Wednesday 18 July 2018

Pauline Bewick's wild mythological life

Pauline Bewick is a legend of Irish art who has lived a life that could fill several books. Now, as she prepares to turn eighty, she spoke to us about love, death, abortion and the relationships that made an impact on her life, including one with a music icon

Past, present, future: Pauline Bewick says she has much more to do in her life. Photo: David Conachy.
Past, present, future: Pauline Bewick says she has much more to do in her life. Photo: David Conachy.
Luke Kelly
Donal Lynch

Donal Lynch

'And there's going to be a room for all the dysfunctional relationships", Pauline Bewick tells me of the exhibition which will mark both her eightieth birthday and the release of her long-awaited autobiography 80: A Memoir' is published by Arlen House. "Only one room?" I wonder, somewhat sceptically. She laughs wickedly and we ponder whether a wing might be more appropriate. But, then, dysfunction is all relative. She tells me that when she looks back at the relationships of her life, even the ones that didn't work out, "I took something important from them. I could see when something had no future, I had kept my wisdom intact and I was realistic. But by God, they were good fun while they lasted."

Wit comes fluidly and easily to this matriarch of Irish art, but looking back into her past is a slightly more difficult proposition. While most people her age live their life mired in nostalgia, she resides very firmly in the moment. She is still energised by her life's work and her painting retains a singular vitality; she's dying for the upcoming exhibition to be over so she can paint some more. And for her memoir she endeavoured to "not so much remember as try to make the past present, to close my eyes and really live in it again."

True to her word she closes her eyes at her workshop in Caragh Lake, Co Kerry, and, like a latter day clairvoyant, summons the scene of her conception (and the opening scene of the book): "I see my mother walking through a wheat field holding the hand of Hazel, my sister, and she sees a man walking toward her and he asks her if there was a house for sale and my mother (Harry) replies that there was, adding 'but I'll give you a cup of tea first.' And so she brought him in and Hazel was put to bed in a cot and my mother made love to the man on the floor. So I wasn't a Bewick at all, according to my mother. Maybe. We're still looking into it. We're researching the genealogy and all we can see so far is that my mother is distantly related to Meryl Streep."

Hollywood royalty sounds about right; there is something slightly regal about Pauline. There might also have been parallels with Postcards From The Edge in the dynamic between Pauline and Harry (both Meryl's character and Pauline struggled to connect with their larger-than-life mothers). All through Pauline's childhood Harry moved her two girls around, first to the North, then back to England, where for a time they lived on a houseboat and attended progressive schools, then, finally, they returned to Kerry. During each period Harry seemed "determined not to fit in" and Pauline surmises that she - Harry - "wanted to raise a real person rather than a child, and perhaps that was what she got in me."

Pauline's gift for painting manifested itself early on - "it was my way of working things out in my life, I would paint pictures of fellows I fancied and that kind of thing" and while still in her teens she attended the National College of Art and Design (NCAD) in Dublin. It was during this period that she fell pregnant for the first time, and decided not to keep the child. "It was my first boyfriend. I was a young teenager and my attitude was 'it wasn't a baby' whereas he gave it a name and everything. He called it Will-By-Force. I think he was trying to humanise it for me, so that I wouldn't go through with it." But go through with it she did, and made the journey to London. "It very much a backstreet thing, with an enamel bowl in a room and an enema", she recalls. The abortionist, who Pauline says was a sympathetic woman, similar to the character in Vera Drake - Mike Leigh's Oscar-nominated film - told her that "it was very dangerous, she said that an air bubble could easily get in there and I would die."

Pauline never regretted it for a second, she tells me. "It would have changed my life entirely. I absolutely did the right thing, I am sure of that. To me there is no sentiment whatsoever in the whole thing." And telling the story was also important to her. "To me it's very important to be truthful about certain matters in life, and that is certainly one of them."

She returned to Dublin and graduated before moving back to London, where a friend offered to animate drawings she had done. These were shown to the BBC, which in turn commissioned a children's television series from her. In London she illustrated books and magazines and on her return to Dublin sang in a nightclub,and acted at the Pike Theatre. Through it all, however, she continued to paint. Her first exhibition was in 1957 at the Clog Gallery in Dublin. She was also immersed in the party scene that was interwoven with artistic life in both cities.

Her husband-to-be, Pat, then a medical student, had visited her in London while she recovered from the abortion. He would go on to become an eminent psychiatrist, and Pauline describes him as "so sensible, so logical, the firm ground underfoot in my life." They were married in 1963 and had two daughters, Poppy and Holly, with whom Pauline has a very close relationship (she also adores her grandchildren). In the first flush of her marriage with Pat they were "very much in love". In their youth she travelled with Pat to St Tropez, and a woman "who seemed ancient to us but who was probably in her forties" observed the young couple on the beach together. "She said to me, 'You two, you come to the same spot every day, and you go into the same part of the ocean and then you swim out to the same depth, and it's always the same.' And I realised then, that had I been on my own on the beach, I probably would have been quite a bit more adventurous and random." The observation of the woman on the beach soon seemed like a metaphor. As the years passed Pauline says their marriage got stale and she found inspiration in the wild person of music icon Luke Kelly. They met through the arts scene of 1970s Dublin, "where potters, painters and poets drank together and everyone knew everyone."

"I was fascinated by him", she says of Kelly. "He was this wild, Centaur-like, almost mythological person. He asked me if he could have a lift home to his place in Dartmouth Square. So I brought him home and we stood in the darkness of the living room and there was a blind man there, from the North, and he said 'I've drank the last of the milk, Luke' and Luke said that didn't matter. He took my hand and brought me upstairs; I stood in the landing feeling quite embarrassed. And he went up to the top bathroom and came down with this pigeon held to his chest. And you have to imagine the scene; this glistening white body in the moonlight, stocky short arms and legs, this mass of red curls and then the pigeon clasped to himself. And for some reason instantly all of the sexual thoughts went out of my head and I cried out 'you're holding the pigeon too tight, you're going to crush him!' And he got a bloody great beer glass from the mantle and tried to feed the beer to the pigeon. I think he thought this was some great romantic gesture but anyway he went upstairs and set the pigeon free out the skylight."

Nothing happened due to drink, Pauline says - "nothing could happen" - but their relationship was not only about sex. "I still felt he was a magical being - it didn't depend on sex. I was enraptured by him." That night she saw "a great flat head louse" crawl out from his head onto the pillow. "And I felt sad when I saw that because I thought, 'Oh my God, he's let himself go so much.' But in another way, as difficult as this might be to imagine, he could make even a head louse romantic. He was one of the most special people of my life. He was an intellectual and he did love reading. What would have been particularly difficult is that he was a very social sort of person and he could never have settled in a place like this [Co. Kerry]. He needed to be in the thick of things. I couldn't live with someone who was always out there in the public eye."

She was realistic enough to understand that she and Kelly, both free spirits, would not be able to make a conventional relationship work but they remained in touch throughout his life; and Pauline was friendly with Kelly's partner when he died, Madeleine Seiler. "He was lucky to have her", Pauline says.

Later on, pragmatism also mixed with orchestral romance during Pauline's jaunt to the South Seas, where she travelled with Poppy and Holly in 1989. The islands were "another world, a magical experience for all of us." While living on the islands, she met a man, who "like Luke, had a wildness, a centaur-like quality", she explains. They fell madly in love but the relationship was complicated. "Drink changed him, island people could not handle it, like the American Indians, they don't have an enzyme to cope with it", Pauline explains. This man once "told me 'I know you'd been unfaithful when you went writing in Samoa' - I had gone there for a while. This was nonsense, but I knew he was just building something up because I was leaving and he was moving in on another girl by then. If I was jealous, however, I completely put it aside. I saw the way it all unfolded as inevitable and natural."

When she returned from her travels in the South Seas she found that her thoroughly modern approach to relationships had by now traversed the oceans. Pat was having his own affair, with a woman called Gale. "He'd say 'I'm going up to Gale now'. And quick as a flash I'd say, 'Oh, no problem'. It was all as open as that. God knows what people said behind our backs."

As blithe as it all sounds and as successful as she had by then become - her art was by now stocked in galleries across the country - she says that this period marked a real low in her life. "I was very lonely. I didn't want to go back to the South Seas, I didn't want Pat, I didn't know what I really wanted. There were some tearful walks in the rain. It felt like a strange in-between period. Pat told the two girls that he really wanted to get back with me. And he said we should go to a marriage counsellor."

Pauline was suspicious - "those people just try to to push you back together!" - but went along anyway. "In my head I just heard Pat saying 'no, no, no' to everything but we talked about everything. The counsellor said 'Pat you have to take a week off and not look at your watch, and Pauline, before you speak you must count to ten.' He made me realise that Pat thinks before he talks, whereas I just come out too quickly with things."

At one point during a break in the therapy, Pat happened to see Gale from a window of a building, and never mentioned it except quite casually in passing in response to Pauline's questioning. She was aghast - "How could you leave out a key detail like that!" - but when they resumed the session the counsellor pointed out that, in truth, neither were keeping secrets from the other, and that "Pat will tell you things in his own time, you just have to be prepared to give him that time."

Through the counselling sessions, she says, "We came to see each other as rather funny; me so incredibly impulsive and emotional, him so slow (to react) and careful. I was 56 or 57 by that point. We laughed our way back together. It's been so nice."

Her one regret, she says is that "we don't have an old age where we would be reading aloud to each other." Pat has Alzheimer's Disease and while the initial diagnosis brought great sadness for Pauline, the family has all learned to cope with it better. The disease has worsened in recent years, however. "It is difficult, it is lonely and sometimes I do get kind of cross if I feel he's not happy. I sort of feel like, 'well, I'm doing everything I can!' What's extraordinary is that he has retained his wit", Pauline tells me. "We were going to a funeral and someone looked down and said 'Pat, you've forgotten to do up your fly' and he looked at them and said 'better than forgetting to open it.' He makes everybody laugh."

She says she feels she only truly got to know Pat in recent times and one of the themes of her upcoming exhibition is the unknowability of the partner in a relationship, and the "difficulty of understanding someone with whom we have fallen in love." Some of the inspiration, she says, came from her readings of the French folktale Bluebeard (a nobleman who stored the bodies of his murdered wives in a room), and her puzzlement at "some of the problems my friends have seen in choosing a partner who gives them nothing but trouble. I came across the concept of 'damaged wisdom'; for many their mind has been baffled, their wisdom is not intact."

One could hardly say the same about Pauline: be it sex or relationships she seems to have lived a life far ahead of her time. They say a memoir is a life story with the last instalment missing. Pauline's beloved dog, Ben, died recently - he had to be put down after contracting cancer - and Pauline says that the "terrible yet humane swiftness with which it happened" reminded her that she would not be cut out for an old age of suffering. She had a stroke a few years ago, and though her health is good now, she tells me that were it ever to deteriorate to the point that she was incapacitated, "I'd go off to Switzerland or somewhere like that, I'd want a little injection too. I'd get someone to help me do it. I saw it with Ben; it was all over in an instant. That's how it should happen."

For the moment, however, she emphasises that she has "so much more to get done in this life." The present, she tells me, returning to her original theme, is always more exciting than the past. "I have days when I'm very extrovert and 'up' and then, afterwards, behind closed doors, I can collapse in a heap. There are still adventures to be had and work to get done. That's what keeps me excited and alive."

'80: A Memoir' is published by Arlen House, priced €20 and available from Taylor Galleries from September 5, and nationwide from mid September. Life, Love and Launch, 80th birthday exhibition, will begin on September 5 at the Taylor Gallery Dublin and run for three weeks. Phone + 353 (1) 6766055 for more information and see

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