Modern British & Irish Art

The Wonderful World of Beryl Cook

By Robin Cawdron-Stewart
As one of Britain’s most beloved artists, Beryl Cook holds a place close in many people’s hearts. Celebrated for her instantly recognisable style, her works became a cultural sensation when they hit the British art scene in the 1970s, dividing opinion and opening debates between the supposedly ‘low’ or ‘high’ arts.

W hile you might struggle to find a work by Cook in the Tate, her shows at London’s Portal Gallery became sold-out events, with collectors clamouring to acquire her work. Since her death in 2008 opinion has rightly shifted, with major museum exhibitions mounted that assess the critical importance of her work, including the influence of artist such as Edward Burra and Stanley Spencer. This spring Sotheby’s is delighted to be presenting three masterworks by Cook as part of Made in Britain, two never before seen at auction and one formerly in the collection of Jackie Collins.

"For a long time this little car remained parked outside a house we passed each morning. I grew more and more interested as I read the messages and noticed the extensive rust, something I like painting very much. To finish the picture off I added the sort of person I thought might own a car like this, and then found a cherished registration number from one of the long lists they print in the Sunday papers."

Cook’s life, much like her art, was anything but dull. Born in Surrey in 1926 Cook worked as a showgirl in a touring production of The Gypsy Princess, before later working in the fashion industry. It was not until the 1950s that Cook began to paint, having moved with her husband and young son to Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). There she picked up a paintbrush belonging to her son, and began what was to become a lifelong love affair with art. She painted with the same fervent passion as others such as Alfred Wallis, covering any surface that she could lay her hands on – including fire screens, breadboards or old scraps of wood.

I was trying to paint like Stanley Spencer and another artist I like a lot called Edward Burra. He was humorous in his paintings. He did all sorts of odd ones that I liked and I would think, oh I like that, and perhaps I could do that. So that’s the sort of influence that affected me

She returned to Britain in the early 1960s, eventually settling in Plymouth, where she was to remain for the large part of her life. There she drew inspiration from the local nightlife – visiting bars and clubs – becoming an obsessive observer of British popular culture.

Cook first showed her work publicly in the mid-1970s, and became an instant phenomenon, gracing the cover of The Sunday Times Magazine. This was soon followed by sell-out show at London’s Portal Gallery, beginning what was to become a 32-year association with the gallery.

Beryl Cook

Her work became collected all over the world, and she travelled extensively to capture new subjects and inspiration – visiting Buenos Aries, New York, Los Angeles Cuba, Paris and Barcelona. She garnered support and praise from critics and celebrities alike – including Melvyn Bragg, Joan Collins and Victoria Wood, who famously described her as ‘Rubens with jokes’.

I love watching people enjoying themselves and that is the main inspiration for me to paint. I love it when I can see them having a good time.
Beryl Cook

It was on one of these trips, to Los Angeles, that Cook painted Café in Los Angeles, later acquired by Jackie Collins:

Here I am in Hollywood! Where you can't see me, at the back of the cafe. The only addition I've made to the scene is the advertisement for Camel cigarettes on the wall, which was a huge and very striking poster that I saw on hoardings all over Hollywood. After a visit to Forest Lawns (hoping to find Rudolph Valentino's grave), a bus took us back to Sunset Boulevard and we turned into this cafe. The chef was enormous and dressed in spotless white. I don't think his clientele were glamorous enough to be ex-film stars: in face the man sitting with two girls looked rather menacing, and as we drank our coffee we speculated on what sort of business he was about. Monkey, I expect.
Beryl Cook

As Spencer had done with his Cookham scenes, or Burra and his depictions of Harlem nightlife, Cook painted what she knew, and importantly what she loved. This passion exudes from her paintings, seen in the brilliant bright colours of Café in Los Angeles, One Lady Owner and Nudes Birthday. Yet perhaps Cook’s greatest achievement is her ability to show us the fun and joy of the everyday in her scenes. They show us that life – and art – doesn’t always have to be taken too seriously, and as such have become beacons of hope in the modern life.

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