Last Chance to See: Beryl Cook – Larger than Life at Bristol Museum and Art Gallery

By Culture24 Reporter | 17 August 2011
An image showing a painting of a woman
© Bristol City Museum
Exhibition: Beryl Cook – Larger than Life, Bristol Museum and Art Gallery, Bristol, until August 29 2011

If the news of Beryl Cook’s death in 2008 was greeted with a sweep of obituaries bemoaning her shunning by art’s “establishment”, you could argue that state of affairs has actually been in rapid reverse during the 21st century.

A major retrospective of her cartoon career at London’s Portal Gallery marked her 80th birthday in 2006, followed by another at BALTIC a year later.

She was included in the Golden Jubilee Exhibition in Chelsea in 2002 (having been made an OBE in 1995), and Bosom Pals, a pair of half-four animated films in 2004 about women who meet at a pub in Plymouth, was voiced by a cast including Dawn French.

An image of a painting of a man and woman in suits
Tracey and Kev
© Bristol City Museum
But It’s easy to see why Cook was never one for connoisseurs of traditional art. Part saucy postcards, part middle England gone nudist, her titillations were only unleashed upon an unsuspecting Devon in 1975.

It was rumoured the Tate had spurned the chance to buy her pieces in 2006, failing to join a list of buyers with a geographical spread from Cornwall to New York in a possible oversight which enraged her loyal fanbase.

Nor is there any way to explain her works in the context of Cook’s own reserved character. You might expect her to have been a gossiping boozer or tottering clubber, clad thick in make-up like the Plymouth women she would paint from photographic memory.

Some of them bear resemblance to her own genial appearance, but Cook ran a guesthouse with her husband John – a childhood friend who she married at 20 in 1946 – and was left dumbfounded when pushed for an explanation of her works (“I don’t know how my pictures happen, they just do.”)

In any case, there are more than 60 original pieces from her at Bristol Museum, which joins galleries in Durham, Plymouth and Glasgow as major holders of her collection in the UK.

They include an unseen series from her family’s personal collection in the form of “unseen Beryl”, early canvasses from before she hit the big time and examples of her sculpture, needlework and experimentations on found objects.

The show has been co-curated by Bristol’s Alexander Gallery, who will enter their 35th year as Cook’s publishers in 2012.

  • Open 10am-5pm (6pm Saturday and Sunday). Admission free.
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