Art and Life: The Paintings of Beryl Bainbridge - Art Review

Dame Beryl Bainbridge was a force in English literature, but she was also an accomplished self taught visual artist. Examples of her work are currently on show at Kings Cultural Institute, Somerset House and a revealing exhibition it is too.

The subjects that fill her art are as wide as those of her novels. As an acclaimed author but lesser known as an artist, Bainbridge had a vivid imagination and curiosity about the world. In fact, the varied characters in her paintings are drawn from those imagined in her books; as well as from the pivotal events in her rich and varied life.

Bainbridge was an instinctive Surrealist. From intimate and dramatic portraits of family and those close.... her children in domestic settings, lovers, kindred spirits... to a large work reimagining the moment Bainbridge claimed her mother-in-law tried to shoot her. I particularly liked her painting of the two tiny babies, engulfed in a huge bath and the one of Dr. Johnson sat at her kitchen table, teaching Beryl Latin. In fact, her home was itself a rich imaginative seam, filled with a collection of mysterious objects. The exhibition gives a room over to recreating the essence of this.

An intriguing character in Bainbridge's work is the figure of Napoleon. One of the series in particular really stuck in my mind: a large scale painting depicting what looked (to me at least) like a petulant, childlike face, grafted on to the grown swaggering body of a man far too large to be the Emperor himself. Scolded Teenager as Alpha Male. In this picture, the artist places herself naked to the side of him. In another image, Bainbridge's imagination has the Frenchman in her own Camden residence. By the window.

Another memorable image is of a certain Mr and Mrs Scott. Captain Scott that is. The expression on his face.

Which brings me to the point. I was struck by the passion and psychological depth of her portraits. As well as the evident humour. A small amusing etching of a certain Captain Dalhousie; knackers-out and trying to mount a penny-farthing caught my eye. She really was multi talented in a variety of media and at varying scales too. Able to go from the intimate A3 scale, right up to large, imposing and impactful works, like her lifeboat being lowered from the Titanic, or the frozen Captain Oates.

In conclusion, I think that what impressed me most was Beryl Bainbridge's ability to create works of presence and mystery on a scale that many 'taught' artists would struggle to attain. Throughout her life she was close to other visual artists; probably most famously her first husband Austin Davies and her lover Don McKinlay. Revealing influences no doubt. But they do nothing to diminish her own talent and achievements as a painter. More interestingly, we see through Beryl Bainbridge's art deeper insights into the people and events that mattered to her. In so many honest, perceptive and unexpected ways.

(c) Gideon Hall 2014

Events programme for ‘Art and Life: The Paintings of Beryl Bainbridge’


Psiche Hughes in Conversation

Date and time: Wednesday 24 September, 18.00 – 19.30

Venue: Inigo Rooms

Tickets: £5 (£3 King’s staff and alumni, students)
Psiche Hughes, Beryl Bainbridge’s closest friend, has been instrumental in the development of the exhibition, Art & Life: The Paintings of Beryl Bainbridge. Her book Beryl Bainbridge: Artist, Writer, Friend (Thames & Hudson, 2012) introduces the reader to Bainbridge’s drawings and paintings, setting them in the context of their creator’s life. Hughes first met Bainbridge in 1963 when they were neighbours. They remained extremely close until Bainbridge’s death in 2010.
Psiche Hughes is a former lecturer in Latin American and comparative literature at the University of London. She has published several translations of prose and poetry.


Representing History: A Panel Discussion

Date and time: Thursday 25 September, 18.30 – 20.30

Venue: Anatomy Lecture Theatre

Tickets: £5 (£3 King’s staff and alumni, students)

Bainbridge's later work often focuses on the representation of historical events and figures. The sinking of the Titanic, Captain Scott’s failed mission to Antarctica and Dr Samuel Johnson are among the people and moments from the past that populate her pages and canvases. Bainbridge’s work invites us to ask: what is at stake in a fictional representation of history? A panel of authors Sarah Dunant and Louisa Young and academics Prof. Diana Wallace, Katharine Harris and Huw Marsh will consider the question.


‘Beryl’s Last Year’ screening and Q&A with director Charlie Russell

Date and time: Wednesday 8 October, 18.30 – 20.30

Venue: Anatomy Lecture Theatre, King’s Building, Strand Campus

Tickets: £5 (£3 King’s staff and alumni, students)

Charlie Russell is a BAFTA and Emmy award-winning documentary filmmaker whose credits include Terry Pratchett: Choosing To Die (BBC2, 2011), and Granny Escorts (Channel 4, 2014). Beryl’s Last Year was Charlie’s first film.

Charlie is also Beryl Bainbridge’s grandson. He made Beryl’s Last Year (which was shown on BBC4) because Bainbridge was (wrongly) convinced that she would die when she was 71. To document this ‘last year’ Charlie filmed Beryl over the course of the twelve months, documenting her at work and at play. Together they talk candidly and visit important places relating to Bainbridge’s life and work.

After the film screening Charlie will give a short talk and will be in conversation with the exhibition’s curator, Susie Christensen.

All tickets can be booked via:
Art & Life: The Paintings of Beryl Bainbridge

Venue: Inigo Rooms, King’s College London (WC2R 2LS)
Dates: 22 May – 19 October 2014
Times: Wed-Sun 12-6pm (until 8pm on Thursdays)
Press View: Wed 21 May, 3–6pm
Admission Free
An exhibition by the Cultural Institute at King’s
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