Ladies of a certain size

Allan Saddler became a Beryl Cook fan 20 years ago. A new show has strengthened his love for the painter of large women

It was 20 years since I went to Plymouth Arts Centre to see the American comic Ray Hassett? He was late, so I wandered upstairs to where the director, Bernard Samuels, was hanging the first exhibition of the paintings of Beryl Cook.

The early paintings were more crude than naive, but they contained that spark of comic postcard humour that tickled the nation's funnybone. I took news of them to the Sunday Times where a picture spread was arranged and Cook was off.

Now they are collected together and displayed on two floors in the same arts centre. Sir George Christie, who opened the exhibition, said that Cook paints for her own pleasure and then lets us in on the act. She is one of his six favourite people, along with Basil Brush, and he wants her to come to Glyndebourne and do her best. Sir George finds Beryl's paintings alive with humanity, warm and friendly, but peppered with acute social observation.

Seeing nearly a hundred paintings in the Cook collection made me think that Cook can be jolly, but also unkind. There are lumpy ladies everywhere. Is it a celebration of lumpiness? Large cutouts of bulging women in skimpy underwear welcome visitors at the doors. Their pointy nipples have punched a hole through their bras and their bellies sag over their fantastic fun- set knickers. Is it possible that Cook's eye enlarges the human figure? Is this lumpy liberation? Even in homely pursuits - like three girls getting into a taxi - you feel for the springs. A woman jogging is a hopeless case. Sitting on a male knee in a bar gives cause for alarm. A stripper is big value for money. If it all started with Cook's Adam and Eve, we are in for a strapping time.

Another feature is the expressionless characters, always surprised by the intrusion when eating their fish and chips, playing tennis, in hospitals, in a bible class, looking particularly uninspired. There are the same blank-faced lumps in the Gare du Nord. Most of Cook's ladies have thick cupid lips, although the dominatrixes smile thinly as they brandish their whips.

And yet Cook seems to have pricked all lumpy pretensions. She has also done a few good turns. The neighbour who bought the original of the three bowling ladies goosing each other for pounds 35 sold it for pounds 6,000. And 20 years ago Cook gave my wife a painting of two holiday visitors, sitting dough- faced in a bus shelter on Plymouth Hoe, surrounded by graffiti.

We had the painting for 15 years, but when we moved it didn't seem right. It was painted on three ply and the wood had started to warp. I put it in a local auction with a reserve of pounds 200. The auctioneer rang me up. "What do you think you're playing at?" he said. "I can't put this up for my clients to see." I had forgotten about the graffiti - "Nigel is a wanker. I shagged a Proggy. I need sex!" he ranted on indignantly. I took the painting away and then took it to London; via the Portal Galleries it got to Bonham's auction where it sold for pounds 4,000, and we went on a cruise down the Danube. Thanks Beryl Cook, and thanks Ray Hassett. You were good, too, when you turned up.

n 'Beryl Cook: a Twentieth Anniversary Exhibition' is at the Plymouth Arts Gallery, Looe Street, Plymouth (01752 660060) to 23 Dec

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