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Culture & Press news – Embassy 39

Ambassador de Vallera with a vibrant watercolour by pre-eminent Anglo-Portuguese artist and friend Dame Paula Rego

A special relationship

Touring the treasure trove of art at the Portuguese Ambassador’s Residence, Pierre de Villiers uncovers a special bond between painter and diplomat.

Long before the Ambassador for Portugal, Joao de Vallera, moved into his London residence he knew it housed a very special painting. As an art lover Ambassador de Vallera was well aware that one of his predecessors had, ten years before his arrival in the capital in January 2011, acquired a stunning watercolour by celebrated Anglo-Portuguese artist Paula Rego. The wait to see the artwork turned out to be worth it.

“I knew the painting existed at the residence but I didn’t know it was such a giant watercolour,” says Ambassador de Vallera, marvelling at the work of art, which hangs in an upstairs drawing room at the Residence. “When I first saw it I was amazed by the detail. There is just so much to take in. The first impression I had was that you have to snatch the details.”

Dark fairy tales
The intricacy of the painting is indeed jaw-dropping. Inspired by the Thomas Hardy book, The Return of the Native – a love story set on Egdon Heath which explores themes of sexual politics, thwarted desire and the conflicting demands of nature and society – it combines figures in Victorian clothes with an array of sprites and woodland creatures.

The painting is reminiscent of dark fairy stories that often populate Paula Rego’s paintings, harkening back to her childhood in Portugal when her grandmother would tell her Portuguese folk tales.

In addition to beautifying a residence bursting with artistic treasures, the painting is a reminder of the friendship between Ambassador de Vallera and Paula Rego, regarded by many as one of the greatest living female artists, with her works being snapped up by collectors and museums around the world, including the likes of Charles Saatchi, the Tate and a museum devoted to her work in Cascais, near Lisbon (A Casa das Histórias – The House of Stories – by the Pritzke Prize winning Portuguese architect Souto Moura).

Powerfully political
The Ambassador first met the painter a few years ago in Washington when the National Museum of Women in the Arts was hosting a retrospective of her work, which can be intensely political too, the Ambassador points out. The oppression of women, and their strength, are recurrent themes in her figurative paintings. (Her painting of feminist Germaine Greer hangs in the National Portrait Gallery.)

“I found her to be a hugely inspirational person,” says Ambassador de Vallera. “We’ve had a very good, close contact since Washington. As it turned out it was her 75th birthday a week after I arrived in London and the Gulbenkian Foundation was doing a homage to celebrate the fact that she had been made Dame Commander by the Queen. That was one of my first functions.”

Hidden talent
Ambassador de Vallera himself is a talented painter, although more than reluctant to admit it (as is his wife, whose striking portrait of her mother also hangs on the walls of the Residence). After some prompting and cajoling he shows Embassy a vivid painting he did of his son in 1989 while deputy head of mission in Madrid.

The Ambassador’s artistic tour of the Residence also takes in works reflecting Portugal and England’s common history (the countries share the oldest alliance in the world still in force), including an antique tapestry depicting the departure from Lisbon of the Portuguese Infanta Catherine de Braganza to meet her future husband King Charles II.

Our tour comes full circle as we find ourselves again drawn to Paula Rego’s alluring watercolour. A smile plays across the Ambassador’s lips as he recalls his most recent conversation with the artist.

“I called her this morning to refresh my memory when it comes to painting and she said she would be extremely reluctant to ever make a watercolour this size again because she had her knees ruined by it,” he says with a chuckle. “We are really fortunate to have such a unique work by such an exceptional artist at the Residence.”

Artist-diplomats: A portrait of Mrs de Vallera’s mother (left) and

Painting by Ambassador de Vallera of his son in Madrid

A vast tapestry depicts the departure of the Portuguese Infanta Catherine de Braganza (inset) to meet King Charles II

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