John Bellany: twice upon a time…
On reading Helen Bellany’s tender biography of her husband, Fiona Green sees the artist in a new light
05 July, 2018 — By Fiona Green
I FIRST met the beautiful Helen Bellany in 1972, through fellow artist William Crozier, when we went to Edinburgh to help John’s friend Sandy Moffatt curate a show for the Fringe Festival of Robert MacBryde, another friend from my Soho time.
We spent the weekend together – mostly in Milne’s Bar – with other friends: poets MacDiarmid and Bold, Sandy and Helen and John Bellany. I failed to see then what I should have seen, the difficulties that Helen was having that would lead to their divorce. Difficulties that were exacerbated by heavy drinking.
Helen’s poetic testament of love is also a searingly honest record of her 30 years – with a decade’s break in the middle and three children – married to John.
I have only had the privilege to meet three artists with such an intense commitment to their art: Lucian Freud, the poet Patrick Kavanagh and John Bellany, where art came before anything else.
John was a real force of nature: a big man with a generous smile and a huge, deeply infectious laugh. Nervous and edgy at times, he was from a Port Seton family, like some of my own ancestors, who were from the waters of Leith, Edinburgh.
John and Crozier helped restore to me my lost Scots heritage. John with his stories of the Highland Clearances or seaside life and marvellous song : sea ballads and shanties like Will Ye Go, Lassie Go? or Burns’ laments such as Ae Fond Kiss, which still brings tears to my eyes.
Far too much alcohol was consumed which proved fatal; there were many casualties, one of the first was Alan Bold.
Fiona Green, painted by John Bellany
In 1973 John’s marriage was failing and we saw more of him in London, sadly without any knowledge of this. My husband, Martin Green had published a hero of John’s – Hugh MacDiarmid’s collection of poems, A Clyack Sheaf, and so they had a great deal of shared interest to talk about.
John also painted me. John adored Helen but dealt with their problems by refusing to talk about them and was drinking even more. Helen eventually divorced John and spent 10 pain-filled years apart from him. During this time, John remarried. This was not destined to last, with the fragile Juliet, ending her own life following many years of depression.
Helen, helped by her daughter, returned to John. Seeing him with new eyes and dying in front of her, she ensured him a safe return to the care of medical specialists, thereby extending his life a further fruitful 20 years or more.
John had prodigious strength: as a reaction to his liver transplant in 1988, he awoke from the operation demanding paints and proceeded to paint some of his finest watercolours – of his surgeon, his wife, and himself in the hospital crib.
Following this miraculous recovery, John’s career went from strength to strength. He became a Royal Academician, was awarded a CBE by the Queen, was commissioned to paint celebrities such as Ian Botham, David Bowie and Sean Connery. When I introduced John to Llewelyn, the eldest son of another hero, Dylan Thomas, at his Mexican show in London in 1997 they talked about Italy, where both of them had second homes.
Helen and John, two extremely intelligent and restless people, had miraculously met each other at the right time. Reading about her two lives with John, has made me see how similar our lives had been in the wild 60s and 70s London. Both of us managing to hold down jobs, raise our children, cope with a popular, handsome alcoholic husband, at the cost to our own unfulfilled lives as artists.
Helen has certainly found hers now, as a writer of considerable stature, with this powerful, extended letter of love to John, within a marvellously tender biography.
• The Restless Wave: My Two Lives With John Bellany. By Helen Bellany, Sandstone Press, £19.99