Beryl Cook painted for some 40 years. Well known and much loved in her home county of Devon, she was largely snubbed by the the nation’s major art galleries.

Art critics also look down their noses at Beryl Cook’s paintings of the colourful characters she has encountered in Plymouth, where she lived.

Born in Surrey in 1926, she first started to paint after using her young son’s paint set.

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When her family moved to Plymouth, Beryl and husband John (a seaman in the Merchant Navy) ran a busy theatrical boarding house.  It was here that her talents were discovered, when guests started to talk about the unique paintings on display. A friend persuaded Beryl Cook to try and sell some of the paintings – and, much to her surprise, they sold like hot cakes!

Her first exhibition was in 1975, since when her trademark pictures of larger than life characters have become well known the world over.  Beryl Cook’s first pictures were created on driftwood, picked up from the beach.

Speaking on the BBC’s Culture Show, Beryl Cook said: “I started painting on plywood, pieces of wardrobe, or anything handy that I found around the house, including lavatory seats.”

Despite the art world’s snooty view of Beryl Cook’s paintings, the public love them.   And in 2004, her boisterous characters starred in a two-part animated BBC TV series called Bosom Pals.

“I love it when I see people enjoying themselves. I’d quite like to be the one singing and dancing drunkenly in the middle of a crowd!”

Beryl Cook

Her paintings are full of flamboyant, colourful characters, many of them observed by Beryl at the Dolphin pub on Plymouth’s Barbican, and recreated in caricature form on canvas.

“We’ve always visited this pub on the Barbican. We always go down there – only for a couple of hours on a Friday,” said Beryl.

“I always loved the sailors. When the sailors were in, all the prostitutes were in. So we used to start at one end and visit all the little pubs.

“But it’s all changed now – we very rarely see sailors. I don’t think they’re allowed to wear their uniforms out. And of course you can’t really go out drinking in Union Street until half past ten – and now we are much too old for that.”

Self taught, Beryl prepared every picture fastidiously. They began as little sketches on cards often drawn surreptitiously under cover of her handbag.

A night out in the Dolphin!

She spent weeks drawing her elaborate compositions. And she painted no-one unless it looked like they were having a good time.

In an interview with the BBC in 2006, she revealed: “I’m only motivated to paint by people enjoying themselves.”

“If I saw something sad I wouldn’t dream of painting that. It wouldn’t mean anything to me to paint it. I might feel sorry for them, but I certainly wouldn’t want to paint it.”

“Human nature is immensely interesting to me and I accept it all, just as it is.”

“I hope my pictures convey some of the pleasure, fury, amazement and delight I feel in activities going on around me.”

“I love it when I see people enjoying themselves. I’d quite like to be the one singing and dancing drunkenly in the middle of a crowd!”

However, while she painted loud, flamboyant characters, Beryl herself was shy and didn’t like being in the limelight. She didn’t attend any of her gallery openings, and she didn’t even turn up at Buckingham Palace to collect her OBE.

A character from the TV show, Bosom Pals

Beryl was always attracted to scenes peculiar to British working life. What other painters dismissed, she saw as treats from the streets.

“I love painting those big fags and I love people smoking all around me,” she said.

“I feel much better when I’m painting. It isn’t why I paint. I paint because I like doing it, but at the same time I wouldn’t be worrying about anything else – only my painting.”

Beryl’s fans have started to fight back against the art snobs who have given her work the cold shoulder.

In 2007, they launched a campaign against the Tate Modern in London for spending thousands of pounds on a can of conceptual human excrement, and not buying a single painting by Beryl Cook.

The artist remained unconcerned, however: “I don’t see the point actually,” she said. “What would they do with one of mine I ask you. And anyway, how can I compete with tins of you know what! Unless I paint them!”

For Beryl, it was not the idea of seeing her paintings hanging at the major galleries which thrilled her – it was the enjoyment they bring to people.

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