My best teacher

When I was four, my parents decided I should learn English and arranged for a young girl to take walks with me. Her name was Mary Laure Pla. She was 16, and I didn't realise it at the time, but she was my first teacher. She was nice. She told me about Peter Pan and about her life and her parents, and how she used to have farting competitions with her father - which shocked me. I was an only child brought up to have good manners, and very shy.

When I was eight, I was sent to the local school. In Portugal at that time, you only needed to go to school for two years. I was taught to dance and sing and had a wonderful time - but my parents discovered I didn't know how to read or write or do sums. So they hired a local state school teacher to teach me at home. I had lessons in the playroom three afternoons a week, plus lots of homework.

Dona Violeta was terrifying. She was very dark with a heavy jowl, a moustache and an ample bosom. She taught me all the things I was supposed to know: the kings of Portugal, the rivers of Portugal, how to read and write and do sums. I learned my tables by heart so well that I can recite them even now. She was strict and intimidating, and I was frightened of her. If I wasn't paying attention or got something wrong, she'd slap me. One day, I remember I had a dreadful headache and felt too ill to have my lesson. She got a piece of brown paper, soaked it in vinegar, and tied it to my head with a towel, and I spent the whole lesson with vinegar dripping into my eyes. I hated her.

From the age of eight, I'd decided I wanted to be an artist, but Dona Violeta laughed and told me my work was no good. She made me draw cups and saucers and said I didn't even shade them in properly. Thanks to her, I passed the entrance exam to go to St Julian's, an English school near Estoril, with flying colours - I never drew cups again for a long time.

At St Julian's, my art teacher was Margaret Turnbull, who liked my work and encouraged me. I loved her. She did wonderful drawings in Indian ink, and took art seriously. She encouraged me to tell stories through my work, and showed me how to use oils.

When I was 14, Patrick Sarsfield came. He was straight out of art school, laid back, and he encouraged me to work on a grand scale and fill an entire wall with my pictures. I was very ambitious and he described my talent as "outstanding", which fuelled my delusions of grandeur. He suggested I come to England to train.

First, I was sent to a finishing school near Sevenoaks, Kent. My mother thought it would be a good introduction to English life, rather than going straight to bohemian art circles. It was ghastly but I liked Mr Bradshaw, who taught art. He got me into the Chelsea School of Art, but somebody told my parents that a girl they knew who went there had got pregnant, so I wasn't allowed to take up my place. Instead, I was to go to the Slade which, being a university, they considered to be more respectable.

But the Slade admissions tutors didn't like my portfolio. They thought it rubbish. Eventually, they allowed me to study part-time and I was assigned William Townsend as my tutor, who was kind and encouraging, even after I left.

At the Slade, I met L S Lowry, who was invited to see some of the students'

work. He understood my pictures and looked at them for a long time without speaking, and then said: "I couldn't do that."

Many people have taught me much over the years, but the teacher whose influence has lasted longest is the one I hated - Dona Violeta. Thank God I never saw her again after she taught me, but she has stayed with me forever.

Artist Paula Rego was talking to Pamela Coleman

The story so far

1935 Born in Lisbon, Portugal

1952-56 Attends Slade School of Art

1983 Becomes visiting lecturer at Slade

1988 Retrospective exhibitions at the Gulbenkian Foundation, Lisbon, and Serpentine Gallery, London

1989 Nursery Rhymes exhibition of etchings in London, Madrid and Lisbon

1990 Appointed first associate artist at National Gallery. Exhibitions in 1990s include Dog Women (1994, London and Canada) and Abortion (1999, Portugal and Madrid)

2000 Awarded honorary doctorate by Rhode Island School of Design, US

May 23 2002 Awarded honorary doctorate by the London Institute

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