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Beryl Cook

Beryl Cook

Beryl Cook OBE 1926-2008.

Beryl Frances Tansley was born in 1926 at Epsom in Surrey, as one of four sisters. She grew up in Reading in Berkshire, left school at fourteen, and worked in a variety of jobs. Moving to London in 1943, she became a showgirl in a touring production of The Gypsy Princess.She also worked in the fashion industry.

In 1946 she married her childhood friend John Cook, who was in the Merchant Navy. When he retired from the sea, they briefly ran a pub. Their son John was born in 1950, and the following year they left to live in Southern Rhodesia. One day she picked up some paints, belonging to her son, and started a picture. She carried on doing so, using various materials, painting on scraps of wood, fire screens and a breadboard.

In 1963, the Cooks returned to England to live in Cornwall, where she began to paint seriously. They moved to Plymouth, a port city, where they ran a busy theatrical boarding house in the summer months. They enjoyed going to local bars and watching flamboyant drag acts. She concentrated on painting in the winter months, recreating her personal views of Plymouth in oils on wooden panels. An antique dealer friend persuaded her to let him try and sell a few, and they sold quickly.

Bernard Samuels of the Plymouth Art Centre became aware of this "local phenomenon", and, in 1975, he convinced her to have an exhibition. The show resulted in a cover feature in the Sunday Times magazine, followed by her first exhibition in London in 1976 at the Portal Gallery, where she continued to exhibit until her death. In 1979, a film was made about Cook for LWT's The South Bank Show, where she discussed her work with Melvyn Bragg.

Although widely popular and recognized as one of the most-known British of contemporary art, Cook never enjoyed acceptance by the art establishment.

In 1995, she was made an OBE. Her contribution to The Queen's Golden Jubilee, The Royal Couple, featured in the Golden Jubilee Exhibition, May 2002, at Art London, Chelsea.

Glasgow's Gallery of Modern Art has three paintings by Cook. She is represented in Plymouth City Art Gallery, Durham Art Gallery and Bristol City Museum and Art Gallery.

In 2006, Portal Gallery held a comprehensive exhibition of Cook's work to celebrate her 80th birthday. A retrospective exhibition of her work was curated by Peter Doroshenko at the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art in 2007. She lived and worked in Plymouth, where she died in May 2008. Plymouth University mounted a major retrospective in November 2008.

Cook was a shy and private person, often depicting the flamboyant and extrovert characters she would like to be. She had an almost photographic memory.

She found new material for her work while travelling. Early local scenes expanded those depicting Buenos Aires, New York, Cuba, Paris and Barcelona.

Cook admired the work of the English visionary artist Stanley Spencer, his influence evident in her compositions and bold bulky figures. Another influence was Edward Burra, who painted sleazy cafes, nightclubs, gay bars, sailors and prostitutes, although, unlike Burra, she does not paint the sinister aspects of scenes. She was described by Victoria Wood as "Rubens with jokes".

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