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Paula Rego: Crivelli’s Garden

By Theresa Thompson, Timeless Travels Art's Correspondent

Paula Rego, Crivelli’s Garden , 1990-1, Acrylic on canvas, H 190 x W 944.6 x D 2 cm

The National Gallery, London. Presented by English Estates, 1991, © Ostrich Arts Ltd. Photo: The National Gallery, London

Had I never really taken in the large mural that for thirty years decorated the back wall of the Sainsbury Wing Dining Room at London’s National Gallery? I’d noticed it, you couldn’t but, but with tables and chairs in the way and friends to talk to, a glance or two was pretty well all it had.

But now that the Sainsbury Wing is closed for renovation, Paula Rego’s monumental 10-metre-long mural, Crivelli’s Garden hangs in a room of its own opposite the Italian Renaissance altarpiece that inspired it - and it’s difficult to imagine that I’d not looked at it properly before.

From 1990 to 1992 the Portuguese artist Rego, who died in June 2022 at the age of 87, was the National Gallery’s first Associate Artist. Her studio was on the ground floor, and a busy gossipy lively place apparently. Life studies made of the Gallery colleagues who appear in the final painting are included in the show.

The concept behind the meandering garden seen in the mural was the predella panel (the bottom tier) of an altarpiece by the early Italian Renaissance painter Carlo Crivelli (1430/5-1494).

Above: Carlo Crivelli, La Madonna della Rondine (The Madonna of the Swallow), after 1490, © The National Gallery, London.

Crivelli’s La Madonna della Rondine (The Madonna of the Swallow) altarpiece, painted around 1491, was made for a family chapel in the Franciscan church in Matelica, a small town in the Italian Marches. Venetian born and trained in Padua, Crivelli spent most of his life in the Marches of eastern central Italy where he became a very successful maker of altarpieces. La Madonna della Rondine is typical of Crivelli’s ornate and courtly, multi layered style. Stories within stories.

Above: Carlo Crivelli, Predella of La Madonna della Rondine (The Madonna of the Swallow), after 1490, Egg and oil on poplar, 150.5 × 107.3 cm, © The National Gallery, London.

Rego was fascinated by those discrete little stories of different saints and the Nativityset within the frame of the predella panels. She imagined that if she stepped into the painting through one carefully constructed semi-rural scene, she could go round a corner and enter another; she also imagined a world in which Crivelli’s saints would co-exist. The concept behind Crivelli’s Garden was born.

Rego’s vision of the garden is a Portuguese one. Childhood memories soaked in sea light, summers spent in Ericeira, a seaside town north of Lisbon, and the cobalt blue- and white-tiled walls that surrounded her have seeped into her imaginary garden.

From the diminutive girl sitting bottom right, an open book in her hands, blank pages ready to be filled - Rego described her as ‘the reader’, ‘the anchor figure’ for the painting, a gesture towards her interest in literature and fairy tales – to the stories within stories suggested by the other figures, Rego’s mural is a tribute to women, strong women and a tribute to storytelling.

Paula Rego, Crivelli's Garden IV, 1990‑1, Acrylic on canvas, 190 × 260.7 × 2 cm

The National Gallery, London. Presented by English Estates, 1991, © Ostrich Arts Ltd. Photo: The National Gallery, London

To quote Rego from the exhibition book, “My paintings are stories, but they are not narratives in that they have no past or future. Everything happens in the present, incidents, daydreams, passions and consequences.”

There’s no prevailing narrative in Crivelli’s Garden. We are left to question what we see, to infer our own narratives. Myriad female saints and Old and New Testament figures, wrapped in their histories, along with mythological, appear as individuals, on their own within the whole.

Paula Rego, Crivelli's Garden III, 1990‑1 , Acrylic on canvas, 189.9 × 240.9 × 2 cm, The National Gallery, London. Presented by English Estates, 1991 © Ostrich Arts Ltd. Photo: The National Gallery, London

Unless well versed in legends, saints and biblical heroines, ideally you need a key to work it all out – the exhibition book helped me later, but not while in the gallery – but it is fascinating, eyes scanning across the artwork, tracing the scenes while the brain catches up - and crucially, imagining what these strong women are up to. Among the larger figures, some are painted monochromatically in brown, and some are positively statuesque. For example, there’s a larger-than-life St Martha in the middle section determinedly sweeping the floor behind a pensive seated Mary Magdalen; to the right of the picture, you see Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist, whispering behind her hand, perhaps sharing a secret with her young niece Mary; while to the left, there’s Delilah creeping on all fours over a sleeping Samson, as if stalking her prey.

And among the smaller figures, St Mary of Egypt modestly hides her nakedness beneath the cape of her grown-long hair, while in Saint Margaret of Antioch who appears around a corner holding a large frog on a leash, Rego’s humour shows through. Rego demotes the Devil/dragon that swallowed Margaret and from whose stomach she escaped, into a vignette symbolic of the saint overcoming misfortunes.

Paula Rego, Crivelli's Garden II, 1990‑1, Acrylic on canvas, 189.9 × 401 × 2 cm, The National Gallery, London. Presented by English Estates, 1991, © Ostrich Arts Ltd. Photo: The National Gallery, London

There’s so much to take in in this radical artwork. I found it captivating – and happy to make amends for not paying it enough attention before! Compliments to the National Gallery for displaying it again, alongside the Crivelli altarpiece.

However, I think the accompanying book is needed if you wish to get as much out of this small show as possible. As well as the essay by curator Priyesh Mistry, it also features an original fictional work by acclaimed novelist Chloe Aridjis, written in response to Rego’s painting.

Priyesh Mistry, Associate Curator, Modern and Contemporary Projects, says ‘Dame Paula Rego’s radical painting has consistently given women a voice over repression in a male-dominated society and art world. Her work remains as vital today as it was over 30 years ago when she first painted Crivelli’s Garden and continues to serve as an inspiration to new generations of artists and writers. This exhibition will be our opportunity at the National Gallery to celebrate her legacy and influence.’


Crivelli’s Garden

Room 46, National Gallery, London

Admission free.

Showing until 29 October 2023

More information at

Paula Rego (1935–2022)

Paula Rego was born in Lisbon in 1935, under the dictatorial regime of Portuguese prime minister, Salazar. Her parents were keen anglophiles and Rego was encouraged to move to the UK in 1952 to further her studies before later enrolling at the Slade School of Art. She continued to live between London and Lisbon for the rest of her life. Rego died in June 2022 at the age of 87.

Rego was part of the London Group and is mostly known for her paintings and prints based on narratives from folk tales and children’s stories. Her figuration often focusses on enigmatic female figures that are both caricature in style but also fantastical in their themes. Rego’s figures and compositions were frequently inspired by her personal fears, desires, and a passion to fight injustice, particularly against women.


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