ARTIST, STORYTELLER, FEMINIST, WOMEN’S ACTIVIST, wife, mother, Dame, the labels are many and varied for Paula Rego. The Boy Who Loved the Sea and Other Stories, Rego’s first major UK exhibition in 10 years, opened at the Jerwood Gallery in October 2017. The show’s title comes from a short story by Portuguese writer Hélia Correia which inspired several of the exhibits. They feature alongside Rego’s earlier works, derived from fables, nursery rhymes and well-known books, and more recent pieces referencing the artist’s own narrative of depression and a shocking, disfiguring fall. Storytelling is key to Rego’s art. ‘We interpret the world through stories,’ she says, ‘… everybody makes, in their own way, sense of things, but if you have stories it helps.’

Born in Lisbon, in 1935, Rego grew up in an affluent middle-class family in which storytelling was important. When she was 18 months old, her parents moved to England, where her father had taken a job. Rego remained with her grandmother and an aunt who liked to dress up as a man and tell her ‘savage’ fairytales. After being diagnosed with incipient tuberculosis, Rego moved with her family to Estoril, a coastal town, spending summers in the fishing village of Ericeira. Rego has an abiding affinity to the sea, part of the attraction of staging the exhibition at the Jerwood, with its beachside location. The cliffs and seascape of Rowing from Ericeira (2014), one of the exhibits, bear a striking resemblance to Hastings.

The Portugal of Rego’s childhood was repressive. Under the dictatorship of António de Oliveira Salazar, it was a place of ‘secret police, lack of learning [and] idealization of poverty’. Most of the population were, as Rego recalls, ‘miserably poor and the fishermen’s wives miserable, always having abortions.’ This was a world in which men dominated and women were bound to hearth and home.

At 16, Rego was sent to an English boarding school, after which she went to the Slade School of Art. Her storytelling style wasn’t appreciated by everyone and she struggled to be taken seriously by her male peers. One of Rego’s most momentous encounters was with married student Victor Willing, with whom she began an affair. After Rego fell pregnant, Willing returned to his wife and Rego’s father came to take her back to Portugal. Willing subsequently left his wife and joined Rego there. The couple married, staying together until Willing’s death, in 1988.

Their relationship wasn’t without its challenges, however. In 1966, Willing was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and Rego cared for him, while continuing to create her art. Ten years later, they moved to England with their children, but they struggled, neither receiving the artistic recognition they deserved. Rego genuinely believed Willing was the better artist, intellectually superior, just better in every way, but he was also now reliant on her. Their relationship is embodied in Rego’s work where men appear emasculated or dominated by women. Willing reportedly encouraged her to explore this subject in her art. When he died, he left Rego a letter saying, ‘Trust yourself and you will be your own best friend.’ Her son, Nick, says she carried the letter next to her heart, that it gave her ‘strength’.

Most of Rego’s professional and financial success came after Willing’s death. In 1989, she was shortlisted for the Turner prize; she also became The National Gallery’s first associate artist (1989–90). While there, she studied the predominantly male artist collection, reinterpreting the female saints and biblical women she discovered into her own work, something she continues to do: the 2017 pastel Mary Magdalene, currently on show, portrays her in her later years, a unicorn in the background.

The artist’s influences range from Goya and Hogarth, Max Ernst and the surrealists to the Portuguese fables of her childhood, English nursery rhymes, literary heroines and Disney. Her work has developed from the oil paintings of early days through collage and lithographs to ‘pastel paintings’, but her love of drawing is paramount and the printmaking, of which she is considered a master, is an extension of that.

Her art often deals with the ‘beautifully grotesque’ – perhaps never more so than in the darkly humorous Nursery Rhymes series (1989), etchings and aquatints, featuring giant predatory spiders and sinister blind mice, a sheep-man and a very contemplative, far from ‘merry’ Old King Cole. Some form part of the Jerwood exhibition, their finely crafted etchings a contrast to the subject matter and execution of the more recent works hung nearby.

Depression is a beast with which Rego has wrestled throughout her life and the collection of pastel drawings, currently on exhibition, were created during a particularly virulent bout in 2007, and appear almost as if the artist were trying to draw her way out of the darkness. ‘The Depression pictures are unique,’ Rego says, ‘they are not about anything else; just my feelings.’ These are stark, honest pieces, revealing the true debilitating nature of the disease and although the subject is Rego herself, they are modelled on Lila Nunes, Willing’s nurse in the last months before his death, who also appears frequently in her art in different guises. ‘I don’t like doing self-portraits,’ Rego says, ‘but she’s like a self-portrait.’

Colin Wiggins, the exhibition’s curator, was keen to include the drawings in the show. It’s a courageous move, but perhaps not as much so as the artist’s own decision to show five self-portraits created after her accident in January 2017, when she fell, gashing her forehead so badly it needed stitches. She became fascinated with the wound and began to pick at it as it healed, much to the alarm of her family. The subsequent drawings portray the artist in a distorted, brutal, almost ‘grotesque’ manner. The style is very different to the rest of her work, Rego unrecognizable – and yet, they are mesmerizing.

At 82, Rego is still producing fresh, bold new work that engages, surprises, amuses and entertains. The Boy Who Loved the Sea features her more recent art, but also thoughtfully showcases the extraordinary body of work of a woman considered, quite rightly, to be one of the great figurative artists of our time.


The Boy Who Loved the Sea and Other Stories, 21 October 2017–7 January 2018, Jerwood Gallery, tickets £8, free for members – see


Acknowledgements: Paula Rego, Three Blind Mice (Nursery Rhymes Series), 1989 Etching and aquatint. Marlborough, London. Thanks to Tracy Jones at Brera and the Jerwood Gallery. A version of this article was published in HIP October 2017.



Also of interest:“The peerless pier” wins the RIBA Stirling Award’; Everything comes from the Egg: Stephen Turner’s vision‘; ‘The imaginary becomes real – In the Light of Surrealism #2 and Inverse Reflection‘; ‘More than just words – The Jane Eyre Project‘; The hyper-reality of Marcus Harvey’s world – Inselaffe‘; Farley Farm House, Lee Miller and Roland Penrose’s house and the home of the Lee Miller archive.


Notice: Please note any images and quotations in this article are for promotional purposes only and are intended as a homage to the designers, artists and writers cited. In no way, have we have intentionally breached anyone’s copyright. If you believe otherwise, please contact us and we will take down any text/images as appropriate.


This article is © The Literary Shed, 2017. All opinions are our own. Please only reproduce it with our permission and credit us appropriately. Please contact us if you wish to do so.