It’s been fifteen years since the death of Plymouth painter and national treasure Beryl Cook. Renowned for her cheerful and cheeky compositions of tubular middle-aged women with British appeal, her work and inspiration is still very much present in the fabric of Plymouth’s Ocean City. Artist and Made in Plymouth Community Reporter, Kerry Gerdes, tells us how Beryl inspired her – and where we can see her work on public display from the end of September.
Born in Surrey in 1926, Beryl Cook OBE was an artist specialising in naive paintings. She settled in the Southwest, and eventually in Plymouth in the 1960’s. So although not a Devon maid born and bred, we took her as one of our own. She died in Plymouth in 2008, aged 81, having left behind her a brilliant and vibrant collection of works.
Beryl Cook was known for her comical paintings, picturing larger than life people, in many ways. They often featured buxom females on a hen do or a night out on the town. Though she may have been born in Surrey, she was an honorary Janner. She spent most of her life in the Southwest, originally in Looe, Cornwall, and later settling in Plymouth in 1968.
Her works feature scenes from everyday life, instantly recognisable to the viewer. When you look at her work, you can see yourself or maybe people you know or have known from your own life.
Cook was a shy woman, but her works are far from it. They feature flamboyant characters in everyday scenes. Still today, if you walk along Plymouth Barbican, or go to one of the local pubs, you may just see scenes straight out of a Beryl Cook painting. Her most popular paintings feature Southwest landmarks and pubs.
I remember being in secondary school, and my art teacher showing us some of Cook’s work. Her work really intrigued me as it wasn’t my preferred style of art. My own preferred style is impressionism; although I do happen to like an eclectic mix. But after seeing her work, I saw typical scenes, especially in and around Plymouth and the Southwest. I saw in her paintings my own life, particularly at family gatherings. It was like she was at one of my own family do’s, like she was painting us! Her art brought humour and true realism to me. I felt I knew the people in her paintings straight away. The places, landmarks, and people she painted so vividly, were instantly recognisable to me.
She was a self taught artist, and when she first started out, she would paint on scraps of driftwood picked up on the beach. When interviewed for the BBC Culture TV show, she confessed that she had painted on “lavatory seats, anything she could find around the house.”
Although her work was often looked down on by the art world during most of her life, the public took Cook’s paintings to their hearts. They saw their own lives being portrayed in them, and people could laugh at themselves. However, art critics have now finally just begun to give her work the credit it deserves. Her works have even sold for up to £40,000!
I contacted Sophie, Beryl’s Granddaughter, about whether she thinks Beryl is still relevant and influences artist today, she had this to say: “I definitely think Beryl still influences artists today. I frequently see paintings done ‘in the style of’ Beryl. The celebration of the fuller body is something we are witnessing change in; within our society, across social media, in the press and in art. Beryl championed body positivity throughout her career. I think her playful outlook on life, which heavily influenced her style of painting is timeless and will continue to inspire other artists for generations.” I couldn’t agree more with Sophie.
I also asked about plans for future exhibitions: “After the success of the New York show over Christmas last year, Adam Cohan, Director of ‘A Hug from the Art World’ is taking the exhibition to Los Angeles next February. We are also in talks with another gallery about an exciting show in London, summer 2024.“
A little closer to home, there is an exhibition in Plymouth on 29th September at Artmill Gallery on Hyde Park Road, Plymouth. It will feature mainly prints but also some paintings and interesting items from Beryl’s estate. So get yourself along to see that!
So I hope I have done my job here, of intriguing you to go find out a bit more about Beryl Cook, and take a look at her work. You can find out more about Beryl and her work by visiting her website: www.ourberylcook.com. The website is run by Beryl’s family.