In the whirlwind of Freshers’ Week at Edinburgh College of Art in 1961, Helen Percy, 18 years old and newly arrived from Golspie, attended a concert, ‘a wild, orgiastic, anarchic charade’, in which a pianist, draped in a fishing net, with a butcher’s bone on a rope around his waist, ‘thundered out crazy jazz’. She doesn’t confirm until a few chapters later what the reader already suspects: that this is her first encounter with her future husband, John Bellany.
It took a little over a year for John, a student in the year above, to ask her out. They moved in together immediately and got engaged two months later, hurtling into the future supremely confident of two things: that they would spend the rest of their lives together, and that Bellany would become a great artist. After a fashion, allowing fate’s rollercoaster a few twists and turns, they were right.
These opening chapters set the tone for Helen’s account of their life together. Her writing is guileless and immediate, full of emotion. There are few half-measures. After John has asked her out, she is ‘crazy with elation’, in their first weeks together they are ‘floating in orbit way off the earth’. Later on, there are times of ‘blackness that permits no light or form of escape’. In her writing, she does not reflect on events as much as relive them, so the reader relives them with her, both the joy and the despair. It makes for a compelling, if not always comfortable, journey.
The Bellanys’ first home was a top floor flat on Edinburgh’s Rose Street which John rented as a studio, a place with rudimentary electricity, no heating and a single cold water tap. But they demonstrate from the start an impressive lack of concern for home comforts. Helen writes that Bellany’s overriding characteristic was his ‘joie de vivre’, a determination to lay of hold of life and all it had to offer. In fact, both had an extraordinary ability to live for the moment, disregarding inconvenient practicalities. This, it turns out, proved very useful later on.
Helen was quickly introduced to John’s family in Port Seton and grandparents in Eyemouth, experiencing first hand the world which fuelled his imaginative life. Some artists need time to discover their subject matter; John Bellany arrived with his fully formed, a well of imagery and mythology drawn from the proud, insular, superstitious fishing communities in which he grew up, on which he would draw for the rest of his life.
Although Helen arrived in Edinburgh with her own dreams of being an artist, she quickly decided that her future lay in supporting Bellany’s mission. She says she ‘lacked the drive and ego required’ to pursue art for herself. ‘Also, in the face of such a towering presence as John’s my efforts would be totally incongruous. There just wasn’t room for more than one artist in our menage… one of the two used up all and more of the space both physically and psychologically.’
The flip-side of the Bellany joie de vivre was a naked fear of ‘death and [the] sure promise of hell’.
Bellany quite simply lived to paint. Everywhere he went, he drew. The act of drawing and painting was as essential as breathing, and this Helen never questions. Painting ‘came before everything’. [I had] ‘no issue about accepting our [herself and her children’s] secondary place in regard to his painting’. Perhaps it was ever thus for the women who live with great artists.
By the time the Bellanys arrived in London in 1965, Helen was expecting their first child. They had nowhere to live, no money (John was a postgraduate at the RCA) and no ante-natal care, but John was a devotee of Mr Micawber: something would always turns up. ‘We were so naive about everyday things,’ Helen writes, revealingly, ‘it is a miracle we survived anywhere.’
Jonathan was born, followed shortly by Paul and Anya, but by now the bright idealism of youth was starting to wane. John was staying out too late, too often, coming home drunk and full of apologies. After years of living hand-to-mouth, harking at the sound of every late-night taxi in the street outside, Helen had had enough. She asked him to move out in 1974, filing for divorce so she could claim state benefit as a single parent.
Living alone, Bellany’s drinking slipped from sociable to destructive. When the children visited him every Saturday, they were sent to the local shop with the same shopping list: sixty fags, B.O.B. (bottle of bacardi), Coca Cola, tin of cat food, any treats they’d like for themselves. He was still selling very little work, but had become a popular teacher, and the life and soul of every party on the art scene. And, remarkably, even when his drinking was out of control, it did not dent the productivity or quality of his painting.
In 1979, John married Juliet Lister, whom he met at Croydon School of Art where he was teaching. She suffered from bipolar disorder for which she was frequently hospitalised, and had a drink problem of her own, but they seemed to find fragile happiness together for a time. Helen writes little about this period in his life, as they were estranged, but comments later that the turbulence brought ‘a wildness to his vision and a freedom to the touch of his brush’.
Although she was his muse, and intimately involved in his work for much of his life, Helen writes comparatively little about John’s painting. Perhaps it was such an integral part of life – the living stream from which everything else flowed – that analysis seems inappropriate. But she does comment that the rich personal mythology on which he drew had its dark side too, populating his nightmares with hell and damnation. The flip-side of the Bellany joie de vivre was a naked fear of ‘death and [the] sure promise of hell’, which surfaced at difficult times.
Making her way alone, Helen started studying for a degree in psychology while working full-time as an art therapist, but the children gave her increasing cause for anxiety. Jonathan and Paul, entering their teens, became involved in the skinhead scene with its attendant right-wing politics, and Anya (whose dyslexia was not diagnosed until she was 18) struggled and rebelled at school. John’s help, perhaps predictably, was nowhere to be found.
Then, in 1984, at the age of 42, he was hospitalised with acute liver failure. Doctors gave him an ultimatum: stop drinking or die. He never touched alcohol again, but the damage to his liver was irreparable, his life-expectancy much reduced.
And now we reach perhaps the most remarkable twist in the story. With John ill and Juliet estranged and in hospital, Helen moved back in. With the spectre of alcohol banished, she and John began to rediscover their former happiness. For the first time since they separated, her writing takes on a tone of contentment: ‘The living breathing tide of creativity I had been starved of, that had so inspired me, now flooded back into my veins’. In January 1986, John and Helen remarried.
Finally, in his mid forties, John’s career was taking off with major exhibitions and sales. He and Helen were drawn into a new social circle of people keen to collect his work. Sean Connery and his wife became friends, as did David Bowie (a Bellany fan, who spent time quietly exploring Port Seton on his own, unbeknownst to the media). There is such joy in all this that one could almost forget John’s health balanced on a knife-edge. Helen writes: ‘Life was a rush of pleasure and private pain… a relentless pattern of swinging from one extreme to the other, from crazy happiness to frantic despair’. The rollercoaster kept rolling.
By late 1987, they had reached the end of the line. John’s only hope was a liver transplant. Despite his physical frailty, he met the requirements and a match was found, but the surgery was still pioneering: one in three patients did not survive. John, however, surfaced in intensive care making motions for pencil and paper. Art is life, after all; he needed to know he was still alive, so he needed to draw. Soon his hospital room was lined with watercolour portraits of the medical staff.
So began his second life. His career was in full-flight; there were exhibitions across the world, and the Bellanys attend most of them. They travelled to Mexico and to China as the guests of collectors, and everywhere John went, he drew. At last, there were no money worries. They bought a house in Italy, near Barga, and embraced life there easily and joyfully. Their children married and had children of their own; the family grew, the days were golden.
John’s health problems continued, but they were not to be dwelt on. The Bellanys were again exercising their astonishing ability to embrace life and not let the difficulties distract them. As Helen writes, poignantly: ‘The show had to go on and it would last as long as he could make it, and I was in total agreement with that’.
So, the man who thought he might not reach 45 celebrated his 50th birthday and his 60th in life-loving ebullience. But his last self-portrait, done around the time of his 70th birthday in 2012, shows him gaunt and frail. By then, his health problems had multiplied, and the heavy medication he had been taking since the transplant had begun to exact its price, not only in physical discomforts but in mood swings, night terrors, paranoia. Perhaps most despairingly, macular degeneration was affecting his sight. On bad days, he could no longer see to paint.
The last chapters of The Restless Wave make painful reading. Helen is as unflinching as she is uncomplaining. A few days after the opening of his retrospective, A Passion for Life, organised by the National Galleries of Scotland in 2012 at the RSA building in Edinburgh, John was once again in hospital, a pattern which continued until his death in August 2013.
Further books will be written about John Bellany. Other writers must evaluate and analyse his work, reflect on him in the context of his antecedents and his peers, contemplate his unique personal symbolism, weigh up his achievements. But I’ll wager that none of them will immerse the reader so immediately and completely in the Bellanys’ world as the book written by the woman who knew him best, who rode the lifelong rollercoaster at his side.