Beryl Cook / Tom of Finland | Studio Voltaire

The fact that this exhibition is made in partnership with Tom’s foundation and Beryl’s family highlights one difference between these these two artists. Tom of Finland exiled himself to the sunny west coast of the USA, found his home among men of shared tastes, and achieved a lasting posthumous reputation with this group. Beryl Cook stayed at home in less-sunny Plymouth, kept herself to herself, and found lasting popular success among the British general public. She won’t ever get anything as grand as her own foundation.

The two artists also never met, and there’s no indication they were even aware of the other’s work. But enough about the differences. I get that some people will see this bringing together of totally different artists as a curatorial contrivance - and have a built-in aversion to this kind of exhibition. But I think this show convincingly shows that the two artists - separated by geography, audience and reputation - were kindred spirits in practically everything else.

Works from ‘Beryl Cook / Tom of Finland’ (Beryl on the left, Tom on the right) Image credit: Time Out. Beryl Cook Courtesy of the Beryl Cook Estate (C) John Cook 2023. Tom of Finland © 1962 Tom of Finland Foundation

They were both fantasists, and observers rather than doers. They cast an adoring, non-judgmental eye on other people’s pleasure. Pleasure was the energy generator of their artistic output: whether it’s Tom’s wildly well-hung leather hunks enjoying their outdoor orgies, or Beryl’s bulbous broads stamping through a riotous girl’s night out.

Tom and Beryl’s obsessive working methods were strikingly similar, too. Up from Plymouth, Beryl Cook used to scour phone boxes in London to collect calling cards from local hookers. She took sneaky reference photos of interesting-looking strangers, dividing them into undated albums with names like “bodies”, “pubs, clubs + rest”. At home, she plotted out the exact colours and compositions of her paintings in meticulous pencil sketches. Don’t be fooled by the crudeness of the final works, or the fact she can’t paint anatomically convincing hands and feet: she was in charge, throughout.

Meanwhile in California, Tom was a dreamy scrap booker, sifting through and cutting out photos from magazines, compiling them on mood boards, then synthesising them with his own imagination into the men depicted in his final drawings. (Their anatomical impossibilities extend past hands and feet.)

The thing this exhibition brought home to me was that both artists were, ultimately, shut-ins. That the pleasure they put on show is the pleasure of others. That, at the end of the day, they aren’t too bothered by that; given they have the more recondite pleasure of the voyeur to enjoy.

This was brought home by the exhibition notes’ references to Edward Burra, a painter with a similar voyeur’s viewpoint that I’ve frequently featured on here. The curators say he was a key influence on Beryl Cook, though when I think about it, I can see some of him in Tom’s work too. Burra was a still more extreme shut-in, ill and bed bound, but still dreaming of the dockside café, sailors, hookers - all the parties others are enjoying while he draws, and dreams.

All of these artists drew strength from the pleasure and parties happening elsewhere. While they might be on the periphery, they knew that there’s another kind of pleasure to be found in looking.

Beryl Cook / Tom of Finland is at Studio Voltaire (London). 09 June - 25 August 2024