by Suzan Swale LG

The area between Camden Town tube, the Lock, markets, night clubs and venues winding through Kentish Town Road up into Tufnell Park is a vibrant and colourful place, full of Victorian properties, rambling housing estates, tourists, artists, actors, writers, musicians, performers, homeless, politicians, beggars, buskers, bag ladies, drunks, preachers, and pickpockets, thrown together in the mix. Here at the bottom of Kentish Town Road is the mews where Paula Rego had her studio.

My son, Sacha Coward, visited that magical place with his friend and classmate, Carmen, Paula’s granddaughter. Her studio with its clutter of theatrical props, mirrors, dummies, dolls, costumes and her beautiful paintings, enthralled kids. The last time I saw Paula was many years ago she was on a crowded 390 bus. She was standing in the area where the wheelchairs and prams usually go. She had a trolley and a lot of canvases. We nodded to each other and smiled. I got off at my framers near Camden Road. She was tiny standing there smiling on the bus.

Her early work from the Slade and in the 1950s and 1960s is in a more naïve representative style, then it moves into a fractured form of Surrealism and later returns to something more representational. Like a lot of us she lived through painting’s dead years and the influence of American Abstraction and Conceptual Art some of which fed into her work.

When I think of her work the following words come to mind Brave, Honest, Raw, Family, History, Humour

Paula was a brave artist. You must be brave to be an artist anyway, but Paula tried to say what often cannot be said. She did this particularly in her work about the plight of women, with her abortion series. I have her 2006 Lithograph print “Girl with Foetus”. Her depiction of the Foetus is like a bloody but comic illustration against the immaculate drawing of the crumpled female figure sitting beside the bathroom sink. I borrowed a lot of money from my husband, Robert Coward, to buy that print from the Marlborough exhibition. Paula was honest in her work, honest in a childlike way. She is like the boy who cries out in the story of “The Emperor’s New Clothes”. For Paula, the Emperor has no clothes. With Paula what you see is what you get. There is no hidden agenda. A spade is a spade. “Raw” is another word that comes to mind in her images of women. There is a hint of evil behind the scenes in her fairy tales and Jane Eyre series. There is a look in the eye. a tongue in the cheek. In her work. Paula will always be remembered for her images of women. She really cares in her work about the plight of women, but also behind the scenes about men too. She does not suffer fools.

Look at Paula’s pastel portrait of Germaine Greer in the National Gallery. There sits Germaine, legs splayed open and feet wide. Paula has great skill with pastels as good as Degas. She captures Germaine to perfection with untidy hanging shoelaces and humour.

Paula painted her innermost self and she was obsessive. Paula had to paint. She cared about family and often used her husband and her daughter and granddaughter as models. She had a story to tell which is one of struggle, love, hate, pain and happiness. 

Paula Rego lives on through her art. Beautiful but disturbing. Rest in peace.

Suzan Swale LG, 2022

Paula Rego in Centenary Members’ Exhibition, Pitzhanger Manor Gallery and Museum 2013
Paula Rego was elected to The London Group in 1965 in the same year as Albert Irvin, Neville Boden, Michael Sandle and Rachel Tripp. She joined the Group a year after it’s major exhibition, “London Group 1914-64, Jubilee Exhibition, Fifty Years of British Art” at the Tate Gallery. Fifty years on in 2014 one of Paula’s last contributions to The London Group was at Southampton City Art Gallery in an exhibition entitled, “From David Bomberg to Paula Rego: The London Group in Southampton”, when the Group celebrated its centenary and looked forward to another hundred years.
Suzan Swale has work in the upcoming Tate Britain exhibition “Women in Revolt” in 2023. The exhibition will then tour to the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in 2024 and the Whitworth Manchester in 2025.