Paula Rego remembered by Lila Nunes | Paula Rego

I met for the first time Paula Rego in 1985 – I came over from Portugal as an au pair to help with her husband [the artist Victor Willing] who had multiple sclerosis. Her children were grown, so I didn’t have to look after them. It was a great time. I got on with Paula from the start. I first saw her when she was going out to the theater – she was very glamorous. She said “Hi” curtly and added that she was sorry to leave and told me she would see me later that evening or the following day. I went out and when I came back Paula had a glass of champagne with one of her daughters, Vicky, and they invited me to one – of course I had several – and it was a great night.

Paula had the gift of making people feel comfortable. She was a good listener, interested in what you had to say, took her time with people, was non-judgmental. We always spoke Portuguese together. I’m not sure if she missed Portugal, but we would talk a lot about it: the way the Portuguese behaved, the politics, the guilt and shame attached to Catholicism, and we would talk about being a woman.

Lila Nunes and Paula Rego in 2018.
Lila Nunes and Paula Rego in 2018. Photo: Courtesy of Lila Nunes

My duties were to help Vic with his paint and to move him from his bed to a wheelchair. Paula showed me how to stretch a canvas. We didn’t talk about how difficult this time was for her – she just wanted to get on with things. She would make Vic her breakfast, go to her study and most days come back in time to make his dinner. I’m sure it was because I was part of the domestic scene that Paula and I became so close. Our conversations were mainly about work, because it was through her work that everything came to light. When Vic was alive, she used to take work home, hang it on the wall, and he would comment on it, give her advice. After he died, she always said that she missed him and that it was very hard without him. She had to do it all by herself, and it was very hard.

Looking back, I think she had been dealing with her depression for a long time. She learned that the way to deal with it was to keep working. One Sunday she said, “Can I make a drawing of you?” I had never modeled before. I didn’t think about it, I was just trying to help – it just happened. I remember Vicky saying, “I couldn’t believe it, I went to the house and there you were, like the most natural thing, posing for Paula…”

Paula and I kept in touch and in 1994 she called to ask: would I come to the studio? So on my day off – I was working as a nurse – I came and that was it [the painting] Dog Woman started. Sometimes Paula would tell me the story she was thinking of. At other times she would try to pose to show what she was looking for. Once I got into position, she said, “Change that arm, change the neck.” Sometimes she said, “Yes! It is.” She would do a lot of drawings to find what she was looking for… One of the most difficult positions was in 1995 – the painting of a woman where it is not clear whether she is pulling her panties up or down. My whole body had to be rigid. It was very difficult – my knees gave in – I had to be still for hours.

Paula liked routine. We tended to work from 10am to 7pm. First we would have coffee and talk and it could be 10 minutes or two hours depending on how the conversation went. I wanted to say: “Listen, we talk, talk – we have to work.” And she would say, “This is all part of the job.” I developed a Zen state, I distanced myself from the position. I didn’t want to look at what she was doing. We wanted opera in the morning – quite loud. Paula had a wonderful sense of humor. Other people’s awkwardness made her laugh at how people react – the comedy of body language. We used to call it “that thing”.

Paula once said of me, “She’s really me,” and what she meant, I think, was that she could see through me and come out with what she had in mind. I don’t see myself in the paintings, it’s mostly her – her inner life – and sometimes it’s none of us. I never think: there I am. I think: I remember that pose, how hard it was.

Paula’s health began to fail around 2009 and she said: why don’t you work for me full time? So I did. She continued to work every day until almost the end. And when she was too sick to go to the studio, I went to her house and we spent the day drawing with pastels. She kept going, didn’t give up.

Dog Woman by Paula Rego
Dog Woman, 1994, by Paula Rego (posed by Lila Nunes). Photo: Copyright Paula Rego, Courtesy Marlborough Fine Art’

Even now after her death – I will think about her and I will see things that would be good for her study. I used to buy props. When I left, I returned with things: Brazilian dolls, children’s clothes, a sombrero from Monterey. Once Paula asked me to find a ceramic parrot on a trip to Brighton. “We need a parrot,” she said. I didn’t see many parrots in Brighton but found one.

Her death leaves such a hole in my life. I’m in limbo now. Not knowing what to do. I miss her very much. She was very generous, but her belief in herself was easily knocked down: a bad review could do that. She wanted to work and work, but she needed someone to tell her that work was good. When we started here, hardly anyone came to see the work until it was finished. She didn’t answer the phone, people would leave messages. Perhaps the self-doubt was necessary for the work. I remember her saying “No, no, no…” before changing a painting. I would think, “Oh my God… but it was like that well…” It would only be after she changed it that I would understand.

I don’t know if, even at the end of her life, she knew how loved and respected she was as an artist. “Lila, can you imagine Tate giving me a retrospective” she said to me. And I said, “For God’s sake, you should have had one a long time ago.” The show last year gave her a wonderful boost – she went to the opening and it was amazing. When I left, I felt i… i saw the end.

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