Beryl Cook / Tom of Finland

This major new exhibition, Beryl Cook / Tom of Finland, brings together the work of these two cultural icons for the very first time.

At Studio Voltaire, fleshly excesses are explored in pairings that underscore their works as playful and political.  In pairing their work, including archival materials which have never been seen by the public, this two-person presentation will provide a significant refocus and reveal interconnected ideas surrounding gender, sexuality, taste and class.

Beryl Cook (b. 1926–d. 2008) was a painter renowned for her exuberant style and descriptions of everyday life. Her work captures the social milieu of the areas she lived in and visited, notably Plymouth. Her most enduring images are of larger-than-life women carousing in nightclubs, eating in cafés or enjoying ribald hen parties, rendered in graphic and colourful forms. Her work came to prominence in the mid-1970s and she quickly became known as one of Britain's best-loved artists, highly recognised for her distinctive works, which are both celebratory and provocative.  

Tom of Finland’s (b. 1920–d. 1991) pioneering depictions of homosexual machismo in his images of bikers, soldiers, cowboys, sailors and labourers broadly represent queer, leather and muscle communities. A master draughtsman, his works gave form to an imaginative universe that, in turn, helped fuel real-world liberation movements and had significant influence on a wide range of cultural figures including the Village People, Freddie Mercury, Jean Paul Gaultier and Robert Mapplethorpe.

Both artists have a distinct and coherent way of hyperrealising the body in images that fundamentally celebrate pleasure and deny shame. The exhibition further considers the means of dissemination employed by the artists during their careers: Cook's practice was widely reproduced in postcards, calendars and prints that brought her work into the homes of thousands of admirers, and Tom of Finland first published his work via proto-porn “fitness” magazines and a covert network of friends and followers. Often working outside of gallery and museum systems, they directly engaged with their audiences, gaining dedicated and enduring followings and subsequently impacting a wider popular culture. 

The exhibition is made in partnership with The Tom of Finland Foundation and the family of Beryl Cook.

Exhibition Introductions, 30 minutes
Alternating Saturdays

Studio Voltaire Assistants lead introductions to the exhibition. We welcome questions, responses and discussion. Please meet at the gallery entrance. Drop-in, no booking required.

1 June, 15 June, 29 June, 13 July, 27 July, 10 August, 24 August 2024. 3–3.30 pm.

Headline Exhibition Supporter: David Kordansky Gallery and The Studio Voltaire Council.

Exhibition Supporters: Graham Steele and Ulysses de Santi, with additional support from The Beryl Cook / Tom of Finland Exhibition Circle, Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, Art Fund's John Ruffer Curatorial Grant and Hallett Independent.

Special thanks to John Cook, Teresa Cook, Durk Dehner, Sophie Howe, S.R. Sharp, Richard Villani, and all the lenders to the exhibition.

  1. Born Beryl Francis Lansley in 1926 in Surrey, England. One of four sisters, she left school at fourteen and worked in the fashion industry, which inspired her life-long interest in the way people dress and how they look.

    In 1943 Cook moved to London and became a showgirl in a touring production of The Gypsy Princess. She went on to marry John Cook and lived in Southern Rhodesia and later Zambia during the 1960s. It was here that Cook first began to paint, attempting the figurative style of Stanley Spencer. When Beryl was 40, she took up painting seriously. In 1975 had her first exhibition at the Plymouth Arts Centre. Within a few years, she was well known through exhibitions, television appearances, and the publication of the first of several collections of her work in book form.

    Today, her works are held in the collections of the Gallery of Modern Art in Glasgow, the Bristol City Museum of Art Gallery, and the Plymouth City Art Gallery, among others. The artist has received retrospective exhibitions at Baltic Centre of Contemporary Art, Gateshead (2007); Plymouth City Art Gallery, Plymouth (2017); and A.H.F.T.A.W, New York (2022).

  2. In his youth, Tom trained at an advertising school, but what he would come to call his ‘dirty drawings,’ which he first began developing as a teenager, were the true focus of his attention, both during this formative period and throughout the entirety of his life. These masterful renderings of virile men engrossed in acts of homoerotic desire can be approached along several interpretative lines — art historical, social, technical — but each of them points to the revolutionary nature of his project.

    In recent years there has been a significant re-evaluation of his artistic practice. Previously somewhat dismissed as only of gay interest, his work has since been exhibited in galleries and public institutions (David Kordansky, LA; ICA, London; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Artists Space, New York) and is in the permanent collections of The Museum of Modern Art, New York; Los Angeles County Museum of Art; and San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

    The estate is represented by The Tom of Finland Foundation — a registered charitable foundation based in LA; David Kordansky Gallery, LA; and Galerie Judin, Berlin.

  3. Photography by Sarah Rainer.

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