Beryl Cook OBE
It is very difficult to be objective about members of our family, especially our parents. So, after some racking of the brains and chewing of the finger nails…… I'm not even going to try. Should you wish to read a more comprehensive account of my mothers life there are many articles that can be found online. The Artyfacts page on this site gives a list in chronological order of all the relevant dates and details in her life and in the development of her career as an artist.
Which just leaves me, her son John, to try to come up with a fairly short and personal account of the life of my mother, the artist Beryl Cook.
BORN IN SURREY
Mother was born in Egham, Surrey, in 1926. She was christened Beryl Francis Lansley. Her parents separated when she was quite young and I never met my grandfather. But I spent a lot of time in the company of my grandmother whom I cared for deeply, as did the rest of our family. She had a remarkable detachment in life, and nothing seemed to fluster or worry her. My father recalls a time when, in her middle age, my gran employed a decorator for her hallway. After the job was finished she later told my parents that at one point he had exposed himself to her. My father somewhat shocked, asked her what she did about it.”Oh” she replied with a grin, “I simply told him to put it away and get on with the job.” Sadly she died in the sixties and never saw her daughter's artwork.
A while after mother moved to Reading with her three sisters and my grandmother, my father moved into the house next door. They were both aged 10 when they became neighbours. My father sometimes recalls how formidable her older sister Cynthia could be, even as a young man he was careful not to put a foot wrong under her watchful eyes.
Towards the end of war my mother and her family moved to London with her family. She was a very good looking young woman and for a while tried out working as a model and showgirl. Then in 1947 my gran purchased a property on the river at Hampton, the family all moved there and turned part of it into a tea room. By this time, although my father was now at sea as an officer in the Merchant Navy, my parents were courting.
MARRIED IN 1948
In 1948 they were married and I was born in 1950. My father was still at sea and we were living at Hampton, though I have no clear recollection of it. What I do recall is when my mother worked for a while as a cook and we both lived in at the hotel. Then father left the sea and my parents took over running a village pub in Stoke by Nay land, Suffolk. It was a delightful ancient building with a thatched roof and a courtyard of outbuildings out the back, enclosed by an old orchard on one side and fields on the other.
We housed chickens, bantams and geese in the outbuildings, even raising some pigs. But mother who was always keen on animals, became very fond of them, and could not bring herself to let them go to slaughter. Soon we had a pair of very large pigs eating what little profits that the pub made. Eventually my father sent her out on a long errand one day, and had the pigs taken away in her absence. Beautiful and “olde worlde” though the pub was, it was neither profitable nor modernised. Along with few or no customers there was no bathroom, and we had to make do with a tin bath in the kitchen.
'WE HAD TO MAKE DO WITH A TIN BATH'
After a couple of years my parents had had enough, then they received a letter from my mother’s sister Mary and her husband who were living in Africa. My Aunt and uncle were then living in Salisbury, now known as Harare, in Southern Rhodesia, now known as Zimbabwe. They were enjoying a good life out there and encouraged my parents to join them, saying that there was plenty of opportunity to get on.
In 1956 we joined my aunt and uncle out in Africa, just travelling there was an adventure in itself. Our house was a single story building with a corrugated iron roof, which became very hot in the African sun. The front and side were covered in bougainvillea vine, and for the rest of her life this vine remained a favourite with mother. For many years she kept some growing in her conservatory in England.
As a young boy I had an adventurous and exciting life while we lived in Africa, spending a lot of time hunting and trekking in the bush. For our holidays we sometimes took a fantastic long drive to camp on the beach at Beira in what was then called Portuguese East Africa. At other times we visited game reserves and the mountain resort Inyanga which is in the high grounds near Umtali. This was a place of cold streams and great beauty.
For my parents, it was not such a carefree existence; my father found work as a car salesman while mother worked as a bookkeeper for a local coach building business. Mother was never a great enthusiast for rugged outdoor activities and she found it difficult to adjust to the almost constant company of insects, frogs, lizards and often snakes. Unfortunately at one point she became very ill after catching tick fever.
One event that occurred around 1960, that stays in mind, is the first time I ever saw her with an artist’s paint brush in her hand. I was indolent and bored one day and in her efforts to occupy and motivate me, she produced a child's painting set and suggested that we copy a little Indian painting that she'd found. This painting illustrated a young woman with her somewhat pendulous bare breasts hanging over what appeared to be a wall. To this day I can recall telling her of what a good painting I would do, whilst I doubted her own ability to paint. I shall not forget the crestfallen moment I experienced as we both contemplated the results of our efforts...... Mine a barely recognisable image, and hers a remarkably good copy of the original painting. Fortunately we still have that first painting; it was a herald of things to come. We know now that this little picture helped give mother an impetus and the confidence to take up painting again later on. Echoes of its style can be seen in some of her early works.
Over the next few years the heat and the insects took their toll, and when my mother and I returned to England for a holiday in 1964, she did not want to return to Africa. My father, heeding mother’s pleas, put affairs in order, and returned to England.
RETURNED TO ENGLAND
In 1965 we moved to East Looe in Cornwall, where we lived in an old fisherman’s cottage on the quayside. Father was still in the motor trade and eventually took over the management of a garage and car sales site in Bodmin. It was while we lived here that my mother took up painting in an inspired effort to fill some of the blank spaces on the cottage walls. Her earliest works were mostly painted on old boards that she found as driftwood on Looe beach, sometimes old boxes and even a breadboard served as a base.
Her painting gained momentum, helped along by encouragement from her good friend, Tony Martin, who even sold a couple for her. By now the cottage walls were filling up and mother was running out of suitable driftwood, so she progressed on to using plywood which my father cut to shape and primed for her.
In 1968 my parents bought a guesthouse on the Hoe in Plymouth. Mother ran the guesthouse during the summer, whilst father continued the management of the garage business in Bodmin. This left mother free to continue her painting through the winters. After a couple of years, even though the guest house was far larger than the cottage had been, there was not much wall space left. Mother was beginning to spend more and more time painting.
MOTHER WAS BEGINNING TO SPEND MORE TIME PAINTING
In the mid 1970`s one of the guests saw the paintings, liked them a lot and realised that they had something to them. This guest was acquainted with Bernard Samuels who ran the Plymouth Arts centre, and she advised him to make contact with a view to seeing the paintings himself. He took her advice, introduced himself to mother and, as they say, the rest is history.
Father has always appreciated and encouraged mother's artistic talents, at that period I was entertained and amused by her artwork. Sometimes even a bit disconcerted, as father, myself and my friends were often, at the time unknowing, the subjects of her artistic humour. But I never had an inkling of just how much potential she had or how well known she would become.
Bernard organised her first exhibition for November 1975 at the Plymouth Arts centre. This exhibition was a great success and a number of her paintings were sold. The Sunday Times colour supplement did an article which illustrated one of her paintings, the Lockyer Tavern. This article was read by Lionel Levy from the Portal Gallery who immediately contacted her. Now all the elements were in place for her artistic career to take off ...... which it quickly did!
In 1976 she had her first show at the Portal Gallery. This marked the start of a long relationship, as she stayed with the Portal until her death. In all she had 18 shows with them, the last one being the “Beryl Cook at 80” which was held in 2006.
EXHIBITION AT PLYMOUTH'S ART CENTRE
From the first exhibition at the Plymouth Arts Centre onwards, the events in mother’s artistic career just seemed to accelerate. Her paintings were very soon in great demand, and then a number of books on her artworks were published. Then came children’s books, followed by commissions to illustrate publications for the Folio Society. There have been a number of limited editions of fine art prints which are still being published by the Alexander Gallery today. Her artworks also appear on the many calendars and cards published by Gallery Five, with more in the pipeline for next year.
From the late 1970's there have been some televised interviews with her. In 2004 Tiger Aspects made two cartoons animating characters from some of her paintings. Oh.....And I must not forget that she was awarded the OBE in 1996. Details of all these will be found in the artyfacts section.
OBE IN 1996
I found it quite difficult to view my mother as someone famous; to me she was and always will be “mother” first. Since her death it has become easier to begin to see her as “Beryl Cook, artist of some repute”, especially after the media blitz that followed the day after she died.
With my father’s partnership and constant support she was never under any financial pressure to court publicity to help drive the sales of her paintings. In fact, being a very shy and private person herself, she disliked the publicity side of fame immensely. She avoided it whenever possible, this didn't help her much though, as it just seemed make the media even more keen for interviews. Mother turned down many offers to appear at various events and prestigious functions. Even though she had been well pleased to be awarded the OBE, she did not wish to appear at the public ceremony and opted for a quieter presentation in Devon.
Her art seems to have a definite affect on nearly everyone who sees it; most people seem either to really like it, or take strong dislike to it. This is reflected in the voices of her critics, and she has several. Over the years there have been a number of adverse comments along the lines of “This isn't art, it’s more like a cartoon.” And the well known “anyone could paint like that.”
'ANYONE COULD PAINT LIKE THAT'
She took a great interest in a wide range of human activities, in particular people performing and enjoying themselves. From nightlife of all varieties, to the more innocent pursuits of line dancing and sunbathing on the beach, all this diverse spectrum of human activity is to be found in her paintings, most of which reveal her strong sense of humour.
But, next to the act of painting itself, her fans are what mattered most to my mother. Over the years she received a vast amount of fan mail from all over the world, from people of all walks of life. With my father’s help she endeavoured to reply to all of them. Some of these fan letters are quite touching, especially the ones who wrote to thank her for making them laugh, and to tell her how seeing her paintings had lightened and brightened their lives for a moment. Another frequent comment has been, how seeing her paintings had inspired them to take up a brush and have a go themselves.
Near the end of her life, when there was a little bit of media controversy going on about certain of the art establishment's reluctance to hang her works. I asked mother if this bothered her at all. These are her last words to me on the matter. After some laughter.... “At my age? As if I give a damn what they think or do! Look John, there was a time, when I was younger, when having some of my work hanging on their walls would have boosted my confidence in myself as an artist. Now? .... Look at my fan mail. When you get letters like those from all over the world, saying what they do. What more do I need?”
WHAT MORE DO I NEED?
So, it's a big thank you to all those people who supported and enjoyed Beryl Cook's painting, as well as those fans who took the time to write to her and tell her so, all your feedback helped and inspired her.