Pauline Bewick celebrated her 80th birthday on 4th September last, a birthday which saw new work being launched at Taylor Galleries, Kildare Street, Dublin. ‘Life, Love and Launch,’ proved to be another major success as Bewick’s themes through the ages have always proved compelling. She is a constant delight, as artist, sensual woman, wife, mother, grandmother. All of these layers are what make her the individual she undoubtedly is. She also appeared recently with Ryan Tubridy on The Late Late Show, proving she is as articulate and beautiful as ever. This exhibition is aptly named for an artist who has lived well and packed enough into her 80 years to fill several lifetimes. She has loved also and has always been totally honest in this regard. The sensual side to her nature constantly reveals itself in uninhibited expressive ways in her paintings, indeed it is a wellspring for the magical way she depicts men, woman and the natural world.
One of the main themes in the paintings in ‘Life, Love and Launch,’ is the un-knowability of people to each other, even those in close romantic relationships. There is an abundance of bridal images on her canvases, beautiful young, dreamy-eyed, women in white dresses overshadowed by men made up entirely of bees. As an observer free to interpret these images, I read them as Bewick imagining these men as having a sting in their tails and likely to swarm at the prospect of their honey being taken away. Her paintings are very lyrical, a poet’s word made flesh. At one time Bewick had two hives which provided her and her family with delicious honey for many years. Unfortunately, one day when her husband Pat was stung by a bee that managed to get through his green veil, it was discovered that he was highly allergic to bee stings and that was the end of the bees.
As if presenting a new exhibition of fabulous paintings wasn’t enough, ’80 A Memoir’ (Arlen House) was also published on her birthday. The memoir is extremely well crafted, a frank and thorough account of early life and loves. Among other elements of her life, it tells of her relationship with her mother, Alice (nicknamed ‘Harry’),her sister Hazel and her psychiatrist husband Pat Melia (they were married in 1963). Pat is the love of her life, alas now suffering from Alzheimer’s. She is very close also to their two daughters Poppy and Holly and her grandchildren. Her other most passionate love affair has been with her creative spirit. There’s a relationship between the artist and the canvas that comes directly from possessing such an unfettered spirit, a generosity towards the universe which reveals itself in her willingness to explore themes and images which help her to make sense of the world in general. Bewick, to date, has led a very bohemian life and one which involved lots of travels and many adventures. Bewick says that ‘I don’t look back – the odd time little replays (like a smell that brings to mind the steps of a house in the village of Caiole-in-Chianti or the taste of mango brings me back the South Seas) might flow to mind, odd insignificant moments and memories. In fact, pondering in the past seems a sad thing to do.’ While working on the memoir Bewick closed her eyes ‘and felt the past become the present’ as she told her story.
Nicely structured in linear fashion, the memoir opens with Bewick coming to Ireland (Gleninchaquin in County Kerry) as a young child from Newcastle with her mother and sister, after ‘Harry’ fled from her husband, Corbett Bewick, because of his alcohol addiction. Kerry has always been home and after a lifetime of relocations and travel (Northern Ireland, London, Dublin, The South Seas, Tuscany), this much admired and respected artist is living the life she loves, back in Kerry. When Publisher Alan Hayes suggested that the memoir be written, he stressed that he wanted it to be in her own voice. And that’s exactly how it reads. It’s like sitting down with a very interesting and intriguing friend who has lots of stories which are like tableaux vivant. One of my own favourite narratives concerns The Yellow Man. Bewick conceived of this creation while in Tuscany in 1979. She was sitting under a grapevine when she doodled him into being in a sketchbook. She sketched him with two antennae and he was walking over the Tuscan hills. Two little boys next door, Stephano and Roberto saw him and asked her to draw more. She later realized that the little yellow man was their neighbour Gino, a farmer. She says ‘he has little brown eyes that dart from one of us to the other. He giggles, yet seems to accept the inevitability of life in a silent unconscious way, making Gino a magical man.’
Where does Bewick’s enormous appetite for painting come from? Apart from possessing a natural flair, her development as an artist was always deeply encouraged by her mother who had the foresight to keep Bewick’s paintings and drawings from the age of two upwards. Bewick is dyslexic but thanks to her first teacher at a school in Douris, County Kerry, instead of being pilloried for it (as many children at that time were), Miss Murphy invited the young artist to draw the object on the blackboard instead of attempting to spell it. When Bewick drew her first bird she says that apart from her mother, ‘this was my first taste of positive attention for producing a picture.’
Travel and different styles of ‘homemaking’ were very much part of the young Bewick’s domestic experiences. In 1944, having lived in County Kerry for six years, the family moved to Northern Ireland, setting down roots in County Derry. Hazel (who subsequently died young, tragically) moved back to England to train as a hospital dietician. However, Harry and Pauline lived in a caravan at Salford ( it was flooded by the river Avon) before settling on a boat called ‘Jaunty,’ (also occupied by their cat, ‘Salty’ – cats feature prominently in Bewick’s work). In 1949, it was back to Ireland again. A year later, they moved to Dublin where Bewick attended NCAD, her teacher being Sean Keating. Harry bought a large house on Frankfurt Avenue, taking in students to help defray expenses. In her inimitable way, she encouraged these students to draw on the walls so that floor to ceiling was covered in their artistic endeavours. I can’t help but envy subsequent owners of that house and wonder if they kept these impromptu murals or painted them over? Harry was also enterprising, a really fascinating woman in her own right. She went on to buy stocks and shares in commodities (Portuguese telephones, cardboard and black molasses) which gained in value and which made her wealthy, even though she appears to have had no big grá for material possessions. Harry eventually moved to Wicklow (Laragh) where she lived out her days. The ‘fruit man’ dropped off boxes of rotten bananas and out of date vegetables for Harry. She would find lots to eat from this free supply. Black bananas were her favourite.
Bewick’s first exhibition in Dublin was in 1957 at the Clog Gallery and Café. She exhibited all the drawings and paintings of her life. She received a call from Mr Kiko of the Kiko Gallery in Japan asking if they could exhibit her work. Indeed, some of her paintings display a distinct oriental edge as in Plums, China depicting a beautiful oriental girl and luscious fruit. She was commissioned to design the cover for the Trinity College magazine Icarus. However, Bewick also had a number of jobs. She worked for Dr Keys in Wicklow Street, painting artificial eyes. Dr Keys, an optician, had a new experiment. Bewick would hold a cardboard disc, the size of the patient’s iris, on the handle of the paintbrush and copy the patient’s good iris in great detail, all the lines and squiggles and the exact colour of the patient’s eye. She also worked in The Clover Nightclub on 0’Connell Street where she sang Marlene Dietrich and Bessie Smith songs, ‘my lips close to the microphone.’ Over a long, successful career Bewick has worked for the BBC, RTE and has had numerous documentaries and books written about her. She has written and illustrated many books and is an elected member of the Royal Hibernian Academy and Aosdána.
When Bewick came back to Dublin in the 1970s (having lived in London for a time), her first encounter with Luke Kelly of The Dubliners was at the Light House Cinema. Luke was brought up not far from the Dublin Docks. He even showed her where he and other lads jumped into the dark waters of the River Liffey. Her description of this incident is very lyrical: ‘I could picture his white youthful body and his red hair bobby about, swimming in the dark river.’ When eventually they became lovers at Luke’s place in Dartmouth Square, the description of him is equally poetic: ‘A little light shone from the landing, then Luke appeared completely naked, his alabaster white body and red hair looking surreal. He came down the stairs, clutching a silvery grey glistening pigeon tight against his white chest. It had flown in through the attic window and Luke brought it down to show me.’ She finally persuaded him to go up to the skylight and release it.
Having lived a life where she followed her heart and her artistic dreams, Bewick now spends her days sharing life with her beloved Pat. They go on walks together, gathering mushrooms, looking at nature and birds. One of their favourite walks is along Lickeen river. In the memoir, she recounts an incident when their golden retriever Ben, jumped into the river, grabbed a stick and then started to drift downstream with it. ‘I think he’s going under. I think he is drowning,’ Pat said. Without any thought for the cold, Bewick took off her padded winter coat and the nightie she wore underneath it. Then she jumped in to save Ben who was rushing towards a waterfall. Their grandson Aran was with them at the time and he was too young to jump in and Pat ‘was too old.’ When the dog was safely on the river bank Bewick says she couldn’t remember anything about it. She was told later that women over fifty get a condition called sea amnesia when a sudden rush of cold water hits the back of the neck. Having survived a stroke (though she still suffers weakness and dizzy spells) Bewick feels ‘like a young woman pulled back by an old woman.’ She is glad that the work for the exhibition and the memoir is completed because she can start something new. She is healthy and thinks she can live for another 80 years. Such a philosophy is surely the true secret of a contented life.