Lockyer Street Tavern

'Lockyer Street Tavern' by Beryl Cook, 1976. Image courtesy of The Box © the artist’s estate

The Box

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The Lockyer Street Tavern has been mentioned a few times in today’s posts about Plymouth’s LGBT history.

According to the Queer Beyond London website:

From the 1950s to the 1970s it was an important social space for gay men, in particular its ‘back bar’.

Originally the home of a surgeon called Sir George McGrath, the building that housed the Lockyer Tavern became a hotel in 1862. With expansions in the late 1800s and survival through World War II, it was a well-known queer location for much of the second half of the 1900s.

You can read more about the history of the building on the LGBT archive.

If you missed or haven’t yet watched Dr Alan Butler’s virtual tour, this image shows where the site of the tavern was.

In 1956, Section 13 of the Sexual Offences Act created the offence of Gross Indecency between two men. This led to a rise in police activity against homosexuals and homosexual behaviour. It also caused the creation of more secretive gay subcultures as people sought out spaces where they felt safe to express themselves.

As this underground scene developed, the Lockyer Tavern thrived. In early 1976, it then received national attention when The Sunday Times ran a feature about artist Beryl Cook (1926-2008) which included a painting of it.

‘Lockyer Street Tavern’ is now held in the art collections at The Box. It was acquired in 1978.

A number of famous artists have been born, lived and worked in Plymouth, but few have recorded aspects of life in the city in the distinctive way Beryl Cook did.

In the painting, we meet some of her favourite characters – the buxom barmaid and the regulars with their pints of beer and glasses of wine. On the back of the painting there’s an inscription which says: ‘Back bar of the Lockyer 1976’. It also has a short list of names: Philip, Tony, Brian, Shirley, Tommy and Tom.

Their clothing, accessories and hairstyles demonstrate Cook’s ability as an observer of fashion as well as her attention to detail, use of colour and lack of pretension.

Even though the painting is very specific to one place and venue it also has a universal quality – and this is one of the biggest reasons for Beryl Cook’s success.

Her larger than life characters are people we have seen or know in places we’ve visited or can relate to. They are painted with humour, but although they’re often comical, they’re never mocking or cruel.

Beryl Cook had a style that was all her own which ‘Lockyer Street Tavern’ embodies. Like all her paintings, it’s an image of human lives being fully lived. Although it was demolished in 1982, the tavern lives on in this artwork and in memory as a symbol of the city’s LGBT history.


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