Nick Willing: “Ericeira is Paula Rego’s most powerful life memory”


Interview: Ricardo Miguel Vieira | Photos: Rego’s Family archive


In art, as in many other areas of life, secrets are golden. Whether in music, films, or paintings, the depth of meanings and intentions expressed by the author in his signature pieces isn’t always a crystal-blue narrative. There are songs requiring a prolonged listening; films begging for a rerun; paintings imposing a profound contemplation. Scrutinising these works of art, however, gives birth to countless written lines and debated judgements seeking to unveil the authors’ mysterious and enigmatic life experiences that may be hidden in their art. And few have been able to keep their secrets so perfectly enfolded on their body of work as Dame Paula Rego.

Born on January 26, 1935, the 82-year-old Portuguese painter, who’s one of the most important figures in contemporary art, has always guarded her personal life journey. She’s truly a closed book, both for her audience but also her family and close friends. Her secrets would only be unveiled through her paintings, which has been a sort of safe universe for the artist born in Lisboa. Rego’s cathartic drawings of overflowing emotions bluntly exposed her inner-restlessness and took her on a trip through memory lane to the most remarkable and enduring places and events of her life. Among those places – both physical and emotional –, no other had such a strong a deep impact in Rego’s life and artwork as the village of Ericeira.

It’s likely that Dame Paula Rego doesn’t recall the first time she stepped foot in Ericeira – she was yet a little baby. But what’s certain is that the years she spent in the village are alive and well in her heart. It was between 1957 and 74, a stretch of time juxtaposing the darkest and happiest moments of her life – from her love story with the British painter Victor Willing to the birth of her three children; from her arts emancipation to her father’s death, her husband’s illness, depression and the stroke of mercy that was giving away her adored Quinta Figueiroa Rego, in Ericeira, right after the Democratic Revolution. A series of episodes that were (finally!) documented in Paula Rego: Stories and Secrets, a film directed by her son Nick Willing revealing Rego’s life story and the pivotal relationship with Ericeira in her career.

And it was from London, the city where she’s been living for more than four decades, that Nick Willing, the men behind the lens, spoke with AZUL and unearthed Dame Paula Rego’s intrinsic connection with Ericeira.


On previous interviews about your mother, you said that she was always a mystery for you. Now after all the conversations you had with her for the documentary, do you feel she’s still a mystery?

Well, she’s still a little bit of a mystery, yes. I’m closer to her than I’ve ever been before and she told me things that she never did before. I know her better now than ever. But it’s not so much that she’s still a mystery, it’s more that her work is still somewhat an enigma. But it’s clearer now to me, now I understand a lot better what it is to be her, to be an artist, to be Paula Rego, and why she’s made those choices in her life. This is a big thing for me, understanding the way she’s treated her family, the people around her, and me.


What is it that you now see in her art that felt like an enigma for you before?

I always thought I knew her work better than a lot of people who were experts about her art, and that’s one of the reasons I wanted to make this film. Academics and experts who seem to know a lot of her work write about it, but I’d read them sometimes ask my mother, ‘what the hell are these people talking about’. She’d say, ‘I don’t know, but it doesn’t matter’. ‘They have their own ideas and that’s what’s important. It doesn’t have to be what I’m doing, it can be what they think I’m doing, it’s just as valid’. That’s one of the things I’ve always found quite funny. She says that if people find their own story in her pictures, then that’s very good too. But what I was interested in finding out was her story, why she did it, and what were the secrets behind the paintings. What I discovered was that she picks a story and starts working on it, but then the story changes and she starts doing all sorts of other things. She doesn’t know why at first, only then she realises actually it’s to do with something very personal in her life she hasn’t yet come to terms with or that she feels she needs to explore unconsciously. That’s what I would call the secret in the paintings that she doesn’t ever talk about. She doesn’t let people know what it is, but it’s what gives the picture its power. Actually, the things that are authentic, intimate and personal are what give your work its power. It’s true with every artist, whether they are a painter or a musician.


Right at the beginning of the documentary, she says she needs to go back to a place she knew as a child to find the background of her paintings. Would you reckon this place being Ericeira?

Oh yeah. Oh my god, Ericeira is in everything. Do you know the movie “Citizen Kane”**? You know, Rosebud is the thing that Kane [the main character] is always trying to go back to, which is the thing in he’s childhood that he never quite had. Ericeira is my Rosebud – I grew there until I was 18 -, and in a sense, it’s also a little to my mother. Ericeira was the place that she loved being in as a child and the place where she had the happiest time in her life. It’s the place that, as a child, she remembers most fondly, to where she moved to when she first got together with my father, had her first daughter and where she established herself as a great painter. Ericeira is perhaps the most powerful memory that she has in her life.


Did she tell you about the first time she visited Ericeira?

When she was a tiny little baby, her parents had come to England so her father could finish his studies at Marconi [a former telecommunication’s company]. In those days, you couldn’t go back and forth, there were no planes like there are now, so you’d [drive to France and] take a ferry [in the English Channel] – plus, there was the II World War right around the corner. So she had two years living with her grandparents in the Quinta [Figueroa Rego] when she was very little. That’s why i say Ericeira was like her Rosebud, because it was the most happy place of her childhood and where she would grow up.

Eventually her parents came back and when she was 3-years old, she got diagnosed with Tuberculosis and the doctor said she had to move closer to the sea. So they built this house in Estoril to where they moved, but she always hated the house. We still have that place, I was there recently. It’s a lovely house, but it has all sorts of different feelings. I was also brought up in Estoril, but we would always go back to Ericeira on weekends and the summers.

Paula Rego with her father, José Figueiroa Rego, and her mother, Maria de São José Paiva.

Paula Rego with her father, José Figueiroa Rego, and her mother, Maria de São José Paiva.

Ericeira was the place that she loved being in as a child and the place where she had the happiest time in her life.

The period in which you and your family spent most of the time in Ericeira is somehow extensively depicted on the documentary. I imagine you also hold Ericeira very dearly.

Ericeira is a really strong memory for me, I spent a lot of time there until I was 18 years old, when we then had to sell the Quinta. The old films [in the documentary] where shot by me while a teenager in the 70s. On that sequence in Ribas, praia do Sul [South beach], and the Mil Regos [stronghold], I was trying to create Ericeira’s atmosphere at that time, but then I got really stuck. So I remembered the song “Naufrágio” of Amália Rodrigues. The two guitars gave that feeling of sadness, longing, saudade, excitement, and sexiness. The thing I remember about Ericeira is that it was a very sexy place, and different from anywhere else in Portugal.


Those weekends and holidays in Ericeira were particularly productive for Dame Paula Rego? How was the daily life at the Quinta?

It was a very evocative time, very powerful, with the terrible wine carrascão that we all found delicious [risos]. I’d go buy it with a garrafão [small sort of wine barrel made of plastic], it costed like nine escudos [the Portuguese currency at the time] per litre. We’d all have purple diarrhea and green teeth, but we’d all drink that stuff like it was Ribena [laughs]. It was a very magical time.

A lot of important British artists like Mike Andrews and Peter Snow would come to the Quinta and sometimes stay the whole Summer just to paint. It became a kind of summer camp for them. They were fascinated by Ericeira’s light – something my mother never really used. She’d bury herself in her studio in the adega and explore her inner landscape. So we’d have these amazing parties where people would be drinking carrascão the whole day. It was like an artists’ sanctuary.


That sort of creative yet natural environment inspired your mother’s art?

The fuel for her work has always been what’s inside of her, very rarely what’s outside. Her experiences are always inside her and she explores them. They are all touched by people and places and all those things magic, but when she’s painting what pops up in her work is her childhood or a place like Ericeira. But what she’s really doing [in her paintings] is going back to a feeling or relationship that she’s trying to understand better.


And besides the Quinta, what other places did she like to go to in Ericeira?

She loved dancing in Ouriço with my father. It was always hard for me to get in, but my parents and sisters would go there often. She’d also go eat in places like Pátio dos Marialvas, opposite to Café Xico. We lived in Xico, that was our HQ in Ericeira. We had lots of family in Ericeira, like our cousin Ana Maria and avó [granma] Bitó. Her huge house is overlooking the Ribas and my mother would go there a lot.

We’d go to the Mil Regos beach [today known as Empa] every single day. All those pictures of her half naked on the beach in the documentary were filmed in Milregos. In those days, you couldn’t drive there, you had to walk over the rocks. We’d go in the morning, picked the shells off the rocks and cooked in a pan for lunch. When she was little, she would go mostly to praia do Sul with her parents, even before the hotel was built.


A lot of these places come up on her paintings. If you look at one of her latest, “The Last King of Portugal”, you see the king roawing away from the Ribas, because that’s where he apparently got the boat to go to Gibraltar and then come to England. He sort of ran away from Ericeira and I think she did that [painting] remembering how she had to runaway herself.

Família Rego

Paula Rego with her husband, Victor Willing, and their three children – Victoria, Nick and Caroline.

Quinta Figueroa Rego was like an artists’ sanctuary.

Were there any particular traditions in Ericeira that she embraced?

I remember going to church sometimes, I thought that was quite funny. But the most important ritual was going for the first time to the movie house in the Casino. When she was a little kid, she saw “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” in that cinema. That was her introduction to movies and animation, which change her life.


In the documentary, your mother describes her work on the subject of abortion and even tells dramatic tales about fishermen’s wives in Ericeira. Did she dig deep into any of those particular stories?

She told about women coming to her door asking for money because they needed to have an abortion. In those days, women were treated very badly and they couldn’t look after all their children. 

One that she remembers quite vividly is of a woman called Feijão, whom one day knocked on our door asking for money because she needed and abortion. She lived at the top of our Quinta, had 10 children and would be beaten quite badly by her husband, who’d come home drunk. One day she needed an abortion because she couldn’t have another kid, she was barely able to look after the 10 she already had. So she came asking for help.

My mother remembers quite well the desperate situations of women in the village because the poverty was horrible in the 60s and 70s, people were really suffering in a way that was really difficult to bear. I mean the stories of Ericeira aren’t all colourful. For my mother, they are mixed with a lot of sadness and hardship too.


How did your mother feel about selling the Quinta and leaving Ericeira?

She was heartbroken, we all were. It was the most heartbreaking episode in our lives because everything went wrong, and it was our fault. We lost the Quinta, we had no money, my father got very ill and my mother had a bit of a breakdown. I think she kind of lost the plot there for a bit and we had to leave the country because there was nothing else there [for us]. They had to find work as artists, but you couldn’t really make a living as an artist in Portugal.

We ended up losing the Quinta in the 70s for very little money, we were forced to sell it to pay off a debt from the factory that my father took over when my grandfather died. The Quinta was set as collateral, but eventually was sold for today’s equivalent of €50.000. It was 28-acres’ farm with lots of [surrounding] buildings and a forest. If it had been sold 10 years later, we would of been able to really easily pay the debt. But at that moment we were completely bankrupt, we didn’t have any money and we didn’t kno.w if we were ever going to make money again. My mother never made any money until the mid-80s.

Paula Rego e o marido Vic Willing na Ericeira - ph. Manoela Morais.

Paula Rego and husband Vic Willing in Ericeira – ph. Manoela Morais.

My mother remembers quite well the desperate situations of women in the village because the poverty was horrible in the 60s and 70

Is that why she never came back to visit Ericeira? Can we expect to have her among us someday soon?

It’s like losing a lover, it’s a sort of form of bereavement for her. Ericeira and the Quinta were the most important and magical place of our lives, and one of the reasons she finds it quite hard to go back to Portugal. She loves Portugal, but she lost the very heart of it: the Quinta where her father was brought up and where she and her children were brought up. She had this powerful connection to this magical place and when it was all lost, she found it very hard to return. Even I can hardly go back. I’m someone who never cries, but it does happen when I visit Ericeira. It’s very sad.


Your documentary shows us recent footage from Quinta Figueiroa Rego, which probably means that you’ve visited the village quite recentely and saw the transformation of the Quinta’s area. What do you think about what’s been made of the Quinta?

Imagine losing one of the things you love most and then going back only to see that it’s been destroyed. It’s a real shame that they’ve built houses around. The thing about the Portuguese is that they are not very good at looking after precious things that they have. Maybe now they’re going to start being a bit more sensible. But Ericeira was always the most beautiful place until they’ve started building all those horrible, big prédios [buildings]. The old town – the Jogo da Bola – is still very beautiful, but every time I go back I just think, ‘oh they’re trying to ruin it again’.

Surfing is great by the way, I love how Ericeira became a cool surfing spot. I just hope they keep the village old and funky.


In Cascais we have Casa das Histórias de Paula Rego. Wouldn’t Quinta Figueira Rego be the ideal place to create a museum surrounded with gardens where the life and art of Paula Rego could be celebrated?

I don’t think they’d ever want to do that. Ironically, we sold it to a man called Mr. Guerra [Mr. War], who showed up with a suitcase full of contos [the word for thousands of escudos]. He then dug up the earth to sell the clay, following cutting down the forest to sell the wood. Then he started selling lots around it so people could build houses. I went there quite recently, yes, and huge holes are still visible, as well as the main house, because it was already a lifted building, otherwise they would’ve knocked that down too. It’s not a happy place with beautiful gardens, it’s a sort of ghost town.


Still, do you feel it would be important to have this documentary exhibited in Ericeira?

You gave away your cinema, which is so sad. Where would we show it? I think Ericeira’s people would enjoy it, I would love to show it to them. But I still have friends and family in Ericeira and I’m not sure how they are into art. They know Paula Rego used to live there, but I don’t know if they’re used to follow her work.

Ericeira and the Quinta were the most important and magical place of our lives, and one of the reasons she finds it quite hard to go back to Portugal.

Dame Paula Rego has been living in London for four decades. The city isn’t very close to the sea, however, the sea and ocean – presumably Ericeira’s – is very present in her work. What’s here relationship with the sea?

She always said that the sea is the worst place to paint. What she’d say is if you paint by the sea, you spend your whole time staring at it. The sea is a hypnotic thing that draws you in. It’s not an inspiration, it’s something that grabs your attention and energy. It’s like painting near real fire, you spend the whole time staring at it.

My mother now paints in the daylight, but at that time she always liked painted under electric light. It made her feel safer, there were less monsters and creatures crawling out of the sea or the fire to get her.


Even though she’s not planning to visit Ericeira, do you believe she misses Portugal?

Oh yes, she does. She couldn’t make it to the premiere of the documentary in Portugal with Marcelo Rebelo Sousa and Jorge Sampaio, but appeared through Skype and said how she loves Portugal and all her friends living there. The problem is that she can’t go back and forth because she has a weak heart, so the doctor doesn’t let her. But she misses Portugal a lot.


After such long chats with your mother while shooting the documentary, what reasons do you find for her to be so secretive when talking about her life, and yet so open about it on her paintings?

Secrets strengthen the works [of art]. If you tell the secrets, then they lose their power, hence she guarded her secrets very closely all her life. She was also embarrassed for the fact that she suffered from depression. Also because she had lovers, she didn’t want other people to know that, which is perfectly normal.

In the film, I only use the secrets that are relevant to understanding her pictures. One of the reasons there are so many books written about her work is because people have been trying to figure it out while she never gave them any help. But she finally told [them to] me because I charmed her to share the real stories behind the pictures.


**There are several theories about the meaning of Rosebud in Orson Wells 1941’s film. But the director, in a press release sent to the media at the time, explains that “in [the main character, Kane’s] subconscious [Rosebud] represented the simplicity, the comfort, above all the lack of responsibility in his home, and also it stood for his mother’s love which Kane never lost.”

Esta publicação também está disponível em | This article is also available in: Portuguese (Portugal)