Paula Rego

Study for ‘Lessons’ II


In Tate Britain

Prints and Drawings Room

View by appointment
Paula Rego 1935 – 2022
Graphite on paper
Support: 420 × 297 mm
Presented by the artist 2002


This work is one of a series of preparatory drawings for Rego’s large scale pastel triptych The Betrothal: Lessons: The Shipwreck, after ‘Marriage a la Mode’ by Hogarth, 1999 (Tate T07919). Rego made the triptych for the exhibition Encounters: New Art from Old at the National Gallery, London in 2000. The exhibition curators invited contemporary artists to make new work in response to works in the National Gallery collection. Rego chose as her starting point the satirical narrative painting cycle Marriage A-la-Mode, c.1743 (National Gallery NG113-8) by William Hogarth (1697-1764). Hogarth’s series of six paintings, later reproduced as etchings, tell the story of an arranged marriage between the son of an impoverished aristocrat, the Earl of Squander, and the daughter of a social-climbing alderman. Paired off to satisfy the interests of their parents, the young couple is ill-matched from the start. Both lead dissolute, unhappy lives and die young: the syphilitic husband is murdered by his wife’s lover; she in turn poisons herself. Rego appropriated Hogarth’s subject, an arranged marriage, but transposed the setting to mid-twentieth-century Portugal.

This drawing is a study for Lessons, the centre panel of the triptych. It is loosely based on the fourth painting in Hogarth’s series, The Toilette. Hogarth’s painting shows the young wife, now a Countess, entertaining guests in her dressing room while a servant crimps her hair. Rego transposes this scene to a beauty parlour where the girl’s mother is having her hair done. She sits on a swivel chair, with a large helmet-like hairdryer on a stand behind her. She leans forward towards a full length mirror, her chin up, apparently contemplating her own image. Her daughter sits on a raised platform at her feet, her face and upper body reflected in the mirror. Turning to face the mirror, the girl admires her mother’s reflection. The artist has described the scene as an apprenticeship in femininity. She said, ‘the mother is teaching the daughter, who is looking at her in the mirror. The little girl is in shadow, and you see her best in the mirror, looking up to, and at, her mother, as a saint might look up at her idea of Jesus. She has that sort of look in her eye. The mother is giving her lessons about looking after her appearance – the tricks of the trade, so to speak’ (quoted in Judith Bumpus, ‘Paula Rego’, Encounters, p.270). The girl’s devoted gaze is the focus of the image, and her rapt face in the mirror draws the eye to the left side of the picture. In the reflected image the girl has a bow in her hair which is not present in the real world. This is perhaps an imaginative demonstration of the girl’s willingness to learn her mother’s lessons by projecting her own femininity.

The composition of the final pastel is faithful to this drawing with only small alterations. Resting on the ledge where the girl sits is a hand-held hair dryer which is transformed in the pastel into a soap dish in the shape of seated monkey. In the final image the mother’s pose changes slightly and Rego introduces a large rucksack draped over the woman’s chair.

Further reading:
Fiona Bradley and Edward King, Paula Rego: Celestina’s House, exhibition catalogue, Abbot Hall Art Gallery, Kendal, 2001, reproduced no.25 in colour.
Fiona Bradley, Paula Rego, London, 2002.
Richard Morphet, Robert Rosenblum, Judith Bumpus, et al., Encounters: New Art from Old, exhibition catalogue, National Gallery, London, 2000.

Rachel Taylor
November 2003

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