. Beryl was one of the most completely recognizable artists of her epoch – at any rate here in Britain.


I can vouch for this from personal experience. Like many art critics, I have a motley collection of paintings, drawings and photographs hanging on the walls of my flat. Many of my visitors are not denizens of the art world. Newcomers drift through my rooms. ‘I like this,’ they say. ‘Who did it?’ Or ‘I couldn’t live with that.’ Beryl’s work elicits only one comment: ‘Oh, you’ve got a Beryl Cook.’


One asks oneself how this has come about? There are several answers, more complex than they seem at first. The first is that Beryl’s work presents people with scenes and incidents they think they know. Nevertheless, it is a heightened reality. The everyday world acquires hallucinatory quality. It is more itself in Beryl’s paintings than it would be if we observed the people and incidents these portray with our own eyes. Part of Beryl’s appeal, of course, is her irrepressible sense of humor, but there is also a feeling that the images are a quite serious commentary on the way people choose to live their lives. Like many artists, Beryl loved things that were on the margins of society, not quite integrated into the general mass.


A number of celebrated artists have possessed this quality. Beryl is often compared to the designer of seaside postcard, Donald McGill, and she certainly admired his work. Yet there are other comparisons to be made – to Stanley Spencer, for instance, whose work she also liked, and whose sense of pictorial design is in some respects comparable to hers. Other names can be cited as well. It is not ridiculous to compare her to the Colombian artist Fernando Botero, not only because they both like painting rotund figures, but also because of their taste for raucous, sleazy, low-life jollity. I am thinking, here, of the series of paintings of brothels that Botero made in the 1970s, which are arguably his best works. Other names suggest themselves – sometimes simply for subject matter, Toulouse-Lautrec, for example, and aspects of Goya. Sometimes for subject matter and style linked together. It is not absurd, I think, to compare some of Beryl’s compositions to the drawings of Thomas Rowlandson,, among them his Exhibition Stare Case, with its mass of tumbling figures. Beryl’s humor, like Rowlandson’s, is politically incorrect. One reason perhaps, why so many of the pundits of our time can’t stand her.


The success of Beryl’s paintings is based on two things – a keen sense of observation and a highly refined feeling for pictorial design, surprising in an untrained artist. Concerning Beryl the observer I can offer personal testimony. On one occasion we were in a pub garden somewhere in north Devon. One of those places where they turn the kiddies out to play while the adults get in with a bit of serious drinking inside. Almost the only other inhabitants of this space were two very rumbustious children and a woman who might perhaps have been their grandmother. She looked a bit like the actress Hermione Gingold – high piled dyed-blond hair, long pendulous nose, caked white make up, a slash of purple lipstick. When your eye strayed downwards you saw black patent leather shoes with rather sinister straps, and, as a final touch, a gold ankle chain. My uncharitable guess was that she must be the retired madam of a brothel, or, failing that, the proprietress of a very louche B & B,


Beryl, I could sense, was immediately fascinated. It was rather like seeing a good hunting dog pointing at a bird. Rather naughtily I said, ‘That’s going to be a picture, isn’t it?’ The only response was a giggle. Sure enough, next time I visited, there was the painting, already complete.


The method Beryl used to create her pictures was personal to herself. She did not draw, in the sense that drawing is usually understood. Indeed, she drew much less than Francis Bacon, who claimed, it now seems untruthfully, that he never did so. She was rather secretive about how the paintings were actually made, but as far as I could make out she started by making a few very tentative pencil lines. These did not delineate figures, even in very simplified form, but established basic shapes and rhythms. If you look carefully at her paintings, what makes them work is the way the forms push and jostle – against each other, and also against the edges of the picture. Her most successful compositions have great kinetic energy. Beryl used to claim that she made her figures rotund so as not to have to fill in the background. In fact their rotundity is a source of pictorial energy. Botero uses the same device in his paintings.


Beryl, like her admired Stanley Spencer, was not interested in paint as a substance. Her paintings have no visible marks of the brush. First Rembrandt and Hals, then the masters of modern abstraction, have taught us to admire the manipulation of paint as a quality in itself. Yet the majority of the artists who go to make up the western tradition are not like this. Among the non-painterly painters are the Limbourg brothers, who created the greatest of all late medieval manuscripts, the Très Riches Heures, and Pieter Bruegel the Elder. I name these in particular because some of their subject-matter is quite close to Beryl’s preferred themes – Bruegel in particular, with paintings like The Peasant Dance.


The thing that has imprinted these artists on the memory of our culture is the fact that they offer images of human lives that are being fully lived. One can say the same thing about a number of the paintings made by Beryl Cook. 


This site was last updated 20-09-2009