Pauline Bewick, painter and free spirit feted for her sensuous portrayals of people and nature – obituary

Largely self-taught, with her carefree, bohemian life she was a particular inspiration for women artists

Pauline Bewick in 2011 Credit: Ros Drinkwater/Alamy

Pauline Bewick, who has died aged 86, was an English-born artist who made Ireland her home for most of her life and took inspiration from the wild landscape of Co Kerry; her bohemian lifestyle and largely self-taught artistic techniques inspired many women artists of her generation longing to be released from the hidebound structure of the academic art schools.

Her depiction of women, men and the natural world was infused with a sensuality and sexuality usually associated with the Bloomsbury set. However, Pauline Bewick’s upbringing was far removed from that gilded world. Her parents – an eccentric mother nicknamed “Harry” and an alcoholic father – were the reason for her move to Ireland in early childhood.

Pauline Bewick was born in Newcastle upon Tyne on September 4 1935 to Alice (always known as “Harry”) and Corbert Bewick. The 19th-century artist and engraver Thomas Bewick was said to be an ancestor.

A chance meeting between Harry and a Kerry woman running a hotel in Letchworth in Hertfordshire led Harry, frustrated by her husband’s alcoholism, to move to a farm in Co Kerry with Pauline, nearly three at the time, and her older sister Hazel, having first agreed to foster the woman’s orphaned niece and nephew who lived there.

'Asleep with Koi Carp' Credit: Michael Herrmann

The arrangement was fortuitous for the children, who adored Harry’s unconventionality. However, her strange farming methods astounded local farmers, who had little empathy with her love of farm animals, particularly her habit of giving individual names to her cows and nesting 30 hens in an oak tree.

A peripatetic existence followed the family’s move from the farm, and during the 1930s Harry and her children lived, variously, on a houseboat with several cats, in a garden shed, a workman’s hut, a gipsy caravan, a tumble-down hotel gate lodge, a glasshouse (where Harry would steam up the windows by boiling water whenever she wanted to undress), and, at one time, a castle. It was an idyllic childhood for the future artist.

Harry Bewick imbued her daughter with a sense of the value of living in the present. When they had left Newcastle she had thrown away her wedding ring and decamped with only some clothing and a suitcase containing all of Pauline’s childhood drawings.

She also seems to have imparted to her daughter her own gift for self-mythologising. In her autobiography 80, A Memoir (2015) Pauline recalled her mother telling her that her real father was not Corbert Bewick but a 19-year-old man encountered in a wheat field: “She brought him in and Hazel was put to bed in a cot and my mother made love to the man on the floor. So I wasn’t a Bewick at all, according to my mother. Maybe. We’re still looking into it. We’re researching the genealogy and all we can see so far is that my mother is distantly related to Meryl Streep.”

Pauline Bewick at work

Pauline’s education was sketchy. She spent a brief time at AS Neill’s progressive “free” school, Summerhill, in Suffolk, while in Kerry she attended Douris National School, to which she walked barefoot, carrying the obligatory sod of turf each child contributed to feed the open fire which heated the one-room schoolhouse.

Pauline had undiagnosed dyslexia, a condition of which there was little knowledge in the 1940s. She was fortunate to find a sympathetic teacher who asked her to draw the objects she was trying to spell instead of administering the more usual six whacks of the cane.

She spent a brief period at the National College of Art and Design in Dublin in 1950 but was largely self-taught. Her first exhibition was held in the city in 1957, but soon after, she moved to London to execute a commission for the BBC. She was asked to devise and illustrate a series of 10-minute programmes called Little Jimmy. It was the beginning of a successful career as a book illustrator.

'Amaryllis and Moon Pointing'

Moving from place to place proved helpful to Pauline Bewick’s development as an artist. It also fulfilled her mother’s determination never to be tied to one place for too long. Though Pauline willingly undertook to relocate with her mother to such disparate areas as Northern Ireland, Dublin, Suffolk and London, for her Co Kerry was always home.

She built her home and studio on Caragh Lake, where Ireland’s highest mountain, Carrauntoohil, looks out towards the Atlantic, facing the studio to the south to attract maximum sunshine. Her paintings were filled with vibrant colours; her favourite medium was watercolour.

Pauline’s beauty and free-spirited personality attracted public interest. Indifferent to gossip about herself, however, she wrote openly about her various love affairs, especially with the traditional musician and folk singer Luke Kelly, co-founder of the Dubliners – a “wild, Centaur-like, almost mythological person”, as she described him. Charles Haughey, who served as Ireland’s Taoiseach, was said to be besotted with her.

Pauline Bewick's stained glass window 'Cafe Society' at Bewley's Cafe in Dublin Credit: Jackie Ellis/Alamy

But the great love of her life was Patrick Inglis Melia, the man she married in 1963. They had met in the 1950s when he was a medical student at Trinity College Dublin. He was unconventional and self-contained enough to understand that he was not marrying a woman who conformed to the conventional ideals of middle-class married life.

Indeed, during their marriage she spent two years, from 1989 to 1991, travelling with her daughters in Samoa and the Polynesian islands.

When Melia became a psychiatrist, Pauline Berwick would tell close friends: “It’s so useful having one’s own shrink in the family.”

Examples of Pauline Bewick’s work are to be found in significant public and private collections in Ireland, England, Europe, and the US, and in 2005 she donated more than 200 artworks to the Irish state. She was a member of the Royal Hibernian Academy.

Her husband predeceased her and she is survived by her daughters.

Pauline Bewick, born September 4 1935, died July 28 2022