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Beryl Bainbridge the artist

Beryl's portrait of Aaron and JoJo from the mid-1960s Beryl's portrait of Aaron and JoJo from the mid-1960s

Joseph Connolly
Thursday, November 1, 2012
12:00 AM

Beryl Bainbridge the painter was a figure we knew little about, until now.

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Last year, at Beryl Bainbridge’s memorial celebration in Hampstead Town Hall, the publisher told me that this book was coming: an art book devoted to her little-known paintings and drawings – though it’s rather more besides. The author, Psiche Hughes, was a very close friend and confidante for more than fifty years – a language teacher married to a painter, both of whom were very helpful to Beryl in her early rather tentative painting career, before she became even slightly successful as an author. So of course here is an extended love letter, a heartfelt expression of gratitude for all those years of friendship – but it is also an informative, amusing and pretty thorough account of Beryl’s life and loves: the first that we have had, apart from occasional and typically quirky autobiographical fragments.

Beryl was born in 1932 in Formby, Lancashire, although her father was a Liverpudlian. Initially rather well-to-do, he fell on hard times – much to the pain, disgrace and anger of his wife – and wound up as a travelling salesman. As a child, Beryl’s chief task seemed to be as mediator between her two parents. Art was her escape: “I used to draw people and houses a lot,” she later remembered, “but always with a story”. And throughout her life the pictures retained that narrative aspect: always there is something going on – some tale, usually weird, involving huge-eyed characters who are sometimes naked, and quite often Napoleon.

In 1954 she married Austin Davies, an artist and lecturer at the Liverpool College of Art (where he tutored John Lennon and Stuart Sutcliffe, both of them soon to be Beatles). Two children and four years later, that marriage was over – and Beryl had a living to earn. She found that her pictures – if they were cheap enough – “sold like hot cakes”, in her own words, and so she bashed them out at no more than £25 a time. Which is the sum, she later estimated, that eventually she earned from her first published novel, A Weekend With Claude . Two more followed, though rather quietly. By the early 1970s though, Beryl had made her mark with Harriet Said – actually the first novel she had written, under the title The Summer of the Tsar. The publisher who had rejected this many years earlier had called it ‘repulsive beyond belief’ and ‘too indecent and unpleasant’. Her new publisher Duckworth, however, lapped it up.

Although she had shown her pictures before (once at Hampstead Town Hall alongside such as Hockney and Paolozzi) around the same time as her growing success as a writer Beryl was offered a solo exhibition by a rather prestigious Mayfair gallery … and she said no. Although she was multi-talented (having also been a convincing actress, once appearing in Coronation Street as one of Ken Barlow’s eight million girlfriends) she decided that she could concentrate upon only one art at a time. “What I love about painting as opposed to writing is that it is so instantly fulfilling: it gives one such a happy, carefree feeling. When you’re painting you can watch telly, walk around, eat; whereas when you’re writing … God! You have to keep puzzling the whole thing over and really bloody well work at it”.

Her books may be divided into three phases: those wonderful short comedies inspired by her youth in Liverpool, the London novels (when she was consumed by the joys of Camden Town, her Albert Street house a colourful hotchpotch of organised wonder - featuring not least Eric, the stuffed buffalo in the hall) and then the final novels focussing upon authentic historical characters: certainly the most successful. Nearly every honour imaginable was piled upon Beryl the writer – five shortlistings for the Booker, most other literary prizes, doctorates and a Damehood – but outside her close-knit coterie of friends and beloved family, Beryl the painter remained unknown.

This finely produced book (replete with tangerine silken bookmark) will redress all that. The pictures are remarkably appealing in their immediacy, the constructions and perspectives quite terrific. She was a natural colourist – gingers, oranges, brown and yellows prevailing, with inspired splatters of turquoise and red – while always there is a sense of fun and cheekiness. Elements of Ronald Searle and Chagall are pretty evident, as well as maybe just a soupcon of a far more elegant and subtle Beryl Cook. But our Beryl remained an amateur painter in the real and very best sense: she simply loved doing it. While a bad book review would wound her deeply, she once said this: “If someone who knew a lot about art, a real painter, came up to one of my paintings and said ‘That’s bloody awful’, I don’t think I really would mind that much. In fact, I think I’d probably agree with him”. Well I wouldn’t agree with him: Beryl Bainbridge was herself a real painter – and the paintings are bloody good.

BERYL BAINBRIDGE: Artist, Writer, Friend. By Psiche Hughes (Thames & Hudson £19.99)

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