Thu. Jul 18th, 2024


One of modern art’s most distinctive talents picks the pictures that took her from Portugal to the Tate

Born in Portugal in 1935, Paula Rego is one of art’s great storytellers. She studied at the Slade, where her contemporaries included the British painter Victor Willing, whom she married in 1959. After his death from multiple sclerosis in 1988, her own reputation grew, fuelled by her unsettling pictures often inspired by childhood memories of Estoril (where her father owned an electrical goods factory) and the nearby coastal village of Ericeira. Here, as Tate Britain hosts a landmark retrospective, Rego tells the stories behind six pictures that sum up her remarkable career.

Under Milk Wood (1954)

Paula Rego's Under Milk Wood, 1954

“I painted this for the summer competition at the Slade. When they gave us the title, I asked somebody what it was, and they said it was a play by Dylan Thomas, set in a small village. I hadn’t read it – so I set it in the village I knew, Ericeira. But it won. I was so proud, especially as I’d been up against some really good painters.”


The Exile (1963)

Paula Rego's The Exile, 1963

“In the summer of 1963 Vic [Willing, her husband] had a heart attack. Jack, Vic’s dog, was barking and barking by the top gate. I went up to have a look and Vic was on the ground, eating dirt. He was carried down to the house on the door from my aunt’s room: it was the only one that slid up and off the hinges easily. The doctor was called and Vic had to lie quietly in a darkened room. He blamed the lard the new cook had used. No one used lard again.

While Vic was recovering, I was alone in the studio. It was an anxious time. That’s when I did this picture of an old Portuguese republican like my grandfather who is exiled to Paris as he can’t live under the fascist regime any more. He remembers with longing his beautiful bride in her wedding dress. Out of his head emerge his memories of old Portuguese folk tales, like the one with the witch frying the pancakes, and every time a naughty boy steals one the cat gets a slap.

Vic got out of bed and back to normal life before he was supposed to. He was not obedient. Later the English doctors said he’d done the right thing but we were all horribly worried.”

The Three Golden Heads (1975)

Paula Rego's The Three Golden Heads, 1975

“We were broke. The revolution had happened in Portugal and the family factory was going bust. The banks wouldn’t extend any loans no matter what I wore or how many suppers we made for business people. So I wrote to the Gulbenkian [Foundation in Lisbon] and asked if they’d give me a grant to look at and research original folk tales… and they did.


I spent six months in the British Library, reading stories from many different countries – I wanted to see if they were more cruel in their original form – and then I made illustrations from them to present to the Gulbenkian. This is one of them. It was a relief to have a story given to me after many years feeling stuck and producing paintings that had felt flat and dead since Pop Art came in. The 1970s were a difficult time.”

Girl Lifting Her Skirt to a Dog (1986)

Paula Rego's Girl Lifting Her Skirt to a Dog, 1986

“My friend Colette suggested I do something about my life with Vic. With the Girl and Dog pictures, the shadows crept in – and shadows ground everything. Here, the girl is lifting up her skirt and the dog doesn’t know where to look, poor thing! In others from the series, girls are forcing open the dogs’ mouths to give them medicine. There is tenderness but also aggression. You have to be forceful to do good.”

The Policeman’s Daughter (1987)

Paula Rego's The Policeman’s Daughter, 1987

“I did a lot of studies for The Policeman’s Daughter, planning the picture, the composition. I rammed her fist down the boot to make it more sexual. It’s a father and daughter story. The cat is warning that something is coming: ‘Look out!’. Nevertheless, she’s getting her own back. It’s a simple picture really.”

Time – Past and Present (1990)

Paula Rego's Time - Past and Present, 1990

“I painted this at the National Gallery when I was an associate artist there. This is a story of an old sailor thinking about his life. He is surrounded by his memories but of course it is full of things from my own life. The baby is my granddaughter, Lola, with her goggly eyes. And there’s a picture of Vic as a child in his sailor suit hanging on the wall. For the other paintings on the wall, I used pictures from the National Gallery collection; Zubarán, I think.

The picture wasn’t working till a friend suggested I paint out the street scene in the doorway. So I made it much simpler, letting in all that beautiful Ericeira light, which I love. That fixed it.”

Paula Rego is at Tate Britain, London SW1 ( until Oct 24



By Lala