Dame Paula Rego ‘always had a different take’

Her studio was a ' work of art itself'

Friday, 17th June — By Dan Carrier


Dame Paula Rego

IT was from a nondescript former frame factory in a Kentish Town backstreet that Dame Paula Rego produced work that would grace leading galleries around the world and earn her critical renown.

Paula, who died last week aged 89, worked in Rochester Mews for decades and the artist spent her working life in Camden.

Born in Lisbon in 1935, her father Jose was an engineer, while her mother Maria had studied painting. As a child she drew to keep herself amused, and had her heart set on a career as a painter, supported by parents who encouraged her.

She moved to London as a teenager, and studied at the Slade School of Art in Gower Street, Bloomsbury. She was taught by Lucian Freud, and it was here she met her future husband, Victor Willing.

After graduating, Paula was to become a key figure in the London Group, which she joined in 1965. Its roots went back to the likes of Walter Sickert and Jacob Epstein, and her contemporaries included fellow Camden Town resident Frank Auerbach and Anthony Green, based in Parliament Hill Fields.

In 1963, Paula and ­Victor moved to Albert Street, Camden Town.

Her father knew the Portuguese community in the neighbourhood and helped them buy a home for £3,000.

It was here they brought up their family of three children.

Victor was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, and in the mid-1970s the family moved to a Hampstead flat as his mobility made Albert Street harder to manage.

Their home on East Heath Road overlooked a car park, rather than offering views over Hampstead Heath. Paula did not mind – she joked she would rather look at cars than nature, adding that “landscape is the gap between two hotels”.

From her Hampstead home she caught the No 24 bus each day to her studio in Kentish Town.

Her daughter, the playwright and actor Victoria Willing, recalled her love for her workspace.

“She was ecstatic when she found the studio,” she recalls. “She never changed anything inside.”

The studio had a platform used for a post-lunch nap, and for years Paula considered living there. It was a work of art itself: over the years it became full of objects, materials and handmade models, often grotesque versions of human physiques.

Victoria recalled her mother paying her £15 to sit for her, a process they both enjoyed.

“She always had a different take,” adds Victoria. “A cliché was always avoided.”

Portugal remained a home for the family, spending summers there. Her daughters’ school, Camden School for Girls, sent a letter each year to say children could not leave before the end of term. The letters were ignored.

Paula loved food and entertaining and opera. She would have music playing as she worked. Film was another passion, and when she wanted to escape, she would buy a family block of Neapolitan ice cream and watch afternoon matinées.

The Renoir in the Brunswick Centre, Bloomsbury, offered European language films she enjoyed.

Other haunts included the now-closed Camden Brasserie in Camden High Street, and it was here she celebrated being made a Dame in 2010.

Paula was not always recognised. In the 1980s, she was hard up and visited a gallery in Hampstead with a portfolio. The director flicked through the images and said it wasn’t for them – a decision the gallery would ­later regret.

She was inspired by a collection of books, and a sense of humour that ran through her life and work. Politics was important – her work often inspired by feminist issues.

One day in 1974 at her Albert Street home as she got her children ready for school, she heard that the hated Portuguese dictatorship had been ousted. Immediately she made ready to get the first flight out of London to join the celebrations.
Paula won the Turner Prize in 1989 and became the National Gallery’s first associate artist.

In Portugal, she was a national hero. A gallery dedicated to her work is called Casa das Historias: Paula Rego, and the country held an official day of mourning when news of her death was announced.

She is survived by her two daughters, Victoria, and writer Cas (Caroline) Willing, and her son, film director Nick Willing.


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