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Painter Beryl Cook dies aged 81

Painter Beryl Cook, known for her comical representations of fat people, died today at the age of 81.

Jess Wilder, co-owner of London's Portal Gallery, which has shown Cook's paintings exclusively for more than 30 years, said: "She died peacefully this morning with her family around her."

She said: "It's very sad indeed. She was painting until very recently. We had a marvellous 80th birthday party here."

Cook died at her home in Plymouth with her husband and son with her.

The artist once said: "I don't know how my pictures happen, they just do.

"They exist, but for the life of me I can't explain them."

Cook was previously described by Victoria Wood as: "Rubens with jokes."

She recorded the absurdities of human life and her characters appeared to be enjoying themselves to the full.

According to Cook's official website, she was born one of four sisters and left school at the age of 14.

In 1943 Cook moved to London and became a showgirl in a touring production of The Gypsy Princess.

She was employed in the fashion industry, inspiring her life-long interest in people's appearances.

In 1946 she married childhood friend John, with whom she briefly ran a pub when he retired from the Merchant Navy.

Their son, also named John, was born in 1950, and the following year they left to live in Southern Rhodesia - a move said to be a turning point for Cook.

After picking up some paints belonging to her son, Cook found she could not stop painting, using scraps of wood, fire screens and even a breadboard.

The family later moved to Plymouth, where in the summer months they ran a theatrical boarding house.

Cook and her husband enjoyed visiting local bars and watching flamboyant drag acts.

A local exhibition in the mid-1970s attracted huge acclaim, followed by a cover and feature in the Sunday Times magazine and Cook's first London exhibition, which was a sell-out.

In 1979 Melvyn Bragg made a film about Cook for the South Bank Show.

Cook was one of Britain's best-loved artists.

But many critics have turned up their noses at her bold and humorous depictions of portly ladies and fun-loving characters going about routine activities.

Her fans have accused the major art galleries of snubbing her work, which sells for up to £40,000.

In 2007 they launched a campaign against Tate Modern for not buying a single Cook painting while spending thousands of pounds on a can of conceptual human excrement.

Cook's work was exhibited at the Baltic in Gateshead last year.

Her paintings document familiar social situations like girls on a hen night, in a disco or shopping, men in the pub, at a strip club or at the market.

She is credited with capturing "moments of social history, portrayed with a playful streak of naughtiness".

Her contribution to the Queen's Golden Jubilee, The Royal Couple, was in the Golden Jubilee Exhibition of May 2002 at Art London, Chelsea. In 1995 she was awarded the OBE.