Plymouth History Heroes: Beryl Cook OBE

With the ‘Our Beryl’ exhibition currently on display at the Council House and receiving brilliant feedback from everyone who visits it, we just had to feature Beryl Cook OBE (1926-2008) as this month’s History Hero!

Photograph of Beryl Cook OBE

Born Beryl Frances Lansley in Egham, Surrey in 1926, she would go on to produce an array of artworks full of larger than life characters that ‘ranged from stout lady bowlers goosing each other to middle-aged men in bikinis being serviced by Miss Whiplash.’ Many of her paintings feature scenes and locations from Plymouth. 

Her work is instantly recognisable and highlights the fascination she had with people. Throughout her career she made no apology for the playfulness of her work: “What excites me is the joy, the animation, the pleasure in life,” she once told the Guardian.

“Beryl took great interest in people and loved to see them performing and enjoying themselves,” says her son John Cook. “From nightlife of all varieties, to the more innocent pursuits of line dancing and sunbathing, a diverse spectrum of human activity can be found in her paintings.”

Despite her strong sense of fun and popularity, Beryl was quite reserved and actually found fame hard to deal with: “She loved to imagine herself as an extrovert though,” says John. “She often painted herself in various guises such as on a motorbike, in a shiny corset, as a cheerleader or even dancing the tango.”

'John and Beryl Do the Tango' by Beryl Cook. Image copyright John Cook 2017.

Our exhibition has been co-curated with Beryl’s family and they have a fantastic website where you can find out even more about her.

Visit the Arty Facts page to see a timeline which highlights key moments in her life – including her marriage to John Cook in 1948, her first exhibition at Plymouth Arts Centre in 1975 and receiving her OBE in 1995. Her ‘Girls on the Town’ painting was featured on a 1st class postage stamp the same year!

Photograph of the Great British postage stamp featuring 'Girls on the Town' by Beryl Cook, 1995

On the website you can also see a selection of family photos and take a look at some of the obituaries that were published when she sadly passed away in 2008.

You can also read a great personal account written by her son John. His biography covers her early life, marriage, time in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), return to the UK, move to Plymouth in 1968 and artistic career.

Happy reading and don’t forget, the ‘Our Beryl: Beryl Cook at Home’ exhibition runs until the end of Saturday 9 September and is free to visit. Find out more about it here.





History Centre Heroes: Benjamin Robert Haydon

Plymouth-born Benjamin Robert Haydon (1786-1846) was an historical painter, teacher and writer who had a stormy life and career.

Intensely ambitious, he was the only son of another Benjamin Robert Haydon, a prosperous printer, stationer and publisher, and his wife Mary, the daughter of the Reverend Benjamin Cobley, rector of Dodbrooke, near Kingsbridge.

Haydon showed a love for study at an early age which was encouraged by his mother. He went to Plympton Grammar School where one of our other famous artists, Sir Joshua Reynolds had also received his education.

In May 1804 Haydon left home full of energy and hope and went to London where he studied at the Royal Academy Schools.

His ambition was to become the greatest historical painter England had ever known and he produced a series of huge canvases featuring biblical and classical subjects. Unfortunately these were out of favour with the public at the time. Haydon was unwilling to compromise his ideals and suffered a series of bankruptcies and imprisonments. Throughout his career he also had many disagreements with his peers and patrons.

The Maid of Saragossa – one of Haydon’s history paintings. Image © Plymouth City Council (Arts and Heritage).

One of his works entitled ‘Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem’ took him six years to complete during which he refused other work and was effectively without an income. His preference for working on a vast scale was also hampered by an eye defect that apparently enabled him to see only one part of a canvas at a time.

Aside from the difficulties he had with his painting, he was actually a very talented writer who produced a number of diaries, pamphlets, journals and an autobiography.

Overcome by his debts and disappointments Haydon committed suicide on 22 June 1846, shooting himself and then cutting his throat when the bullet failed.

He would have been in his mid-30s when this portrait from our collections by Scottish artist William Nicholson RSA (1781-1844) was painted around 1820.

Portrait of Haydon by William Nicholson RSA (1781-1844), circa 1820. Image © Plymouth City Council (Arts and Heritage).

His tragic end made him a victim of his own ambition just as much as of the changing tastes of the time.

But, his love for his art was a passion he was never afraid to hide and one critic commented that: ‘His great monument… the massive collection of…..writings he left behind…..which give fascinating insights into the contemporary artistic scene…..’

History Centre Heroes: Gilbert and George

The Plymouth Art Weekender takes place at the end of this week (23 to 25 September 2016) and the History Centre will feature an exciting programme of contemporary visual art, so we’re using this week’s blog post to highlight a contemporary artist who hails from Plymouth.

George Passmore was born in Plymouth on 8 January 1942. Today he is best known as one half of Gilbert and George. Together with Gilbert Proesch (b. 17 September 1943 in Italy) he is famous for his distinctive and highly formal appearance and manner and brightly coloured graphic-style photo-based artworks.

Artists Make Faces 2013
We were lucky enough to be able to feature a work by Gilbert and George (the yellow and black work on the left of this image) in our 2013 ‘Artists Make Faces’ exhibition. ‘Exhausted’ (1980) came to us on loan from the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art.

Both men studied art in their formative years – George at Dartington College of Art and the Oxford School of Art. They first met on 25 September 1967 while studying sculpture at Saint Martin’s School of Art. They claim they came together because George was the only person who could understand Gilbert’s rather poorly-spoken English at the time. In a 2002 interview with the Daily Telegraph, they said: “it was love at first sight”.

Since 1969 they have lived in the Spitalfields area of East London – a location that has inspired much of their work. According to George: “Nothing happens in the world that doesn’t happen in the East End.”

Their early work centered around performance and the work that initially established their reputation was created while they were still students. ‘The Singing Sculpture’ was first performed at the Nigel Greenwood Gallery in 1969-1970. Gilbert and George covered their heads and hands in multi-coloured metalised powders and stood on a table while they sang and moved to a recording of Flanagan and Allen’s song “Underneath the Arches”. Sometimes they did this for a day at a time. The suits they wore for the performance became a sort of uniform for them.

Gilbert and George then went on to experiment with video, photography and drawing. In the early 1970s they started producing black-and-white photographic assemblages. In the late 1970s they began to develop gridlike photo combinations. During the early 1980s, they began to add a range of bright colors to their photographs, creating a more stylised and cartoonlike appearance.

The largest series of works created by them is known as the ‘Jack Freak Pictures’ in which the Union Jack and Gilbert and George are the two dominant images – appearing contorted, abstracted, and sometimes complete. The entire series is set in the East End of London as indicated by flags, maps, street signs, graffiti, brickwork and foliage that can be found in the area. The works have been described as ‘among their most iconic and violent’.

Gilbert and George (George is on the left) at a 2009 press conference in Berlin to discuss a solo exhibition of their "Jack Freak Pictures".
Gilbert and George (George is on the left) at a 2009 press conference in Berlin to discuss a solo exhibition of their “Jack Freak Pictures”.

At times they have received criticism, particularly for what people perceive as them glamourising some of the ‘rougher types’ of London’s East End. Some of their work has also attracted media attention because of the inclusion of nudity, depictions of sexual acts and bodily fluids. Some of the titles of their works have also courted controversy: “Naked Shit Pictures” (1994) and “Sonofagod Pictures” (2005).

However, they have also received much acclaim with extensive solo exhibitions in the UK, USA, France, Holland, Switzerland, Germany, Spain, Austria, Denmark, Russia and China; numerous Honorary Doctorates from academic institutions including Plymouth University; and awards such as the Special International Award, the South Bank Award and the Lorenzo il Magnifico Award. In 1986 they won the Turner Prize which is widely considered to be the UK’s most prestigious contemporary art award. In 2005 they represented the UK at prestigious international art exhibition, the Venice Biennale.

Gilbert and George
The Plymouth University graduation ceremony in 2013 where Honorary Doctorates were presented to Gilbert and George. Image from Culture24 © Alan Stewart.

By placing themselves into their work Gilbert and George are not only the creators of their art but the art themselves. By using images mainly gathered from around their home their work has captured many different facets of the human experience: humour, emotion, rural and urban, sex, religion and patriotism. The works they’ve produced are an important part of Britain’s post-second world war conceptual art.

Reynolds on the Grand Tour

The following post is based on an Art Bite talk given at the Plymouth City Museum & Art Gallery. It was given by Lawrie Thorne, who has carried out research into Reynolds’ early years up until the 1750s. We follow as Reynolds is about to begin the Grand Tour.

In 1749 Commodore Keppel in the command of The Centurian put into Plymouth for repairs and met Reynolds at Lord Edgcumbe’s home and offered him a passage. At this stage in his life this was very significant. The Grand Tour was a requirement for aristocratic young men who visited the major European cities to study the classical and current art and culture.

For an ambitious artist it meant the opportunity to study and copy at first hand the work of the Old Masters.

They sailed for Lisbon on the 11th May and visited Cadiz, Gibraltar, Algiers and Minorca. Kepple treated Reynolds as an intimate friend and allowed him the use of his cabin and books and took him on shore with him whenever he could. On the island of Minorca Reynolds painted portraits of almost all of the officers of the garrison. It was at Minorca that his horse fell down a precipice causing an injury to his lip which can be seen in subsequent self-portraits.

Reynolds then went on to Leghorn, Florence and Rome where he spent two years in what he described as, ‘with measureless content’. He arrived in Italy in April 1750 and in May in a letter to Lord Edgcumbe wrote that he was:

“ at the height of my wishes, in the midst of the greatest works of art that the world has produced”.

For this stay his sisters Mary (Mrs Palmer), and Elizabeth (Mrs Johnson) advanced him the money for his expenses. He made copies from Italian and Dutch masters, Titian, Raphael, Rembrandt, and as we know filled several note or sketchbooks – these are sketches and notes intended for later use. In this country two are in the British Museum, two in the Soane Museum and one we now know, is now in Plymouth Museum & Art Gallery.  Reynolds also met several future friends and patrons.

He arrived back in London on the 16th October 1752, well developed as a man and as an artist, but with two physical defects one we have mentioned, the other was deafness contracted from the cold of the Vatican while copying Raphael.

In his fame Reynolds said that he always considered the disagreement with Hudson as a very fortunate circumstance, since by this means he was led to deviate from the tameness and insipidity of his master, and to form a manner of his own. Perhaps it was a matter of two strong or contrasting personalities. In his biography of Reynolds, Joseph Farrington wrote that when Reynolds returned from Rome, in order to recover his practice, he began a portrait of Giuseppe Marchi his friend who had returned to England with him. Hudson repeatedly visited to view ‘this first specimen of his improved art’. When it was completed and Hudson viewed it he said:

‘Reynolds, you do not paint so well now as you did before you went to Italy’.

After a brief stay in Devon he came to London first taking apartments where his sister Frances kept home for him for many years, and then a house in Great Newport Street where he lived til 1760.

Reynolds insisted that genius on its own was insufficient to make an artist; the art he advocated combined natural talent with training, learning, and constant observation.

He was probably the most prolific portrait painter of all time.

In the final post of this series, we shall see just what Reynolds’ achievements were.

Reynolds’ early years in Plympton

By Lawrie Thorne – project volunteer

Lawrie has carried out research into Reynolds’ early years up until the 1750s. This is the first in a series of posts looking at the significance of the recently acquired self-portrait, in the life and times of Reynolds. It is based on an Art Bite talk given in December 2014.

Joshua Reynolds was born on the 16th July 1723, the seventh of eleven children of The Reverend Samuel Reynolds and his wife Theophila. Five of the children died in infancy. His father was Master of Plympton Grammar School where Joshua was to be a pupil. Samuel had graduated from Corpus Christi College in 1702, and was elected fellow of Balliol College, Oxford in 1705. On both sides the family was clerical and scholarly.

Plympton itself was an important area with its ancient Priory granted a Charter by Henry III in 1253, its status as a Stannary town, and its ability to return two members of Parliament.

Plympton Grammar School was one of private foundation. From the part of the estate of Elize Hele of Cornwood, left for charitable purposes, the trustees in 1658 allocated £1,800 for building a school house, maintaining a Master, and providing him with a dwelling. Begun in 1663 the school was completed in eight years with Richard Taprell, appointed in 1671 as the first Head Master. A dwelling- house already on site served, with additions, as a Masters house until its demolition in 1869.

Plympton Grammar School, by Samuel Prout (1783-1852)
Plympton Grammar School, as painted by Samuel Prout  © Plymouth City Council (Arts & Heritage)

The school was described as a Gothic structure of the most picturesque design and arrangement. Samuel Reynolds was appointed Head Master 1715 and was in post until his death in 1746. With few exceptions all the Heads were in Holy Orders.

Like Plymouth Grammar School under Bidlake, the Plympton School was famous for its artist-pupils. James Northcote was one, and both Charles Eastlake and Benjamin Robert Haydon finished their education there.

Samuel Reynolds had a wide ranging academic curiosity. He read political tracts, and had a small collection of anatomical and other prints, which Joshua copied. On his shelves were many of the era’s key texts, including essays by Jonathan Richardson – of whom more later, and perhaps most important of all he seems to have been a very sociable man with educated friends with whom he loved to discuss and debate issues. The group included James Bulteel of Flete, and two 2 lawyer friends, John Cranch of Plympton and Charles Cutcliffe of Bideford. One issue that occupied them was the future of Joshua.

Samuel’s first inclination was to bring up his son up as an apothecary – however, by 1740, Joshua’s interest in art was such that his father could write of his “very great genius for drawing and lately on his own head (he) has begun even painting”.

At this stage Joshua’s talent was sufficiently well known for a John Warwell to offer to train him free of charge as an apprentice. Under the general term of house painter, this would have involved coach and heraldic work, shop signs, chimney boards, over mantels and over door panels all of which needed skill and artistic imagination in the use of paint – a wide diversity of skills being deployed and developed.

For such an apprentice the seven years of servitude began at the age of 14 years, which contrasts with the four years pupillage later offered to Reynolds. Several of the founding members of the R.A. were to start in apprenticeships. Reynolds with ideas of his own stated that he would rather be an apothecary than an ordinary painter, and that he wanted to be bound to an eminent master.

Keep an eye out for the next post in this series, when Reynolds begins his training.

The early times of Reynolds at Plymouth Dock

By Celia Bean, project volunteer

Before he was 20 Joshua Reynolds had declared that if he did not prove himself to be the best painter of the age by the time he reached 30 he never would.  So we can assume that when he returned to Plympton St Maurice in 1743 after prematurely finishing his apprenticeship with Thomas Hudson in London he would have had this ambition in mind.  His decision to work in the up and coming area of Plymouth Dock (later Devonport) was the first step in this plan.

My involvement with the research for PCMAG’s planned exhibition is to research Reynold’s time at Plymouth Dock between 1743 and 1749, so I am looking at what the area was like at that time, who Joshua painted whilst he was there and the influences that he had.

On 3 January 1744, Joshua’s father, Samuel, wrote to his friend Charles Cutcliffe who had been instrumental in arranging Joshua’s apprenticeship to Thomas Hudson, saying that his son had started painting in Plymouth Dock and had painted 20 portraits, including that of ‘the greatest man in the place, the commissioner of the dockyard’ and that he had 10 more commissions lined up.  The commissioner at that time was Philip Vanbrugh, younger brother of Sir John Vanbrugh (d 1726) who designed Blenheim Palace and Castle Howard.

The Town Clerk of Plymouth Walter Kendall, an important member of local society not only wanted his portrait painted, but also that of his wife and five of his family.  The Kendall’s family home was at Pelyn, Cornwall where they would have mixed with the local gentry and they were in a position to spread the word about the young painter.

Later that year Joshua returned to London as he and Thomas Hudson had patched up their quarrel and were on good terms.  Joshua’s father wrote that ‘Joshua by his master’s means is introduced into a club composed of the most famous men in their profession’.  This club met at Old Slaughter’s Coffee House in St Martin’s Lane and the clientele comprised mainly artists and connoisseurs who had an interest in old-master prints and drawings. An ideal place for an ambitious young painter not only to learn from the company of like-minded people, but also to do some valuable networking.

Reynolds returned home around the time of his father’s death on Christmas day 1745.  His mother Theophila moved to Torrington, where she lived with her eldest daughter, Mary, until her own death and Reynolds and his two unmarried sisters, Fanny and Elizabeth took a house in Fore Street, Plymouth Dock. The sisters opened a millinery shop on the ground floor and Joshua had a studio on the floor above.

Around this time Reynolds painted portraits of his sister Frances (known as Fanny) Reynolds and a posthumous portrait of his father Rev Samuel Reynolds, as well as his own self-portrait (recently acquired by PCMAG).  Perhaps he displayed these in the shop window to advertise his skill.

Plymouth Dock was the site of the most modern and technologically advanced Naval port in Europe and a new modern town grew up around it.  It was an area of well-planned streets that were wide and imposing and paved with what appeared to be marble. It was probably limestone from the local quarries, which with its veined appearance would shine like marble when wet or worn. This town was still very small when Reynolds and his sisters arrived, consisting of about seven streets concentrated around the dockyard entrance.  The main one was Fore Street where Joshua and his sisters had settled and it was along this street that all those having business in the dockyard, be they naval or civilian, had to pass.  An astute location for an ambitious young man, as this was an area on the up and a useful place for Joshua to do some networking amongst the naval officers, who at that time were either aristocrats or gentry – the very people who would consider having their portrait painted.

He was fortunate that through his father Samuel he was acquainted with some of the local aristocracy such as the Parkers of Borringdon (later of Saltram) and the Edgcumbe family of Mount Edgcumbe and it is perhaps in these residences that he was able to examine paintings of merit.  He was particularly taken with the works of a Devon artist William Gandy of Exeter (d 1729) and in his early works Reynolds copied some of Gandy’s method, especially in regard to painting the head.  Reynolds also took note of Gandy’s observation that “a picture ought to have a richness in its texture, as if the colours had been composed of cream or cheese, and the reverse to a hard and husky or dry manner.”

Although he continued to travel to London, his principal patrons at that time were from the West Country, not only The Parkers and the Edgcumbes, but notably Richard Eliot, MP for St Germans and Liskeard.

With the contacts and commissions he was starting to get whilst living in Plymouth Dock, Reynolds was beginning to hone his skills towards becoming the best painter of the age.


Leslie, C.R. and Taylor, Tom, Life and Times of Sir Joshua Reynolds, 2 vols., London, 1865

Northcote, James. The Life of Sir Joshua Reynolds, 2 vols., London, 1818

Cotton, William. Sir Joshua Reynolds and his Works, Gleanings from his diary, unpublished manuscripts, and from other sources  (ed. J. Burnet), London 1856

Robinson, Chris, A History of Devonport, Plymouth, 2010

Sir Joshua’s family tree

By Nicci Wakeham, project volunteer

Having seen the call for volunteer community researchers into the life and times of Sir Joshua Reynolds, with Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery, I was eager to become involved.

This would involve research using books, journals, the resources of the Plymouth & West Devon Record Office, information held at the museum itself and any other suitable resources available.

Our task was to investigate Reynolds’ early life (c. 1720-1750), the period he was growing up, his school life, apprenticeship and first studio.

My first mission was to explore his family and produce a family tree.  William Cotton’s book, Sir Joshua Reynolds and His Works: Gleanings from his Diary, Unpublished Manuscripts & from Other Sources,[1]  was a mine of information.  This, together with further material gleaned from the Johnson Family Tree [2], of which I found an existing copy at the museum, helped to build a partial picture of the Reynolds’ family. With additional facts found in the trove Pedigrees of Five Devonshire Families: Colby, Coplestone, Reynolds, Palmer and Johnson, compiled by Frederick Thomas Colby, DD FSA, in 1884, I have now amassed a tree with 130 individuals.

I fed all this fascinating material into a computer programme, My Heritage Family Tree Builder; I have enclosed a photograph of how huge the resulting paper chart has become – filing both kitchen and dining room floors; dimensions 525 cm x 120 cm!

The Reynolds family tree stretches rather a long way.... (photo courtesy of Nicci Wakeham)
The Reynolds family tree stretches rather a long way…. (photo courtesy of Nicci Wakeham)

A well-educated and pious family, many of the Reynolds men attended universities.  Sir Joshua’s father, Samuel was educated Oxford, as were two of his uncles and his great-grandfather (maternal).  His grandfather, Rev. John Reynolds was a Cambridge man (paternal), as was his nephew, Rev. John Palmer.  Four of Joshua’s great-nephews were educated at Cambridge and one at Oxford.

Joshua’s father’s family herald from Exeter and are probably related to the Pinhoe Reynolds’, who include Dr. John Reynolds (or Rainolds) (1549-1607), a scholar and President of Corpus Christi College, Oxford (1598-1607).  It was Dr. Reynolds who suggested to King James I that a new translation of the bible was required and was himself one of the translators.  He is said to have died of overwork at 58, leaving behind him a great reputation for scholarship and high character.[3]

Joshua’s Mother’s family are from the Great Torrington area, his two oldest brothers were born and baptised there.  His sister, Mary, although born in Plympton St Maurice, spent most of her years in Great Torrington, dying here aged 78.  In fact, Joshua’s brother-in-law, William Johnson (1728-1795), husband of his sister Elizabeth, was the Mayor of Torrington three times; 1757, 1764, 1771. FInd out more on his sister Frances (known as Fanny) in this Appendix.

This has proven to be both a rewarding and frustrating task; sometimes dates don’t match, nicknames are used, children are ignored if they didn’t live through childhood, the sharing of family names (out of 130 people, we have 11 x Marys, 10 x Williams, 9 x Elizabeths and 8 Johns). Some of the children’s names, from large families, are not recorded at all, i.e. Joshua’s nephew, Joseph Palmer (1749-1829) and his wife Eliza had 22 children; I have only found names for 14.

I shall continue to add to the family tree, making note of any anecdotes that I come across, but my next assignment will be to look at Sir Joshua’s early artistic interest, his schooling and the other artists from Plympton that followed in his wake.


[1] Cotton, William, Sir Joshua Reynolds and His Works: Gleanings from his Diary, Unpublished Manuscripts & from Other Sources, London: Longman, Brown, Green, Longmans, and Roberts, 1856.

[1] Johnson family tree – Joshua’s sister Elizabeth (1721-1800) married William Johnson (1728-1795) in Great Torrington, Devon, in 1753.  The marriage produced seven children

[3] Hall, Isaac, ed., The Revised New Testament and History of Revision, Philadelphia: Hubbard Brothers; Atlanta: C.R. Blackall & Co.; New York: A.L. Bancroft & Co., 1881.