I had always thought that Beryl Cook's paintings were a kind of British Botero, fat figures engaged in everyday activities. Having said that, I must admit to have never really looked closely at her work. "Private View" is a collection of 28 paintings, illustrated in colour as full page plates, with explanatory comments from the artist and an introduction by Edward Lucie-Smith, a friend of the artist.
Cook, 1926-2008, together with Jack Vettriano and L. S. Lowry, are probably the British artists most recognized by the general public. Her works appear on calendars, tableware, T-shirts and posters, and in cartoons. The popularity of these artists has produced a negative response from many members of the art establishment. Brian Sewell (where would we be without him?) considers that her art did not "have the intellectual honesty of the Pig and Whistle. It has a kind of vulgar streak which has nothing to do with art".
However, as Lucie-Smith points out, whilst Cook is an untrained artist to consider her "a naïve artist is a mistake, since she is a highly sophisticated and original painter, whose work deserves to be taken on its own terms". Lucie-Smith considers that both Botero and Cooke "use rotundity as a source of pictorial energy". This can draw the viewer towards the picture surface and so heighten the engagement.
Cook began to paint in Zambia after her husband had given her a child's paint box for her fortieth birthday, but it was only in 1975 that an exhibition of her work was presented at the Plymouth Arts Centre, before being picked up by a national newspaper. Since then her popularity and art market prices for her works have both increased.
Looking at the paintings in this book, published in 1981, it is the faces of the characters that Cook paints that differentiate her work from Fernando Botero since the activities of his figures are not whimsical and suggestive and, as in his Abu Ghraib paintings show, he has been ready to enter the world of disturbing scenes and emotions. His faces show nothing of the character of Cook's. Her world is distinctly quieter, one of dustbin men, discos, bingo, Little Chef and Tesco, although she can also conjure up a Leather Club and a female flasher.
The artist claimed that she painted fat people because "the bigger they are the less background there is to fill in", but this is to ignore her placement of figures in, for example, "Mum in Hammock", "Ladies", "Dustbinmen", "Bingo" and, especially, in "Strawberry Pickers". Unfortunately, no dates are given for any of the works in this book, but the artist's style changed relatively little, so perhaps it does not matter. Similarly, Cook uses colour very effectively; for example, the blues and green in "Bangs Disco" with the tans of shoes and hair exactly placed to provide the contrast. In "Two Men and a Small Lady", the contrasts are in the patterns of the coat and trousers, and the slit in the pub seat shows that other, more violent activities can occur in the pub.
Sewell identifies the influence in the artist's work of Stanley Spencer and the watercolours of Edward Burra. The artist was, however, very secretive about her mode of painting, but was clearly motivated by "pushing and jostling" her figures on the canvass, as in "The Art Class" where the eyes of the three students tell the whole story. The eyes of the two French sailors in "Bumper Cars" are clearly focused on the two girls just starting their ride, one girl clearly sees possibilities but the other is focused on the man in charge of the rides. Similarly, in "Bingo", the contrast is in the mouths and the eyes of the winner and her jealous neighbor, no need at all for words. "My Fur Coat" has the quintessential bank manager responding to an open opportunity, with a mixture of horror and pleasure. It leaves the viewer pondering which will win out in the end?
Fingers, with or without cigarettes, are sausage-like, but in "Leather Bar" they flutter like pigeons and the two red handkerchiefs are expertly placed to heighten the overall contrast. In "Applause", all 13 hands show in different ways their appreciation of James Galway's playing. It appears that Cook had a photographic visual memory and had no need to make a sketch when something or someone interested her. The initial stimulus was then manipulated, rearranged and simplified until it provided the humour and energy that she sought.
Apparently Cook was extremely shy and retiring which not only prevented her from pursuing a career as a war-time showgirl but also stopped her from receiving her OBE at Buckingham Palace. Sadly, she also harboured serious doubts about her painting, even when her original works were selling at up to £40,000.
It is true that Cook's work is built around the clichés of seaside postcard humour, and certainly there is something lacking in the one serious work in this book, "Attending the Plants" which shows Cook and her husband gardening, and is painted on part of a wardrobe door dismantled by her son. Here the energy and vitality of her other works are totally missing.
Cook's paintings, rather like those of Botero and Lowry, can quickly overload the senses, and so are best seen in small groups, rather than in any compendium of `The Complete Works of....'