The Paintings of Beryl Bainbridge at Somerset House (2014)

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 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 this 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; knackersout 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.

Gideon Hall (2014)

(This article was first published in Femalearts Magazine in 2014)