The critics hate her. But Beryl Cook is one of Britain's best- loved painters. In a rare interview, she talks about her life
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PEOPLE invariably ask whether Beryl Cook is fat, like her paintings. The answer is no. She is neither fat nor jolly, and if she were to depict herself in her work it would be as a bony onlooker watching her extrovert subjects with horrified fascination.

Her pictures are a terrible red herring when it comes to her personality because the fat women she paints having fun are the diametric opposites of herself. They are vulgar, raucous and straightforward, whereas she is private, shy and rather neurotic. She is so frightened of even old friends, for example, that she refuses to entertain them at home. She is a strange woman in other ways too. The disabled have the bizarre, embarrassing effect of plunging her into hysterics, while her fascination with midgets seems especially peculiar.

However, these foibles (of which more later) are hidden under the surface of a life that is breathtaking in its ordinariness. Cook lives in an unpretentious terraced house in a sunwashed Plymouth street off the Hoe with her two dogs and John, her husband of 47 years, whom she met when he moved next door aged 10 and pelted her through the fence with stones.

They started dating at 16 and married six years later, although in bet- ween John joined the merchant navy and they both claim to have had relationships with other people. While he was at sea, Beryl moved to London, where her sister had joined the Italia Conti stage school. After a series of secretarial jobs, which she hated, she helped her mother run a tea garden near Hampton Court. Beryl and John married and soon had John, their only child. After a brief spell in what is now Zimbabwe, ("My sister was there: it seemed as good a place to live as anywhere") they first settled in Cornwall, then Plymouth.

Beryl and John, now both 68, put most people's marriages to shame by their togetherness, operating an almost umbilical routine. First thing in the morning Beryl nips out to the shops - she loves shopping, though seldom buys much - then paints upstairs in what used to be a bedroom while John, in high Victorian fashion, looks after the business side of her work. Every day at 4.30pm she and John walk "the girls", as they call their two dogs, lamenting their aches and pains. In the evenings they go to the pub or see family, and on Sundays they answer her mail.

The art establishment, which has fought for so long to keep her work from - it believes - debasing its institutions, would no doubt be pleased to learn that Cook's house reflects the cheerful tastelessness of her paintings. A gnome perches on the step, ancient lamps advertising Guinness light the gloomy sitting-room and antimacassars stretch primly over the velour three-piece suite. Before she made enough money from painting, Cook ran her home as a boarding-house, and the institutional atmosphere lingers amid the china ornaments and net curtains. "One of the best things about selling my work was that I could give up having lodgers," she says. "It was a wonderful feeling when I knew I was allowed to go and paint and needn't feel I was wasting time." Cook watches me carefully as she confides this, like a child in disgrace, and peals of nervous laughter punctuate her speech. She is wearing a blue and white striped jumper with a little scarf tied, cowboy-style, around her neck. Her eyes shine like blue pebbles. But she clearly finds giving interviews an ordeal: every time she answers a question her left hand flies up to her cheek or covers her chin, betraying her deep unease. She likes to portray herself as a boring housewife, but it is fascinating to trace how her eccentric personality has found expression despite unpromising circumstances - leaving school in Reading at 15, eschewing most kinds of social situation, refusing point-blank to take commissions.

Beryl Cook didn't start painting until her early 40s, after her husband gave her a child's paintbox for her birthday. Her first painting hangs in the hall: more arresting and sombre than her later work, it depicts a Cubist-style woman staring grimly as if trying to ignore the way her bare breasts droop below like udders.

In a novel, this achievement would have heralded the start of a glittering career, but it didn't work like that. Beryl and John were busy in Africa. She pinned the picture to a wardrobe door and forgot about it. It was two years before Cook attempted painting again. She and John had moved back to England and settled in Looe, where John found work in the motor trade. She has two explanations for her return to painting. The boring one is that she couldn't get a job, so began painting on bits of driftwood to fill her time. The second, and more interesting, is that they were so poor she couldn't afford to buy pictures for the walls of their cottage, so she painted her own. "I expected to paint like Stanley Spencer," she admits. "It was a great disappointment to me when I realised that I didn't."

One of her lodgers spotted her talent and persuaded her to give an exhibition in the local gallery in Plymouth; her work was spotted by a national paper, and so began her career - that of the successful artist.

Cook dislikes talking about her art, partly be-cause of a vague feeling that if she does she will lose her ability to create it, and partly because she is extremely sensitive to the possibility that many people think her work doesn't deserve the name art. Her perception of this hostility is justified: Time Out magazine refuses to include her gallery in its listings pages, the Tate has never bought one of her paintings, let alone put on a temporary exhibition, and critics are notoriously sniffy about her painting. Brian Sewell, one of the best known, cannot abide her. "She has developed a very successful formula which a lot of fools are prepared to buy, but which is anti-art in my view," he says. "It doesn't have the intellectual honesty of an inn sign for the Pig and Whistle. It has a kind of vulgar streak which has nothing to do with art."

Yet, with the exception of David Hockney, who has defected to California, there is no British artist whose work is better known than Cook's. Although her face remains unknown to the public, the greeting cards showing her pictures sell in 18 countries, several advertisements and a stamp have been created using her work, and her paintings are loved and bought by everyone from company directors to window cleaners. "The lack of recognition she gets really pisses me off," says Jess Wilder, who has sold her work for the past 20 years from the Portal Gallery, off Bond Street in London. "I think critics like to be masonic about art. What you see is what you get with Beryl, so they can't show off about it."

This may not be true. Cook's paintings are assumed to be mere good-natured fun, but after meeting her you suspect they are faintly tinged with satire, if not malice. Her subjects - the fat working classes lying on the beach, drinking in the pub or guzzling lobsters - would in real life be considered vulgar and overweight, yet they wear the self-satisfied smile of the sexually alluring. Cook also places them in undignified situations. As they queue outside a pub for a hen party, stand rotundly in leggings on an elevator or dance the Cajun two-step, one senses the presence of a detached, ironical eye noting the details of their absurdity.

Cook keeps a sharp eye out for these ungainly situations when in Plymouth and on holiday abroad, and reproduces them sometimes months later, helped by the sheaf of blank cards she keeps in her handbag to make covert notes. This is her only concession to professionalism. She produces a painting a fortnight, spending most of the time drawing them meticulously beforehand to make sure the composition is right, and exhibits only once every two- and-a-half years. Her studio is packed with her paintings and, perhaps unexpectedly, a reproduction of the Mona Lisa. "I got this from the market because I thought I might use the frame," she says. "But look at this!" She plucks a card of the painting off her mantlepiece, pulls a tab, and it changes to reveal the same woman in bra and knickers. "I love this!" she cries, delighted. "Don't you think it's great? I absolutely love it!"

Does she think her subjects reflect her? "Well," she says, "They're often doing things that really I wouldn't mind doing" - whipping her hand to her cheek and letting out a peal of gleeful laughter - "Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha! I love to be entertained by people doing things in the street and things, I love it, and I like to think my paintings give back the pleasure that they've given me." She stops and peers at me doubtfully. "Do you think that's right? I like to think that." Jess Wilder says that in Cook there is a raging extrovert fighting to get out, who hasn't yet succeeded. Her paintings are over-the-top but in reality she likes to watch life from the sidelines, relishing biographies and the exhibitionist antics of others. A few years ago, she and John ran a pub in Suffolk, but had to give it up because she hated having to perform. "I loathed it," she says. "I never thought I would, because I loved sitting in pubs drinking, but I didn't realise what it was like to have to come forward with a smile on my face at night and sit there chatting, which I very soon found out is not my forte."

It all goes back to her terrible shyness which borders on neurosis and may partly account for her marriage to the boy next door. Someone who was so allergic to people might have been expected to paint landscapes, but it seems to have worked the other way with Cook, who goes to extraordinary lengths to avoid commitments and does her socialising in pubs. "I sit next to a door because I know I've got a means of escape. I probably won't want to then, you see, but I do need to have that," she explains mysteriously, hand clamped to her chin. What about having a couple they've known for ages to dinner? She recoils. "Oh, I don't have people to dinner and I don't go out for dinner either. I'd be completely tied then, there'd be no escape whatsoever."

She adds unexpectedly - as if this could be reasonable explanation - "I don't always like the food either. I like extremely plain food and I'm terrified of having it all titivated up, do you know what I mean? I had a friend who knew Frederick Ashton, the choreographer, and she told me once that wherever he went, whenever he went out to dinner," she lowers her voice conspiratorially, "whatever restaurant or whatever house he was in he only ever had a baked potato and do you know I thought that was the most wonderful idea? Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha! You can't get into trouble with a baked potato can you?" And off she goes into another crescendo of laughter.

Another unusual feature of Cook's psyche, providing pause for thought for any psychotherapist, is that she has an obsession with midgets, whom she says she can sense from miles away. "Terrible, isn't it?" she says as confidingly as a child. "I've got a thing about them. I'm fascinated because it's out of the normal. I'm absolutely fascinated. I once went down to the theatre and I think Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was on because to my amazement I looked down and I was totally surrounded by them - ha ha ha ha ha ha ha! I couldn't believe it. All about me!"

Women tend to hog the limelight in Cook's paintings - not surprising when one considers that she was brought up in Reading single-handedly by her mother, an office worker. Her father, an engineer, walked out when they were very young, and it was his father who supported them. She has three sisters and says they fought tooth and nail. "Even though our houses were built quite strongly my husband John could hear all our screams next door - 'I'm going to sue you!' 'I'm taking you to court!' Ha ha! 'I'm going to kill you!' Ha ha! My poor mother. I feel sorry for her now, what she had to put up with." But Cook never missed having a father and seems surprised at the question: "Well, no. I can't say that ever worried me greatly."

One of her stories provides a telling vignette of her childhood. "My mother used to make us all go to Sunday school on Sunday afternoons. We hated this. She used to get into the hammock at the end of the garden with a bar of chocolate and a very lurid paper called Red Letter, and that used to be her Sunday afternoon rest. We had a penny each for the collection and took to leaving the house and playing in the park for an hour and going back at the appropriate time - ha ha ha ha ha ha! At least she got her rest! Ha ha ha ha! She never found out. Not as far as I know she didn't!"

Her mother is long dead, of cancer in 1968, and meeting Cook you wonder if smoking was a wise thing for her to do. Until 18 months ago she got through about 40 a day, and her house is still dotted - wistfully - with ashtrays. There are 300 cigarettes stashed in the cupboard in the sitting- room, but she no longer touches them following an asthma attack whose symptoms are still apparent in a horrifying wheeze. "If I smoke one I know I'll have had it, I'll be back in full flow. Having made this tremendous effort to give up I know that would be extremely foolish," she says, "but oh, how I used to enjoy it!"

In the hall John can be heard clattering around. He comes in to enquire whether I've finished, and if he can take me to the station. It's the second time he's asked, the first being when I came in. He gives the impression of disliking journalists (this may be because he reads what they write about his wife, and she doesn't). John is a small, polite, energetic man whose breezy and cheerful manner remind one of an intelligent dog. He says that he loves to bask in her reflected glory, but when I ask him whether they are millionaires, he looks embarrassed and says hastily: "Far from it." Cook herself claims not to know how much her paintings sell for (they reach between pounds 8,000 and pounds 16,000 each, half of which is kept by the Portal Gallery) nor how the money is spent. "It is invested, and we have pension funds, I believe. I don't give it much thought."

She seems genuinely uninterested in material possessions. When I ask if she would like to buy a grander house, she says mildly: "I actually like it here." Cruises, then? "I don't think John's that keen on cruising." Perhaps helping her son (he runs a cafe, Elvira's, with his wife in Plymouth)? "Well, he's pretty happily placed with his business, I must say. She thinks about it, then adds, dep-ressingly: "You can't spend money on much these days, even if you've got it. You can't have a really nice car if you don't have a garage.

"It's no good me coming out with glittering diamonds or else I might be mugged and even with clothes, if you go away, they can be pinched."

She buys her clothes from the market because when she goes to expensive clothes shops she invariably comes home with an outfit she dislikes. She will then put it in the ward-robe for three years, after which she can feel justified in throwing it away.

For someone apparently so unacquisitive, what is it about shopping that appeals to her so much? The question produces a burst of enthusiasm. "I love shopping! Ha ha ha! I love shops!" she cries. "I'll touch everything in the shop. I'll try it on, but I won't buy it. I like to touch all the racks with the clothes on. I'll try all the trousers on. I like all the food stuff as well. I'll buy if I find something, but these days I don't often. We've stopped going to the auction sales because we've bought so much there's nowhere to put it." (Indeed, her house is full of sombre, dark pieces of furniture.) She lowers her voice. "Awful, isn't it? John likes the food shops as well. He'll touch everything, and I go out every day unless I'm in the thick of a painting."

But Cook doesn't need to buy, she explains, launching into an unexpected homily, because even when she was poor she felt rich. "I've always thought that I was just like the Queen. I had pictures on the walls, I had plenty of books because we bought them off book stalls, and I'd got gnomes in the garden so I'd got my sculptures just like she had. So, actually speaking, I'm very well protected.

"Even if I never sold another picture I would go on just the same and I think I'm incredibly lucky there. Some people are absolutely driven by these things, aren't they? But my family has always been the most important part of my life. I love paintings, and I'd never give them up, but family's the thing to me. It's true!"

Then, abruptly, she and John get up, put on their elasticated cotton jackets and take me, as promised, to the railway station. Despite their courtesy I sense their relief that yet another predator from London is finally making an exit.

They drop me off in their L-reg Audi and, as I climb aboard the train, one long sound rings in my ears. "Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!"

! Beryl Cook's new work can be seen at the Portal Gallery, Grafton St, W1 (0171 493 0706) until 22 July.