Sauce with everything
PUBLISHED: 16:30 13 September 2010 | UPDATED: 17:49 20 February 2013
Beryl Cook must surely be one of Britain's most popular painters of modern times. Ian Collins raises a toast to the comic touch of a former Suffolk pub landlady
Beryl Cook must surely be one of Britains most popular painters of modern times. Ian Collins raises a toast to the comic touch of a former Suffolk pub landlady
Legend has it that Beryl Cooks art sprang fully formed from her sly observations as the landlady of a Plymouth guesthouse and of evenings of fun and laughter in wild western pubs and bars.
She herself claimed that it all started slightly earlier, when she bought her young son a box of paints for Christmas. He had then made a picture with sky at the top and a house at the bottom and nothing in the middle.
To help him fill in the missing bit she had picked up his brush and promptly painted in a woman with large breasts which surprised her like a punch in the stomach. For several years she didnt care or dare to have another go, but once she did there was no stopping her.
Asked why she developed a line in jolly gatherings of large ladies on the town and on the tiles she claimed it was because she wasnt much good at painting a background and that, very happily, her ample figures blotted most of it out.
But it would be silly to take great artists at their word, especially when they are as modest and as retiring as this one. Her self-portraits plumped up, dolled up and out on the razzle are a shy womans jokey fantasies.
She clearly hails from a long seaside tradition of saucy humour be it in end-of-the-pier shows or the fabulous postcards of Donald McGill (and the slightly more restrained card fantasies of Southwolds Reg Carter).
A blockbuster exhibition of comic art at Tate Britain Rude Britannia (hurry, hurry, ends September 5) has placed her firmly in the Hogarthian tradition of very pointed (but in her case always good-natured) humour. And for my money her three pictures steal the show.
Like the late, great writer Beryl Bainbridge, the artist Beryl Cook added singularly to the gaiety of the nation.
She was, indeed, a national treasure though mocked by the stuffy. And when her name was suggested for election to the Royal Academy everyone laughed. Of course, she laughed too.
Alas, I never met Beryl Cook she died in 2008, at the age of 81 and at the peak of her powers. But her widower, John, has told me her startling story and I now claim an east coast ancestry for some of her larger-than-life good-time girls, who might just be pensioners.
Beryl Lansley was born in suburban Surrey in 1926, moving to Reading with her mother and three sisters when her father left them for the second family he had been nurturing concurrently.
When they moved again, she helped her mother run a Thames-side tea garden, before training as a secretary and then working as both a showgirl touring in The Gypsy Princess and a model.
Beryl then met up again with the boy next door from her childhood and they married. Since John Cook was in the Merchant Navy, she went to live with his mother in Southend before they bought their first house at Leigh on Sea.
Even if she never realised it, I reckon that Beryl was watching neighbours and visitors to the Essex resorts very closely and with great glee.
And then, for 18 months in the v
v mid-1950s, the Cooks took on the tenancy of the White Hart in the south Suffolk village of Nayland. It may have been healthy, but we hated the life, she said.
Far from the preening spivs and teetering totties of the coast and a world away from the Stour Valley showcase it is today Stoke was an isolated farming village. The White Hart, with chemical lavs in the orchard, was the run-down haunt of run-down labourers.
No, not a sequin let alone a drag act in sight. But then there were the seaside outings to gaudy and glittering points from Yarmouth to Clacton, and the cafs, amusement arcades and tattoo parlours bringing endless food for thought.
Suffolk set her mind racing. Before it sent her body bolting...
In 1956, the Cooks moved to Southern Rhodesia and Beryl was not to launch herself as a very private painter until running a Plymouth guesthouse just off The Hoe in 1968. Then she careered into a 40-year career, when pictures she had at first passed off as the work of a delinquent son or wayward husband, were acclaimed by theatrical lodgers and presented to a delighted world.
Cue sell-out exhibitions, best-selling books and greetings cards printed and posted in their millions. Embarrassed by the prices her pictures began to fetch (with 50,000 or more for her most iconic and ironic images now), she liked the fact that they could still be bought and despatched for less than a couple of quid.
Although she hated the fame, the money allowed her to take down the B&B sign and to get on with the painting fed by research trips to New York (a journey eased by Concorde and valium) and on to Cooks tours of the sailors dives of Marseilles and the tango bars of Argentina.
Six years ago, Tiger Aspect made two cartoon films of her work, entitled Bosom Pals, with her figures brought to life via the voices of Dawn French, Timothy Spall, Alison Steadman and Rosemary Leach.
Her website (www.berylcook.org) and her devoted Portal Gallery in London are forever reporting new turns in the parade of posthumous tributes. Prints now sell all over the world.
And in the exhibition Show Time Great Yarmouths Circus Story (at the Time & Tide museum until the end of October), one of the smallest exhibits invites in me the biggest roar of approval.
Beryls blissful 1983 image of a senior citizen with her neatly permed and blue-rinsed head between the jaws of a lion is included as an illustration for the pocket-sized Nanette Newman book My Granny Was A Frightful Bore (But She Isnt Any More). Perhaps this is another portrait of the artist except that the brilliant Beryl Cook was never boring.