Although Beryl Cook was born in Surrey, she spent most of her adult life in Devon and Cornwall and much of the artwork for which she is so famous was inspired by her life there, so we think she deserves of a mention on this website.
Born in September 1926, Beryl was one of four sisters. She left school at the age of 14 and began working in a variety of jobs, but her love of painting was still some way off developing. She worked as a showgirl in London and did a brief stint in the fashion industry, the influence of which would later become apparent in her paintings.
She married her husband John, whom she had known since childhood, in 1946. He was a member of the Merchant Navy, but when he retired they ran a pub in Suffolk for a short time. Their son, John, was born in 1950 and the next year they moved to Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) where they stayed for a decade.
It was during her time here that Cook discovered her love of painting. Starting off with a set of paints belonging to her son, she soon found herself painting whenever she could and on whatever surface she could find, including a breadboard!
In 1963 when the family returned to England to live in Cornwall, Beryl started to seriously focus on her painting. Then in 1968 the Cooks moved to Plymouth where they ran a busy guest house. Beryl had to balance her time between the family business and her painting, but she continued to paint as much as she could.
Beryl Cook as an artist
Beryl took much of her inspiration from the world around her in Plymouth, particularly the pubs and bars that she and her husband frequented. The Lockyer Tavern (pictured) was their local for many years, and the couple enjoyed watching the weekly drag show there.
Cook continued to paint but didn’t really do anything to promote her work. In the mid-seventies, her paintings caught the eye of a friend who happened to be an antique dealer. She let him try to sell some for her and found that they were very popular. This led to Beryl’s first exhibition in the Plymouth Arts Centre in 1975.
The exhibition was a great success and gained a lot of coverage, including a cover feature in the Sunday Times Magazine. This brought her to the attention of London’s Portal Gallery, where she held her first London exhibition the following year and continued to exhibit regularly throughout her life.
The unmistakable style of Beryl’s paintings captured the hearts of the British public and she quickly became one of the most popular British artists of her time.
She was very much a social observer and she painted from memory the honest and absurd scenes that captured her attention. However, the flamboyant and extravagant nature of many of her characters presented a stark contrast to her own shy, private nature. But her passion for painting shines through in each of her works, and her humorous style never fails to uplift the viewer.
Although based in Plymouth, Beryl loved to travel and took plenty of inspiration from her trips to Europe and the Americas, as we can see from The Lady of Marseilles.
Beryl Cook’s achievements
Beryl had her first book of artworks published in 1978, and the following year a film was made about her for LWT’s South Bank Show in which she was interviewed by Melvyn Bragg. They discussed how artists such as Stanley Spencer and Edward Burra had been a strong influence on her work.
Beryl continued to regularly publish books of her own artworks, and in 1994 received the Best Selling Published Artist Award from the Fine Art Trade Guild. In 1995 she was made an OBE, but was too shy to attend the official ceremony.
Beryl and her characters were the subject of various films and programs towards the end of her life, and she continued to successfully exhibit her works. Her 18th solo show with Portal Painters, BERYL COOK is 80!, was an immensely popular exhibition celebrating this milestone in her life in September 2006.
Beryl Cook sadly died in May 2008, but the legacy of her works lives on and she holds a place in the hearts of her many fans.
Her paintings can be viewed in Glasgow Museum of Modern Art, Bristol, Durham and Plymouth City Art Gallery, as well as in many collections worldwide.