Writer Beryl Bainbridge found art allowed her to let rip

at home

at home - Credit: Archant

While she wrote with discipline, she painted with abandon. Beryl Bainbridge’s art was all encompassing and is celebrated in a new exhibition at Somerset House.

Boarding the Titanic

Boarding the Titanic - Credit: Archant

Art and Life: The Paintings of Beryl Bainbridge is the first major London show of her work, presented by the Cultural Institute at King’s College London.

Forty paintings, drawings and etchings, as well as artefacts from her Camden Town home, will be displayed across eight rooms. Documentary Beryl’s Last Year, by grandson Charlie Russell, will be screened including a Q&A with the film-maker.

“She was always drawing and painting right through my childhood,” says daughter Jojo Davies. “They are hugely original. She didn’t follow rules. With her writing, she was terribly disciplined. She would rewrite and rewrite and, with her painting, it offered her a freedom. She wouldn’t worry about it, she didn’t think she was terribly good at it so she didn’t have any constraints, just freedom to enjoy herself.”

A means of income

Bainbridge sold her art before finding huge success with her novels, such as the five Booker shortlisted books, including Every Man For Himself, which won the Whitbread Novel Award, and Master Georgie, awarded the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for fiction.

“When she was a successful writer, she deliberately made a painting after each book and, if asked, she would say the reason she was doing that would be to “get some bloody money for the children”. That’s what she would say, that was her attitude.”

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“My biggest memory of her as a painter was doing a lot of painting for Medical Aid for Vietnam,” continues Davies. “They auctioned at the Hampstead Town Hall and I can remember her being really prolific producing a large body of work for these exhibitions that were held on a regular basis through the progress of the Vietnam War.”

The exhibition spans Bainbridge’s life from her early 20s until her death in 2010 at the age of 77 and includes a range of her first editions and archival material from the British Library.

Her paintings are mostly oil on board, perched as they were on her kitchen table. Her most favoured depictions are of her children, friends and family, and historical events.

Her life, however, could have taken a very different turn

In 1972, she was offered a solo show at a Soho gallery. At the same time, she got a big publishing deal and decided to turn down the exhibition. “This moment when she might have become a professional artist, she decided at that point to turn down the offer,” says curator Susie Christensen.

Taxidermy and Victoriana

Her total abandon, using the art to relax, has lent an original quality to her work, which perhaps a career in it wouldn’t have allowed. “Her paintings are very often very playful and quite dark. There’s an element of that in her, eccentricity and playfulness tinged with a sense of the macabre or darkness which comes across,” adds Christensen.

“She had quite an amazing house, full of all sorts of taxidermy, Victoriana and religious icons and did quite a lot of paintings that represented these items in her house. Her family have kindly donated so much. It’s a small aspect at the end of the exhibition but, having seen all the paintings and drawings, visitors will then get to enter this world of Beryl Bainbridge.

Art and Life: The Paintings of Beryl Bainbridge is at the Inigo Rooms, King’s College London, WC2, from May 22 to October 19. Free. Open Wednesday to Sunday, noon-6pm (8pm Thursday). kcl.ac.uk/cultural.