Sunday 18 February 2018

The art of love, death and reincarnation... recalling Paolo Tullio

Artist Susan Morley comes from a family of painters and designers. Married for 30 years to the much-loved chef and food critic Paolo Tullio, who sadly died earlier this year, she talks about "an extraordinary man", her life and work; grief, and the belief that even death is not the end

Just as it was instant love with her husband Paolo Tullio, Artist Susan Morley was smitten with Kerry where she now has a studio in Watterville. Photo: Don MacMonagle
Just as it was instant love with her husband Paolo Tullio, Artist Susan Morley was smitten with Kerry where she now has a studio in Watterville. Photo: Don MacMonagle
Paolo Tullio and Susan Morley

Emily Hourican

The sorrows that come, as Shakespeare said, "in battalions," tend to intensify as we go through life and begin the tragically accelerating process of losing those we love. For artist Susan Morley, the last two years have been hard - first her brother, Peter, died in January 2014, having been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis 30 years previously. Then, in early June her husband of nearly 30 years, food critic and TV personality Paolo Tullio, died. Technically he was her ex-husband, they parted in 2004, but nothing ever severed the bond between them. Not even, it seems, death, because for Susan, this is a transition rather than a finality.

"I think people need to be taught more wisdom about life and death," she says. "And it's not death. Not if you go back to the ancient writings, the Buddhist tradition, The Tibetan Book Of Living And Dying, which I read last year when my brother died. Grief" she continues, "is real, it comes up and things make me cry, like seeing my mother-in-law yesterday, a wonderful woman, or somebody sending a kind letter, but I think we're crying for us."

Really? "Yes. We're crying for them too, but for their suffering. I feel that now they are free - in my brother's case and Paolo's case - of bodies that weren't working. They're released from that. That's what I was saying to Paolo in the last few days: 'You're going on this amazing new adventure.' And I believe that." She has, she says, felt his presence ever since. "He's been around us, me and the kids."

We are sitting in the café of the RHA. The first thing that struck me about Susan, would strike anyone, is the colour of her eyes. Bright, clear green like greengages, framed by a mane of copper-red hair and gently accentuated by a beautiful skirt, made of silk printed with one of her own designs, taken from a watercolour of an ancient beech tree in Wicklow. After that, it is the quality of her conversation, subtle, intelligent, erudite, that strikes, and strikes again.

An artist who has long worked in that most tricky of mediums, watercolour, although she has recently moved to oils, Susan is collected by film director John Boorman and designer Lainey Keogh among others. She studied at NCAD and first exhibited her work at the Lad Lane Gallery in 1976. Since then she has shown at the RHA, the Solomon Gallery, the Origin Gallery and the Gate Theatre, as well as in London and France.

Her work is an intense personal tribute to this country's present and past; gorgeous watercolours of ancient landscapes, trees, ever-changing seascapes, and, more recently, the dolmens and standing stones of Ireland, doorways to our mythological past. The size and scale of her work has increased greatly recently as she has begun a series of life-sized representations of these standing stones. "I'm not interested in making pretty work any more," she says with a laugh. "This is something more challenging, and will need to be shown in a municipal space."

Susan's paintings are vital and luminous, concerned with the essence of what she paints as much as form and colour. They are beautiful, and, just as it is not possible, according to Freud, to speak for any length of time without revealing, inadvertently, the contents of one's subconscious mind, it is not possible to put brush to paper or canvas without revealing the essence of one's nature. By that token, Susan, I am guessing, possesses a nature that is gentle, determined, meticulous and generous.

Brought up in Sandymount, Susan was one of five children (her sister Diane is married to Chris de Burgh, they were introduced by Paolo) and had what sounds like a typical, unfettered childhood. "We would just go off to the sea on our bikes, after we'd done chores, and spend the whole day down there. We had lots of freedom. I remember my parents waving at us once, as we were practically drowning out in the breakers in Donegal. Now, children have freedom in a virtual world. We don't know what effect this has. I think it's important to keep contact with the earth, to have a physical grounding. Parents need to remember that children are delicate creatures, and be careful of letting them disappear into computers all the time." Hers was a highly artistic family. One ancestor, John Henry Campbell, whose work can be found in the National Gallery, was a noted watercolourist, while his daughter, Cecelia Margaret Nairn, was the first woman to be exhibited in the RHA. Her daughter, Annie, married one of the founders of the famous Belleek pottery, William Armstrong, and Annie herself was a designer of early period Belleek.

Her own father was a chartered quantity surveyor, but studied music from a very young age and was an organist and choirmaster, while her mother painted. For Susan, there was never any question of what she would do. "I always knew," she tells me. "There was never any doubt." Neither was there any opposition; "my mother painted really well, talked about it always, she loved the lives of the artists, it was like a romantic idea for her."

It's a tradition Susan has continued; both her children, Bella and Rocco, are artists, and indeed when Rocco seemed uncertain of his path, Susan was the one to support him. "At one stage, I know he was having difficulty with the idea of being a painter and a working artist, and he resisted. I encouraged him. When you have creativity and you have a gift, if you're born with something, you have an obligation to yourself to use it, to express," she says. "That's what we're here for." It is a belief she holds dear, despite knowing very well the difficulties of such a path. "It's not an easy life," she acknowledges.

"It is very solitary, uncertain, insecure financially. Worse, sometimes you think, 'well, does it matter, what I'm working on?' It matters to you, but does it matter to anyone else?" However, that is mostly a rhetorical question, because she knows the answer: "Of course it does, we know that art, whether visual, written, poetry, is actually what humanity needs."

She believes we are all artists, "I think being an artist is not being somebody who can paint or sculpt or write, in a particular way, it's actually understanding, and caring and wanting to change things and wanting to leave something in the greater world, whether it's ideas or information or a little bit of knowledge, or a building, or loving people. So we are all artists."

Perhaps, but I wonder. Yes, there is far more to it than simply putting brush to canvas or pen to paper. It is exactly as Susan describes, but it is also a way of looking at the world, at oneself, and others, that owes nothing to other people's norms, and everything to an honest contemplation of the contents of your own heart.

And Susan's relationship with Paolo, perhaps particularly in the years since their separation, is a remarkable example of just that.

Paolo Tullio moved to Ireland in 1968. He was a Michelin-starred chef - of Armstrong's Barn in Annamoe - a writer, author of several books including a novel, Longing & Belonging, and a travel book of the area around the Comino Valley where he was born, a broadcaster - star of The Restaurant show - and food critic. He was also a remarkably erudite, and articulate man, with a passion for knowledge. As Susan says, "he just loved to talk. He retained facts very easily - he remembered even what he learned at school - he read widely and hugely, and he loved to share that."

They met on the steps of Trinity. "Paul McGuinness introduced us," she says now, "and we hit it off immediately. He was fascinating. There are some people who are at an advanced level of consciousness. We know them when we meet them, and Paolo was one. I married him because he was an extraordinary man. One of the things we miss about him, is that when you wanted to ask him something, he had the answer. We got on brilliantly, and we got on brilliantly for 30 years.

"We would have been married 40 years this August, the 29th, and we were together for four or five years before that. That is a long time to be together. You're growing up with somebody. We grew up together our entire adult lives. We were living separately for the last 10 years - we separated because we wanted to pursue our creative paths in different directions - but he was still very much there. I was used to ringing him, chatting about stuff, and he was always so delighted. He'd fill me in about what was going on with him. You don't lose that connection, because it is like a big core that draws you."

We are, she believes, "connected to one another from birth. And if people try to sever that artificially - and it is an artificial severance when you separate yourself from somebody, especially if you've had children with that person - it does terrible things. I can understand people needing their separate path, I can completely understand that. But cutting the invisible cord that goes between you is like cutting off a limb. People get used to the idea that this is how it works, and so it continues. But it shouldn't be the way. It doesn't have to be like that."

The connection she describes isn't exclusively a human thing, it can also be a question of land, of landscape. In fact, something very similar is responsible for Susan's move to Kerry in 2003.

"At that time I'd been living in Annamoe. I'd done a lot of commissioned work of gardens and houses around Wicklow. I'd been working on trees. When I went to Kerry and saw this blue, treeless landscape, I decided I wanted to be there. I went down armed with Joseph Campbell, so I was reading about Amerghin, the warrior poet who led the Gaelic invasion into Ballinskelligs Bay, also Robert Graves and the White Goddess. I had never been to the Iveragh peninsula in my life, but when I got there, I felt I knew the place, had known it all my life. I knew I would stay.

"Sometimes you just recognise a place. The standing stones of that Bronze Age period have become my main subjects, and the ones in Brittany, and the Stone circles in England. That's why I feel that we just go on, and then we come around again, and we recognise things that are familiar, and people."

In practical terms, this refusal to play the instinct of connection false, meant that during the last years of Paolo's life, Susan travelled up from Kerry to Wicklow, to where Paolo was. "He was ill and I would stay there, help him, make his breakfast, I was around, because he wasn't well. He had his constant dialysis, which is very hard on the system. Paolo was unbelievably courageous and always made light of it. In Italy, where he continued to go to the family villa south of Rome, even when sick, he had to travel a long way for dialysis, and his friends went with him. They knew he was ill, and they would go with him because they knew it was a tough drive, exhausting and difficult. Who wants to live like that? But he never complained about it or moaned about it. He just stoically went off, and fitted in everything along the way. He kept working, he wrote his last novel, all his articles, went to launches, this that and the other. It's astonishing."

Gallant, she says, is the word to describe him. "He became very ill in February because he had pneumonia, and he had been putting off doing anything about it. He knew he wasn't well, but he wasn't grumbling about it. I ended up convincing him to go to the doctor, and then he was admitted to hospital, and that was the beginning of the sudden decline."

Her voice trails off, the pain of parting still so very evident. "It was stoicism, on his part," she says, then adds, "stubbornness too. He insisted 'I'm fine, I'm ok' when he clearly wasn't. He was very proud, he didn't want to be fussed over and looked after, but we had an amazing number of months together, with him.

"As a father, he was fantastic. The children used to have to share him with a lot of other young people. Since he died, so many young people have been in touch and said that he always had time for them, would always teach them something. He was an unbelievable encyclopaedia of interesting facts. He knew everything."

As she talks about the final months, and about the burial in Italy which took place after the Humanist service in Trinity, where friends from hers and Paolo's life, including John Boorman, Derry Clarke, Kathy Gilfillan and Paul McGuinness gathered to pay tribute to a man who was much loved, much admired, now much missed, there is the pull of great grief, but also, through it, the clear hope of belief. She describes a cricket that stayed on Paolo's coffin from the family chapel all the way to the Reposium, and on to the church, explaining that crickets are "a sign of good fortune and other-worldiness" in cultures all over the world.

"Paolo had said he didn't want priests around him at his burial, but when his coffin was in the church, this priest walked in, he was from the Philippines, he had a big smile, and he knew Paolo, he'd got to know him over the last while. He said such beautiful things. He looked down at the coffin and he said 'Paolo is not there, he lives on. You as artists know that,' and I just thought - 'it's true. We do.'"

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