Paula Rego: On her struggle to paint a portrait of Germaine Greer for the National Portrait Gallery



Germaine Greer by Paula Rego, pastel on paper laid on aluminium, 1995. 47 1/4 in. x 43 3/4 in. (1200 mm x 1111 mm). Commissioned, 1995. Primary Collection NPG 6351. © National Portrait Gallery, London. Image not licensed for reuse.

This extract from Paula Rego’s (born 1935) Artists’ Lives recording helps us to understand the way Rego approaches her portraits. In this instance, the National Portrait Gallery commissioned Rego to paint writer and feminist Germaine Greer. We hear how the two collaborated to get the pose, clothes and props right. Then comes Rego’s battle – poignantly conveyed through the intensity of her voice – to capture the image. We also hear of Greer’s supportive attitude when things were not going well.

Paula Rego was recorded by National Life Stories for Artists’ Lives in sessions between 2002-2004. The interviewer was Cathy Courtney.



We had sixty hours together.  She would come, bring me something from her house, some, some fruit or something, and flowers.  And then we’d have, she’d bring her Wagner.  She’d...  Immediately we started working.  There was no kind of, hanging around ‘cos there was no time to lose.  And, she’d sit over there.  We tried several things first of all.  We tried several things my dear.  I didn’t know how...  She said, ‘I’d like to be in this dress,’ this red dress, because it was Jean Muir, and, Jean Muir made this, and she had just died.  So I said, ‘Oh good, we’ll have that.’  And then she had a little book that she had, a very special precious book she liked.  And I tried the first picture with that book.  So I did a, a sort of, picture with her, different from the portrait.  And, I couldn’t get it right, I couldn’t get it to look like her.  And, I couldn’t draw her.  Usually I get the person in the drawing, but I couldn’t get her.  I guess I was very nervous.  I remember praying, I remember praying actually, that, please, I want to get this right.  And I remember walking out of here and leaving the door open I was so worried.  And then, we got the position, all this business, and then I just couldn’t get it… and suddenly, towards the end of our, our sittings, as, as I got...  I got the skirt...  Somehow, I don’t know what it was, I got...  I began... suddenly I caught it, I caught it, the side of the face.  And I was able to...  It’s a bit like crocheting, when you hook onto the, the loops, and you, you go all round the face.  And I was able to, to knit her into place.  It was extraordinary.  It caught.  And it caught, and it went, and it went, and I kept sort of, holding my breath, saying, ‘My God, it’s going to slip off, it’s going to slip off.’  And it didn’t slip off.  And it finished.  And it was her.  And, I, I was so relieved that I managed to look like her.  She said, ‘It doesn’t matter.’  She was so nice.  She said, ‘It doesn’t matter, if it doesn’t look like me; as long as it feels like me.’  Anyway, I got it in the end.  Thank God, yeah, that I managed that.  Because it would have been a fiasco.  It’s a risky business.  And, I won’t do another one for the National Portrait Gallery.  Never.

Paula Rego: On her struggle to paint a portrait of Germaine Greer for the National Portrait Gallery
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© British Library
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