Monday November 27 2000
Paula Rego’s art was overshadowed by that of her late husband, Victor Willing, but she owes it all to him, she tells Valerie Grove
Paula Rego is quite dwarfed by some of the paintings on display at the Marlborough Gallery, the work of her late husband Victor Willing. “One of the things that he was so very good at was getting the scale right,” she says. “Though at the time I thought: crikey, how will he ever sell anything so huge?”
For most of their 34 years together, Victor Willing was the famous one. But in the ten years since Willing’s death at the age of 60, Rego has become one of our most acclaimed figurative artists, with her strong, distinctive and often disturbing narrative paintings, a favourite of Charles Saatchi, and the first artist in residence at the National Gallery, where she painted the wonderful mural Crivelli’s Garden in the restaurant of the Sainsbury Wing.
Showing me into her studio in a cobbled mews in North London, she tells me it used to be a factory making stretchers. Hospital stretchers? No, stretchers for artists’ canvases, of course.
It’s a white, sky-lit space, punctuated by bits of junk recognisable as props from her pictures, the floorboards scattered with CDs — opera and melancholy Portuguese fado music. Here Germaine Greer sat in a red Jean Muir frock for the superb portrait which now hangs in the National Portrait Gallery. Greer called it “a portrait of intelligence. It has a flicker of energy about it, from Paula Rego’s power and concentration.”
During the six sittings they listened to the entire Ring cycle, and Greer insisted on doing her own portrait of Paula Rego, now framed and hanging by the door. “Germaine is so competitive,” says Rego. “She just picked up a piece of paper and did it in five minutes. Isn’t it good? She has such flair.”
Rego looks back on a good marriage cruelly dislocated by illness and death. When she went to the Slade at 17, in 1952, Willing was already a star. “In a bright generation, Victor Willing burnt brighter than most,” wrote Nicholas Serota. He won the Slade’s summer competition, he knew John Minton, Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud. David Sylvester instantly saw him as a spokesman for his generation “peculiarly alert to the current mental atmosphere”.
“He was so sure of himself,” says Rego. “Never tentative. And he was such a good dancer.”
Paula had arrived from Lisbon’s international school, where two excellent English art teachers had encouraged imaginative work. Paula liked the Slade’s discipline — “drawing from plaster casts first, moving on to live models, and then eventually you could paint” — while Victor later said it took him 20 years to recover from its prescriptive ways. Among a generation of war veterans, some of them shell-shocked, Willing stood out: stylish, intellectual, and married.
When she told her parents she was pregnant (see her painting Rabbit Telling Her Parents) they were immediately supportive of their only daughter. “My father was a good man, and better than that, an enlightened man for Portugal of those days. And he greatly admired Vic.”
An idyllic photograph in the catalogue shows Rego, olive-skinned and dark eyed in a buttercup-yellow dress, with Willing in the orchard of her family house at Ericeira. He joined Rego there and they divided the old barn where Rego’s grandfather made wine, so each had a studio. Painting, reading, enjoying long lunches of fresh fish and raw local red wine under the eucalyptus trees, Willing felt he had all the things people strive all their lives to achieve.
In 1962 they bought a house in Albert Street, Camden Town, opposite Beryl Bainbridge, but Paula was too shy to get to know her. “I was just the children’s Mum” — to Caroline, Victoria, and Nicholas — now an artist, an actress and a film-maker.
Then came a terrible year, 1966. “It all happened at once. My father came to London and died within weeks of cancer. We went to Portugal to deal with the bureaucracy, which was a nightmare. We were out that summer dancing quite a lot, but Vic started to feel unwell. He had a blind spot in one eye and a doctor in Lisbon diagnosed multiple sclerosis. We didn’t even know what it was. Then his father died. My God, what a horrible year.
“In those days people couldn’t live on selling their paintings. Not like now. Only about half a dozen people bought pictures.”
They decided to return to Portugal where Willing — who had already had his first heart attack — would manage her late father’s electronic instruments firm. “He was very good at it. He got some nice suits and went into Lisbon in the car and belonged to a men’s club and learnt Portuguese. But it’s a bloody waste, isn’t it?” They had left a swinging London when Willing would take part in happenings at the ICA “when we were all supposed to be having a good time all the time, which was a bit of a strain actually”.
They were in Portugal for six years from 1968, and Paula says she hated every minute of it. “I didn’t really like being a businessman’s wife, entertaining people, going to see banks, that sort of thing. It was something I would never have wanted to do. It’s stifling for painting. I could have stuck and not done any more work, and that’s a form of death.”
In 1974 came the long-awaited revolution in Portugal, “a welcome release from that dreadful fascist dictatorship” — and Willing was horrified to find himself regarded as a right-wing factory boss. “Everything was unstable, and people who worked for us wanted to run the firm themselves, and they were even less experienced than Vic. So it was a disaster and everything was just lost. I’d very foolishly given personal guarantees to the bank.
The beautiful house built by my grandparents had to be sold, and there was nothing.”
They came home, sold the Camden house and bought a flat on Hampstead Heath, as Willing could no longer manage stairs. “Getting to his studio in Stepney wasn’t easy. He drove a big heavy Rover with special hand controls. He would camp in the studio, where he made a tented sleeping area inside a cupboard, and bought folding furniture so he could pack up quickly and go. He always loved camp beds. Perhaps because of being brought up in an army camp in Egypt on the edge of the desert. He painted me on a camp bed Standing Figure and Nude, 1957.”
The heat and sand of his desert childhood are evoked in Willing’s Portugal paintings, where “the light, the smell of charcoal, eucalyptus, donkeys” triggered infant memories.
“What is amazing about Vic is that his art kept going. It’s as if he had a reservoir inside, a tank full of inspiration, that was growing while he was performing those worldly duties. So when he was released from anguish and upset and bitterness, the reservoir came up to the top and was let loose. It showed great resourcefulness and inspiration, and courage of the human spirit, to take this gamble and call upon his inner voice that had never abandoned him. It’s astonishing that he didn’t dry up, as so many promising young artists do.”
Willing’s style had changed. As he said, “My painting actually began to be about what was on my mind — at last.”
For years he had hallucinatory visions, perhaps caused by a drug called ACTH. He slept little and became hyperactive, seeing apparitions through the wall. “He got progressively worse, he never had remissions. Cortisone helped, but did not improve his temper, which could be scary. He was very funny but he had violent rages. He tried alternative therapies that didn’t work. He never smoked pot, never smoked at all.
“I was not a good nurse,” says Rego. “I’m not good with illness. I don’t like to think of him badly crippled, I like to think of him dancing. And talking about art. He was the best talker I’ve ever met. We’d talk about art together all the time. He would talk to anybody — about Giacometti, Bacon, Matisse, Callot. Existentialism, Greek mythology and tragedy, The Waste Land, Commedia dell’Arte, endless conversations that he distilled and filtered and which eventually came out in the paintings. Vic was one of those people who could explain things so that you understand them.”
He wrote interestingly (“A Baroque space can be disordered without confusion. Disorder is luxury, as much as silk or silver.”) He did portraits of the children in quick sure lines — “without scribbles or cross-hatching. God help us no, that was against the Slade rules. You had to get the shape by measuring and getting the geometry correct.”
“I loved watching him paint. The mark he made was so deliberate — he placed the brush as if he knew exactly what it should look like. Unlike me. The monkey with the typewriter, he called me, who will write Shakespeare if he keeps at it long enough.”
The last years were hard. “If you’re sick, most people keep away, but John McEwen (the art critic) came many times, a good friend who truly understood Vic’s work.”
And the woman who used to prepare Willing’s paints for him, Lila Nunes, is now the model Rego uses in all her work. She became a trained nurse after Willing’s death, and now comes every week. “That’s her dressed as a soldier. She can dress up and become anything I want: artistically, instinctively — servile and aggressive both. A magic person. She invents. We’re mates.”
But Rego still misses Willing’s advice. At the end, when he had to stay at home in a bedroom-studio, she would bring her work home to show him. “I was working on my painting The Dance and he said, ‘Put some men in’.”
After he died, at home, on June 1, 1988, “I spent six months on that picture, and smoked a lot of cigarettes, until I decided, never again. But if you smoke, you can’t draw without lighting up, no thought comes. My daughter told me, ‘It wasn’t the cigarette that did that picture.’ So I changed my way of working. I would use a drawing board that I had to hold in front of me, so that I couldn’t hold a cigarette.”
Willing’s last series, Heads, was painted from his bed. “Imagine doing that when you’re incapacitated. Such assurance, and a humour that was devastating.”
The last painting, Une Autre Femme (1987), is vibrant and exuberant with colour.
Victor Willing is at Malborough Fine Art, London W1, until January 13.
Tel: 020-7629 5161
Copyright 2000 Times Newspapers Ltd.