Memories of making prints with Paula Rego: ‘We had an etching press behind our kitchen and I suggested that Paula might like to have a go’

With the news that Dame Paula Rego has died aged 87, we revisit a story first published in March 2022: artist Paul Coldwell looks back on his collaboration with Rego in the 1980s and 1990s, when he printed some of her best-known works 

Artist Paula Rego in her studio, London, 2005

Paula Rego at her London studio in 2005, surrounded by lithographs from her ‘Jane Eyre’ series. Photo: Paul Massey, Camera Press London. Artwork: © Paula Rego

Control, repression and animal passion are among the dark themes of the Portuguese-born painter Paula Rego. Her psychologically charged artworks often depict women in moments of emotional or physical struggle, revealing complex stories about the sinister side of family and sexual relationships.

Born in Lisbon in 1935, Rego came to London in the early 1950s and soon began studying at the Slade School of Art. There she met Victor Willing, a fellow student who later became her husband. Willing’s diagnosis of multiple sclerosis in the late 1960s and his death in 1988 had a profound effect on her artistic practice.

‘It opened a whole corridor into the darkness and I followed it,’ she said in 2001.

‘Paula considers printmaking as important as painting. Each print is a painting in miniature, and anyone who owns one has something very special’ — Paul Coldwell

In 1987 Rego was invited to create a charity print for the Royal College of Art. She asked her friend, the artist and printmaker Paul Coldwell, to help her. The resulting image was the disquieting Young Predators, a shadowy aquatint depicting two oversized girls, one of them riding a large dog. Rego described it as ‘the Goddess Diana out on the pull’.

The process was a revelation. Through print, Rego could explore the dynamic potential of storytelling and convey her fabulist world.

The success of Young Predators  was the start of an intense working relationship between Coldwell and Rego, which lasted for a decade. Their next collaboration was on 31 prints for Marlborough Graphics, in which she brought the full spectrum of her imagination to English nursery rhymes.

Rego took inspiration from Francisco de Goya’s Caprichos (80 etchings he made after his recovery from a severe illness), conjuring up a cast of wicked-eyed rams, monstrous dolls and feral children taunting the innocent with merciless glee.

‘We didn't have the right equipment to begin with, so aquatint had to be shaken through tights, which is why early prints are slightly mottled’ — Paul Coldwell

Other pictures from fairytales followed, together with illustrations for the novels Peter Pan  and Jane Eyre.

‘Unlike other artists, who use prints as preliminary sketches, Paula considers printmaking to be just as important as painting,’ says Coldwell. ‘Each print is a painting in miniature, and anyone who owns one has something very special.’

Six lots by Rego are offered in Christie’s online Prints and Multiples sale, from 10 to 24 March. Below, Coldwell, Professor of Fine Art at the University of the Arts London, recalls his time as Rego’s printmaker and guides us through her most spellbinding pictures.

Getting started

‘I first met Paula through my wife, the artist Charlotte Hodes, who had been Paula’s student at the Slade. We had recently set up an etching press behind our kitchen in Hackney, and I suggested that Paula might like to have a go at printing.

‘We didn’t have the right equipment to begin with, so aquatint had to be shaken through tights, which is why early prints are slightly mottled. I was learning on the job, but that seemed to suit Paula fine.

‘She would turn up early on a Saturday morning with cakes and croissants and the copper plates she had drawn on the night before, and we worked intensively until about 7pm. It all felt quite raw and spontaneous. It wasn’t like an established printers — family life was going on around us.’

Paula Rego (1935-2022), Jack and Jill, from: Nursery Rhymes. Plate 323 x 215 mm. Sheet 525 x 380 mm. Sold for £2,142 on 24 March 2022 at Christie’s Online

Paula Rego (1935-2022), How Many Miles to Babylon, from: Nursery Rhymes. Plate 322 x 211 mm. Sheet 520 x 383 mm. Sold for £4,410 on 24 March 2022 at Christie’s Online

How Many Miles to Babylon and Jack and Jill

How Many Miles to Babylon was such a difficult print to get right. It is from the Nursery Rhymes series, and I think it is one of her most lyrical images. The contrasts are very stark. All those intense white patches surrounded by black really tested me. It was a difficult time for Paula, too: Victor had just died, and she was grieving his loss.

‘Each project we did together required 100 per cent concentration on my part. After a while, you start to live your life vicariously through Paula’s images, which can be quite disturbing.

‘Jack and Jill harks back to Rego’s fascination with Victorian fairy stories. You can see similarities between Jill’s tumble down the cliff and Lewis Carroll’s Alice falling down the rabbit hole. There’s great animation in the image.’

Paula Rego (1935-2022), Mist I, from: Pendle Witches. Plate 358 x 595 mm. Sheet 675 x 525 mm. Sold for £3,024 on 24 March 2022 at Christie’s Online

Mist I

Pendle Witches is a series of poems by Blake Morrison, illustrated by Paula. These prints are much more complex, and Paula was doing a lot more work in the studio before bringing the plate to me. Mist I has Paula’s favourite starry skies.

‘You can see that the aquatint is quite coarse, which brings out the stars and the dots. Those starry skies appear in later prints, especially in her illustrations for Yves Bonnefoy’s poems.

‘I remember discussing the work endlessly with Paula. She would pin the print up so she could get a long-distance view of it. Most artists tend to look at prints very closely, as if you are looking at them in a book, but Paula cared about whether you could see them from across the room, as if you were in a gallery. They were always independent works in their own right.’

Open link

Paula Rego (1935-2022), Execution, from: The Children’s Crusade. Plate 295 x 200 mm. Sheet 508 x 360 mm. Sold for £2,772 on 24 March 2022 at Christie’s Online

Paula Rego (b. 1935), Lost Girl, from: The Children’s Crusade. Plate 295 x 198 mm. Sheet 510 x 360 mm. Sold for £2,268 on 24 March 2022 at Christie’s Online

Execution and Lost Girl

‘Paula is fascinated by the Children’s Crusade, and you can see why. This story of a medieval child who leads a group of kids off to fight the infidels is quite extraordinary. Nearly all the children were killed or kidnapped and ended up in prostitution. Paula doesn’t sentimentalise the event. You can see the children are totally in control.

‘I think the Children’s Crusade series [which includes both Lost Girl and Execution] is very beautiful; the prints are all hand-coloured like old Victorian children’s illustrations. Lost Girl is quite rare in terms of her overall work, because it is predominantly dry point [drawing directly on a coated metal plate with a needle].

‘The series is important because it marks a change in her practice, from drawing from her imagination to using life models. By this time her studio had become a theatre, with props and costumes — a place where ideas were explored and where she got people to pose, and gradually the story was drawn out that way.’

Paula Rego (1935-2022), Untitled (Abortion Series), 1999. Image: 196 x 297 mm, sheet: 380 x 480 mm (each). Sold for £10,000 on 19 March 2015 at Christie’s Online

Untitled, from the Abortion series

‘Prints can function as a way of changing consciousness, and here Paula is putting print to the service of social change.

‘This series [a set of eight] is very different from Paula’s other prints, because she had already made paintings devoted to the theme of abortion. The prints were there to disseminate her ideas to a wider audience. The works were triggered by a referendum to allow abortion in Portugal.

‘Paula has always been interested in how prints get to places that paintings don’t. She is very inspired by artists like William Hogarth, James Gillray and Honoré Daumier — artists who operate between fine art and social illustration.

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‘The prints are quite stripped down in terms of texture. They are surprisingly light in tone which gives them a more disturbing quality. These are tragedies being conducted while the lights are on.

‘It is a very troubling set and Paula has spoken subsequently about having had an abortion herself. What is interesting for me is that the women come through. They are not asking for your pity; you come away with a sense of their bravery and stoicism.’

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