Beryl Cook, painter of pub life, dies aged 81

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Beryl Cook, the artist known for her saucy, seaside postcard-style portraits of fat ladies in colourful costumes, died at home in Plymouth yesterday. She was 81.

Jess Wilder, co-owner of London's Portal Gallery, which exhibited Cook's paintings for more than 30 years, said: "She died peacefully with her family around her. It's very sad indeed. She was painting until very recently."

Famously private, the artist often depicted flamboyant and extrovert characters, despite her own retiring temperament. Cook admitted: "I love to see people enjoying themselves. That's my greatest inspiration. I'd like to be singing and dancing while everybody was admiring me, but I can't do it. But my contribution to the fun is my paintings."

Her inspiration came from pub life – especially the spit-and-sawdust Dolphin in Plymouth – and cartoons. The comedian Victoria Wood once described her as "Rubens with jokes".

When quizzed about her preoccupation with larger women, she said: "The big ladies? I don't like doing backgrounds... To get rid of the background, I paint the people even larger."

Born in Surrey in 1926, she was a showgirl and pub landlady before turning to art. Her husband John served in the merchant navy. An untrained artist, she started painting to cover her walls after moving to Cornwall in the early Sixties.

"It started when we moved to Looe," she said. "I looked around and we had a lot of bare walls. Everybody in Looe was painting so I thought I'd see what I could do. A friend was enthusiastic over my first efforts, even though they were bloody awful. He put them in a shop and they sold. Not for much, but it gave me confidence."

When she moved to Plymouth, her work was spotted by Plymouth Arts Centre, which featured it in an exhibition in 1975.

Ian Hutchinson, director of Plymouth Arts Centre, said her work was discovered by a colleague staying at Cook's guest house. At that time she painted on driftwood and doors. "The then director made a call and encouraged her to submit work to a show. Her husband arrived with a jewel of a piece, painted on a hexagon breadboard," he said. The show was an instant success. Within four years, her paintings were famous across Britain.

Her work is on permanent display in Glasgow, Bristol and Plymouth and she recently exhibited in Durham and Stoke. In 2006, London's Portal Gallery held a comprehensive exhibition to celebrate her 80th birthday. But her work divided the art world. When the Baltic Arts Centre in Gates-head announced an exhibition of her paintings last year, some said her work was not "challenging" enough. A campaign by fans targeted Tate Modern for not having her work in its collection.

She admitted: "Critics are in two minds about my work. There are some who would not dream of saying something nice, but that doesn't worry me one iota because the people who I like to see my paintings are exactly like me. They buy the cards and the books. That's how it reaches the public."

With failing eyesight and arthritis, she retired from the art world but still painted for pleasure. Pragmatically, she said her family was "the most important thing in my life, not my painting".