04 Jun, 2009

Beryl Cook’s final paintings unveiled at exhibition

Posted by: admin In: Guardian

Works including The Last Gasp go on display at show celebrating life of one of Britain’s most popular artists

It was a scene she had witnessed in one of her favourite haunts: a bunch of past their prime blokes enjoying themselves as, probably, they waited for the pub’s gay bar to open and its drag acts to come on. Tommy Dancing is the last ever painting by Beryl Cook and today can be seen for the first time.

Cook, who died last May, was going through her old sketchbooks when she came across the scene with Tommy borrowing a friend’s crutch to show off his dancing skills. Cook was an acute observer of changes in fashion and the generous heels of one man easily date the scene to the 1970s.

It was her last painting and today it went on display at an exhibition celebrating Cook’s life at the London gallery that sold her work for more than 30 years, the Portal Gallery.

More than 20 Cook paintings will be on display, including the last four she painted. One of these, The Last Gasp, will be for sale. It shows a typically leggy lady with rather too much eyeshadow enjoying what could be her last allowed cigarette at the bar.

“It was her reaction to the dreaded smoking ban,” said her friend and the Portal Gallery’s co-owner, Jess Wilder. “People of her generation thought it was all a bit ridiculous. Beryl was quite anarchic in her way.”

When Cook painted Tommy Dancing she was not getting out to the pub as much as she wanted and was missing her Friday night trips to the Dolphin in Plymouth.

Trawling through her old sketchbooks she came across the scene from one of her favourite pubs, Plymouth’s Lockyer Tavern, famous for its Sunday drag shows. Wilder said: “She was a quiet observer and she saw things other people didn’t see.”

Cook, a former seaside landlady and self-taught artist, spent more than 30 years painting people enjoying themselves: drinking, flirting, dancing or just going about life with a dirty smile on their face. She was one of Britain’s most popular artists, although not necessarily with some professional art critics.

Wilder believes Cook will go down as “a social historian”. She added: “I think Britain does tend to throw up completely unique talents. People like Stanley Spencer, LS Lowry and also Beryl Cook. No one else paints like them.”

• Beryl Cook 1926-2008: A Celebration, at the Portal Gallery, London W1, until 27 June

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