Getting to know Beryl better…

Beryl Bainbridge: Artist, Writer, Friend by Psiche Hughes

I will happily go on record to say that Beryl Bainbridge is my favourite author. Earlier this year, I hosted a reading week celebrating her work; you can see my record of that week and a bibliography of Beryl books and reviews on my Reading Beryl page. Through searching through reviews, obituaries, TV clips etc to complement and enliven the reading of her books – I felt I had got to know her quite well. Not well enough it seems!

When I was able to get my hands on this new biography, it went straight to the top of my TBR pile, temporarily relegating Dorothy Dunnett!

I knew she painted, but I had no idea how good she was. This biography of Beryl, which happens to be the first to be published after her death in 2010, comes from art publishers Thames & Hudson – and it anchors itself primarily in her art, although her literature is closely interlinked. Although we know Beryl as a writer first and foremost, she always painted, she sold paintings between novels, and when she periodically suffered from writer’s block, she was able to work through it by painting.

The author was a friend of Beryl’s from the early 1960s onwards; they started off as neighbours in Camden after Beryl had moved down from Liverpool, bonding over their young families. Hughes herself is a lecturer and a writer, married to an artist, so is ideally placed to write about her friend. The introduction is also written by a friend – Brendan King, who was Beryl’s editor for twenty years, and who pieced together Beryl’s final novel The Girl in the Polka Dot Dress which was left unfinished when she died.

Beryl always rejected the label of being eccentric; I’m not so sure, but she is certainly idiosyncratic – having her own consistent style which suffuses her life, and thus her art and her books. Her pictures and her novels are heavily influenced by events from her own life, and often include other subjects that fascinated her like Napoleon, pictured dancing on the cover of this book. Her paintings are delicate, many done with and ink and smudges of colour, yet their subjects are earthy. Many of the figures within are nude and Rubenesque; expressions of her subconscious?, yet she always grounds them with an object placed in the frame – a plant … or her favourite samovar even. The figures tend to have an ethereal feel, and many have reminiscent of Modigliani’s elongated faces – he was a painter Beryl admired.

Hughes writes about Beryl’s views on art…

She attended the openings of my husband’s exhibitions because he was a friend. On one occasion she even wrote a short piece for the invitation to one of this exhibitions (in July 1987), which gives a brief personal doctrine of painting: ‘What one wants from art is a personal statement, a successful arrangement of colour and shape and a sense of place.’

The picture below, a family group of the author and her family on the arrival of a new sibling, was painted in 1970, the angel was added later when Hughes had a fourth daughter.

Later on, Beryl took to painting pictures based on the subjects of her historical novels, “after its completion, as if to exorcize the memory of the effort she had spent in the writing.” Hughes suggests. The pictures included for her novels, The Birthday Boys (see below), and Every man for himself (based on the events of Scott’s journey to the Antarctic and the sinking of the Titanic respectively), are particularly evocative – the colours of the sun on the snow, and the dark night as the ship sinks create real atmosphere.

Supplementing Hughes’s text are 108 illustrations – many in colour of Beryl’s paintings, but also photographs and book covers. The whole book is produced on high quality cream paper, with a ribbon bookmark, making it a pleasure to read.

The triple approach to Beryl’s life – artist, writer and friend really worked, and I now feel I know her a lot better. This is a lovely book. (10/10)

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Source: Review copy. Beryl Bainbridge: Artist, Writer, Friend by Psiche Hughes. Pub Oct 2012 by Thames & Hudson. Hardback, 208 pages.

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8 thoughts on “Getting to know Beryl better…

  1. rebelle says:

    Mine too. I’m looking forward to reading more of her. I believe you are the one who introduced her to me. You hosted a Bainbridge read fest. I read five of her books in less than two weeks I think.

    • gaskella says:

      Thanks Rebelle. Five in a fortnight is great going! As I still have half of her books to read, I’m thinking of hosting a second Beryl week in 2013.

  2. acommonreaderuk says:

    I am also a great admirer of Beryl Bainbridge’s work and have often referred to it through my site. I particularly liked According to Queenie . You were lucky to get this through Amazon Vine – I must have missed it!

  3. Simon T says:

    I’m looking forward to reading my copy! I was already a little familiar with her artwork, through Something Happened Yesterday, but I much prefer them in colour.

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