Wednesday 23 October 2019

Acclaimed Irish artist Pauline Bewick's quest to find her true father... in her 80s

When the results of a DNA test gave acclaimed artist Pauline Bewick eight half-siblings she had never known, a life-long riddle was solved. She explains to Donal Lynch her reaction to discovering the identity of her real father and why she now has a new signature

Pauline Bewick. Photo: Nina Finn-Kelcey
Pauline Bewick. Photo: Nina Finn-Kelcey
Pauline Bewick's favourite picture of her father, Gerald Massie-Taylor
Pauline's prophetic work of man holding a baby
From left, Pauline in her pram; Pauline's mother Alice (known to all as Harry); Gerald Massie-Taylor; his first wife-to-be; and his best friend
Donal Lynch

Donal Lynch

The idea bubbled up, unbidden, from the recesses of Pauline Bewick's subconscious and onto the canvas: A man holding a baby. An image of fatherhood. Simple, beautiful, quietly moving and so different from her usual motifs of motherhood, she says. She wondered if it was in some way "predictive".

"It sounds fanciful but I have had a habit of doing paintings that anticipated events, great and small," she explains from her home in the bucolic beauty of Caragh Lake in Co Kerry.

"For instance, just before the plane flew into the Hudson in New York in 2009 I painted an image of it. Many years before I painted an image of my two girls Irish dancing and they came running in and said 'we're doing Irish dancing in school!' It might sound odd, but I paint something before, and then it happens. This painting, of the father and child, which I did in the spring of last year, seemed very much like that. I normally do women with babies but fatherhood was at the forefront of my mind."

Tapping into the imagery of the subconscious has been partly what has sustained Pauline's long and successful career as one of Ireland's most prominent and iconic living artists - now in her 80s, she still paints every day. And on Thursday a major exhibition of her work entitled Painting Life Now opens at Listowel Writers' Week.

The subject of fatherhood had been very much on her mind. Earlier last year she and her daughters, Poppy and Holly, had made something of a pilgrimage to Northumberland to visit relatives of Pauline's. One of the main purposes of that trip was to put a beautiful headstone, with a Bewick Swan they had designed, on the unmarked grave of the man Pauline had thought was her father, Corbett Bewick.

Pauline had felt "sorry" that her father did not have a more beautiful gravestone. He was her father, she thought - and the evidence for this Englishman's paternity seemed more or less a settled fact.

Her mother Harry's husband Corbett had been an alcoholic, the marriage broken down, and Harry fled - moving from Northumberland to Ireland, where Pauline was mostly raised.

Corbett Bewick died at the age of 38 in a sanatorium, by which time Pauline was just three years old. She grew up in Co Kerry, thinking he had been her father. Members of the wider family had confidently assured her that she was a Bewick to her bones. The work on the headstone seemed to all of them - Poppy, Holly and Pauline - to "close the chapter" on fatherhood.

There was however just a tincture of doubt that niggled - and it emanated from what was presumed to be an apocryphal story her mother had once told.

"When I was a teenager, Harry, my mother, wrote that she was walking across a field near her house, and, towards her walked a young man", Pauline explains. "She wrote that as soon as she saw him she knew deep inside herself that something was going to happen.

"She invited him to her house for tea and he accepted. When they got back she put her tired little girl, Hazel, my elder sister, to bed - and there and then they made love on the kitchen floor.

"The man's name was Gerald Massie-Taylor. At the time of this liaison he was 19 and my mother was 33."

The suggestion that this man might in fact have been Pauline's real father was always taken with a large grain of salt. The Bewicks came from a family of many wood engravers, and were descendants of Thomas Bewick, a famous wood engraver, who loved nature.

"I thought this must be where my artistic genes came from," explains Pauline. "And a Bewick relative had told me that this man, Gerald Massie-Taylor, had liked the dress my mother wore more than the body that was in it - implying that he had been gay!"

In her autobiography, released just a few years ago, Pauline had come to the final conclusion that Corbett, not Massie-Taylor, was her real father.

Pauline and her daughters discussed the likelihood and last year Poppy decided to investigate some online sites, settling on one called The test involved Pauline spitting into a test tube and rubbing a cotton bud around in her mouth so that it picked up cells from her. Pauline undertook the test, along with her niece, whom they knew for a fact to be a Bewick.

"Nothing conclusive came up," Poppy explains. "Just that Mum was related to her niece, Hazel's daughter, which of course we knew.

"In the first months I looked into the site every now and then, but there was nothing but a long list of very, very distant relations. We gave up on it."

Every so often the list of DNA connections on this website would be updated as others, in different parts of the world, attempted to research their own geneologies. At one point a very distant relationship with the actress Meryl Streep emerged, but nothing that would solve the paternity riddle.

Poppy explains, "After about a year or so, I did look again and there was a new relative, an anonymous male relative, as closely related as a grandson. I sent a message to this relative, but nothing. Again I thought this was just a useless site and gave up.

"But on July 4, early in the morning before I got up, I idly thought I would look at Mummy's countries of origin, and there before my eyes was a photograph of a young man, who, I thought, looked a bit like us. His surname was Massie-Taylor, the surname of the young man my grandmother wrote about... I couldn't believe it. I raced down to Mum. "You aren't a Bewick after all! You are a Massie-Taylor!"

Poppy and Pauline composed a message to this relation who, they deduced from his age, must be Pauline's nephew. Initially there was no reply. Days passed with both women waiting on tenterhooks.

"Mum said we really should wait at least two weeks before we contacted him again," Poppy explains. "So I did and after two weeks I tried again. This time he got my message.

"I told him our story, saying a G Massie-Taylor was the person we were inquiring about. He checked, and asked us which G Massie-Taylor? I said that we thought it was Gerald. He would have been born around 1916."

"This is extraordinary", the man replied. "Believe it or not, Gerald is my father!"

And so it turned out that the man was Pauline's half-brother, not her nephew. Not only that but she has a total of eight new half-siblings, all living and dotted all over the world.

Gerald, it turned out, had been married three times after his kitchen floor tryst with Harry. Four half-sisters and four half -brothers, ranging from aged 75 down to 33, were the results of these unions. "And now Mum was a ninth sibling and the oldest of the Massie-Taylor siblings." Poppy explains. The revelation was all the more seismic because Pauline had hitherto had such a tiny family; her only known sibling was elder sister Hazel, who had died in her 50s. Her family had suddenly expanded hugely and initially it was somewhat overwhelming.

"It was a lot to take in but I really welcomed the news," she said. "I was thrilled at the prospect of these new people in my life. But of course it was so momentous to find out the truth after all these years, it took a while to sink in."

I wonder if Pauline felt she had been deprived of her birth father.

"Honestly, no, because I don't think there is that kind of responsibility on the parent's part; I think once you're born it is sort of up to you. I also never felt I had been deprived of anything because my mother had always made me feel so secure. According to my late sister, Hazel, Massie-Taylor used to come around to the house and bounce me on his knee."

Pauline has come to the conclusion that her mother was "very much in love with this younger man", but that she decided it was time to leave England. "She upped sticks and left for Kerry and that was it. She didn't like to look back, I think I may have inherited that from her.

"Looking to him for support would not have been her at all and it wouldn't have been me either. Why should this 19-year-old be responsible - she found him attractive, and that's all to do with her, basically."

After the initial DNA discovery, Poppy and Pauline were able to source pictures of Massie-Taylor and what struck Pauline most forcibly was how dashing and handsome Massie-Taylor had been. "He is absolutely amazing looking and if I wasn't his daughter I would have thought 'phwoar!'"

I wonder if she was surprised that her mother was seduced by this much younger man - had she been something of what Americans call a cougar?

"What's a cougar?" Pauline wonders, and when I explain its meaning - an attractive older woman with a taste in younger men - she laughs heartily and responds. "Well, yes, goodness me, I took after her then, didn't I?" Pauline quips, in reference to the relationship she had with a much younger man, a Tahitian, with whom she took up when she visited the South Seas in the 1980s.

Massie-Taylor had a singular life. He was in the British army and travelled to Bengal where his regiment all got typhoid - he was the only one to survive. He was in India when World War II broke out but instead travelled to Africa, and worked there as a game park ranger.

"He created a kind of zoo there and wrote a book called Joan's Arc, named after his second wife," Poppy explains. A relative of theirs wrote a note to Pauline, saying: "He was very attractive to women always but not a womaniser. He was a great listener, a very attractive trait to a woman in trouble. I'm so sorry that you will never get to meet your father."

While they never did meet, there were a number of strange coincidences that connected the lives of Gerald Massie-Taylor and Pauline.

"I was interviewed once by the author Jilly Cooper and, not long before, she had been in Africa and met Massie-Taylor," she explains. "Then, when I lived in London as an adult I lived quite near to him, just around the corner in fact. It was weird. We could have been standing beside him in the shops."

For Pauline, the knowledge that she suddenly had a large extended family made her excited to meet them.

"I had this tiny family, just my mother and my sister, and now I have this huge group of people. Poppy and Holly seem to understand all of the connections perfectly but I'm still learning. We want to have them all over at the same time time - to an island on Caragh Lake - but perhaps we'll have them in little batches instead. I would be the oldest sister of them all, so I can rule the roost, as it were," she says laughingly.

Pauline's creative fire burns as brightly as ever. "These ideas come up out of me and I'm not sure where they come from but I paint them and I enjoy it as much as I always did. I have three paintings on the go now, and they're all absolute beauties."

Her piece Philosopher in the Desert has recently found a new and permanent home in Belgium, at the heart of the European quarter in Brussels. It was unveiled last summer in the VIP room of the European Commission's Charlemagne building, which houses the Commission's visitor centre.

Pauline had a stroke a few years ago and says she now feels wonderful, "except when it comes to the business end of things, which is the only thing that really stresses me".

Pauline has kept the painting of the father and child - it has now assumed a special significance. And, in recognition of her new family, her signature, which adorns all her famous pieces, has changed.

"Now when I complete a painting I sign it Bewick as usual and then add a little M-T to indicate Massie-Taylor. This is to acknowledge that this is a very important part of my story. I have had the gift of another family, and it is the best gift of all."

Painting Life Now opens at Listowel Writers' Week on Thursday. On Saturday, June 2, at 5pm, Pauline Bewick will be in conversation with Niall MacMonagle at the Plaza Centre, Listowel. Tickets €12/15 from

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