Book review: The Restless Wave: My Two Lives with John Bellany, By Helen Bellany

John and Helen Bellany in 2012. PIC: Robert Perry
John and Helen Bellany in 2012. PIC: Robert Perry
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“Eternal Father, strong to save / Whose arm hath bound the restless wave…” The sailor’s hymn provides Helen Bellany with the title for her autobiography. John was not a sailor, but, brought up in the fishing community of Port Seton, the sea was nevertheless a constant in his imagination and in his art, hence her title for this account of their life together.

A similar thought led me once to title an essay I wrote for John “A Scottish Odyssey”. He rather liked it. It flattered him, after all, by comparing his tempestuous life to the adventures of the Greek hero. But Odysseus was sailing home to his faithful Penelope and although she bears the name of Helen, the casus belli in the story of the Trojan war, if John was Odysseus, his wife was undoubtedly Penelope.

Their long relationship began at Edinburgh College of Art. It was a coup de foudre. Within weeks of meeting they were living together and John had proposed marriage. He did so behind a locked bathroom door with a queue of angry students waiting to get in. Introducing John, an artist with long hair and beard, to the douce people of Golspie, her home in Sutherland, was difficult, but they weathered it. In a whirl of excitement, they moved to London so John could go to the Royal College and they had their first child at the same time. John soon established his career, though money was never easy. The drinking that was the social medium of Edinburgh life continued in London, but got gradually worse and soon John was habitually absent till late at night or altogether. When he started teaching at Winchester College of Art, for instance, Helen remarks laconically: “The Winchester days, although good for John’s career, were disastrous for our marriage.”

Eventually, now with three children, they split up and then divorced. Helen describes very frankly the desolate years on her own bringing up the children while making a living teaching in prisons and later undertaking a degree. The stress on the children showed in their behaviour. It was a very difficult time indeed.

Meanwhile John at first lived on his own, then married Juliet Gray. This marriage too ended in divorce and Gray later took her own life. Helen meanwhile had recognised that John, ruined by alcohol, was now dangerously ill. Moved to care for him, she now took charge and was the agent of his survival, securing the medical advice that offered him a bald choice between life and a death that would be swift and inevitable if he didn’t stop drinking. They had been 11 years apart, often with little contact, but they now remarried.

In 1988, John was given a liver transplant. It was a miraculous gift. With a new lease of life, his career blossomed again. Irrepressible, both as man and artist, his spirit remained undimmed.

In 2005, he suffered a heart attack on the way to a major exhibition of his work in Glasgow. Helen waiting anxiously in the hospital with no news, was eventually told by a nurse in response to her anxious enquiries, “Oh, he’s sitting up in bed telling everybody he’s a famous artist.” That sums him up: a gigantic artistic ego tempered by infectious charm.

The book is as much about him as it is about Helen, but she writes with great candour and without self-pity. Just by telling the story, she makes clear how much we owe to her for the gift of John’s art.

*The Restless Wave: My Two Lives with John Bellany, by Helen Bellany, Sandstone Press, £19.99