Julian Spalding

The brilliance of Beryl Cook

The arts establishment loathed her but this true original deserves to be taken seriously

‘Lady of Marseille’, c.1990, by Beryl Cook. Courtesy of the Beryl Cook Estate. © John Cook 2023

Nobody claims Beryl Cook was an artistic genius, least of all the artist herself. ‘I think my work lies somewhere between Donald McGill [the saucy postcard artist that George Orwell wrote so lyrically about] and Stanley Spencer,’ she once told me. ‘But I’m sorry to say I’m probably nearer McGill.’

She was, as ever, being modest. I actually think she’s nearer Spencer – and Hogarth, come to that. Cook’s paintings make us laugh but that doesn’t stop them from being art. (Few would say Shakespeare’s comedies are as profound as his tragedies, but they’re brilliant creations, nevertheless.) Though Victoria Wood dubbed her work ‘Rubens with jokes’, there aren’t actually any jokes in her pictures; they’re all direct observations, not double entendres.

‘I only paint when I’m excited by something, and what excites me is the joy in life’

I once asked Beryl if she’d ever wanted to paint something serious. She said: ‘I see things that horrify me, but I don’t want to paint them. If I thought that by painting something very meaningful it would change things, then perhaps I might… but I don’t believe that. So, I don’t. I think people are getting dulled by the amount of horror. I only paint when I’m excited by something, and what excites me is the joy in life.’

Her art sprung from nowhere. She’d given her son some paints for his birthday, and he painted a picture with grass at the bottom, a little house standing on it and a band of blue sky at the top. ‘But there’s nothing in the middle,’ Beryl complained. ‘There isn’t anything in the middle,’ he replied. ‘I’ll show you what’s in the middle,’ said Beryl, grabbing hold of a brush and another sheet of paper. She painted two great bare breasts and then added on top a head with eyes looking sharply to one side, as if to say, ‘What do you think you’re staring at?’ She had no idea how to paint a waist so painted a fence along the bottom with the breasts lolling over. Her husband dubbed the picture ‘The Hangover’.

She told me she was so surprised by what she’d done she felt as if she’d been kicked in the stomach. She’d no idea she could paint anything at all and knew nothing about art.

‘Elvira’s Café, 1990, by Beryl Cook. Courtesy of the Beryl Cook Estate. © John Cook 2023

Two years later, sitting in her local pub, it suddenly occurred to her that she’d like to paint a picture of the people larking about (see above). She tried it, taught herself how to paint, discovered artists like Stanley Spencer, who made a huge impression on her, and then began to produce a lot of work, which she hung around the guest house she ran. Her local landlord suggested she should put them up in his pub. Reluctantly, she agreed. He then said she’d have to put prices on them. She thought this was a joke – no one would buy them, surely – but she put £25 on each, and they all sold.

One thing led to another: a show at the very enterprising Plymouth Art Centre, an invitation to join the Portal Gallery in London, national coverage in the Sunday Times and on Melvyn Bragg’s The South Bank Show on ITV. She soon became the most genuinely popular living artist in Britain.

There are many features that make her art distinctive: fat faces (they’re not self-portraits; Beryl was small, sharp-eyed and shy) and fat fingers (minus fingernails – Fernand Léger used the same modernising simplification), strong, bright colours and bouncing, curvaceous contours. But what makes them instantly recognisable is their design.

She composed with great precision. Her art always starts with a moment of inspiration, when something catches her eye and makes her want to do a painting. She then leads the viewer around the picture by following each figure’s gesture and expression. By these means, she sustains her initial heightened awareness throughout the composition. It is this overall orchestration that lifts her paintings out of time and makes them lasting.

Beryl never took commissions or worked as an illustrator; nor is her art in any way commercial, though it sold hugely in reproductions. Why then, since it’s genuine, creative and unforgettable, did it so get up the noses of the art establishment? Beryl herself said: ‘I can’t help feeling that if all these people like my pictures they can’t really be art. Art always seems to be something which only a few people can appreciate.’

Before the opening of the Gallery of Modern Art I created in Glasgow in 1996, Nick Serota (then director of the Tate) and myself were invited to give presentations at an international curators’ conference at the Louvre. Serota had had the go-ahead to build Tate Modern, after National Lottery money became available, with a budget of £135 million, as against my £6 million, a sum typical of pre-lottery funding for the arts.

I spoke about the role a gallery of modern art has to play in contemporary society, providing opportunities to see authentic, artistic creations with enduring potential. I showed them the sort of works we would be exhibiting, from Jean Tinguely, Henri Cartier-Bresson and David Hockney to Beryl Cook. As soon as I sat down (after laughter and applause), Nick rose from his seat in the front row, uninvited by the chairman on the platform, turned to our colleagues seated in the raked hall and solemnly announced: ‘There will be no Beryl Cooks in Tate Modern.’

I was a bit put out by this holier-than-thou public put-down, but also intrigued, for his remark precisely encapsulated the wrong turn I thought art galleries were taking, very much at Serota’s instigation. First, there was what came across as personal and professional arrogance. In 1995 Beryl was firing on all cylinders. What gave him the right to presume that she would never paint a picture of brilliance? Then there were the wider implications for modern art galleries as a whole. When the first of these, the Museum of Modern Art, was getting underway in New York in the early 1930s, Gertrude Stein reportedly said: ‘You can be a museum, or you can be modern, but you can’t be both.’ She was right. That’s why I prefer to call them galleries. No, art can’t instantly be of ‘museum quality’. It takes a while to sort out what are the truly telling creations of their time.

I’m all for curators embarking on this process, and involving the public in this act of sifting. The curators’ job is a humble one, to respond to what they see, keeping as open a mind as possible. All genuine works of art will inevitably be a surprise, if only because nothing (and no one) is ever the same.

During Serota’s reign at the Tate, which lasted more than a quarter of a century, modern art galleries, both in Britain and abroad, became both the determinators and terminators of what is and is not the officially accepted art of our times. They became pseudo-sacred spaces controlled and patrolled by a presumptuous priesthood of curators.

A select group of art dealers actively promoted this development, because it lined their pockets. When an artist’s work enters a museum, it is presumed to be part of the canon, and his or her output becomes, from then on, a gilt-edged investment – previously symbolised by the gold frames around paintings, when there were paintings.

The trouble is that much of the stuff in today’s modern art museums is mediocre, and a lot not even art. Found objects – the trend of our time – only become art when they’re put in an art gallery. Outside of that, they’re just a balloon dog or a pickled shark. Modern art museums have become phoney pillars of the establishment, fronting a huge cultural and financial confidence trick.

Genuine art is always a complete, imaginative creation, and doesn’t need an art gallery, let alone an art museum, to exist. The ‘Mona Lisa’ is the ‘Mona Lisa’ whether it is in the Louvre or on the street.

I have charted how this sorry farce came about, most recently in my book Art Exposed (Pallas Athene, 2023). The game reached rock bottom in 2000 when Nick Serota bought Piero Manzoni’s ‘Artist’s Shit’ (1961) for Tate Modern, one of an edition of 90 cans of ‘freshly preserved’ faeces (contents unexamined), for £22,000 – a sum that could, at that time, have bought a whole clutch of Beryl Cooks.

No one in their right mind wants to look at a can of excrement, but many would like to look at a Beryl Cook. And when they do, they won’t laugh at it, but with it.

Modern art galleries need to step back from the front row and enable the most genuine, original artists of our time to talk directly to the widest public again. The tide is turning, with the fashionable Studio Voltaire showing Beryl alongside Tom of Finland – a brilliant pairing. Add Fernando Botero to the mix and the trio could take Tate Modern by storm – and show just how blinkered Serota was.

Listen to Julian Spalding and Rachel Campbell-Johnston, former chief art critic at the Times, discuss Beryl Cook on The Edition podcast:

Beryl Cook / Tom of Finland is at Studio Voltaire from 15 May to 25 August.

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