Romi Behrens, b.1939, who lived at Prussia Cove in West Cornwall, belonged to no school of art and received no formal painting tuition
Romi grew up, very happily, riding donkeys, in the idyllic surroundings of the vicarage at Ramsbury, Wiltshire. She had deep musical and Anglican roots, her mother, a cellist, was the daughter of Sir Walter Alcock, knighted for playing the organ at three coronations. Her father was Canon Humphrey Hall, brother of the bishop of Hong Kong. These words are taken from the funeral address given by her son Peter Behrens on March 21st 2019.
Expelled from boarding school, she had gone to stay with her Uncle Giles, a doctor with a Penzance practice. Picking apples in an orchard at Prussia Cove she fell for the farmer Michael Tunstall-Behrens. They married in 1959, eight days after her 20th birthday and she moved into his grandfather’s house here.
These raw plaster and part-panelled rooms with their muddles and stacks of pictures and beautiful, useful things are in the old farmhouse of Trewartha where she and Michael lived from 1995 and she continued to live after his death
Mike asleep, 1993. ‘I started painting when I got married,’ she told me. ‘I came back from shopping and out came tea, butter, sugar, and six paints’ Her lovely speaking voice was low, even and rather exact. For emphasis, when something was exciting, it rose to a joyful shout.
‘I went to learn painting from Julie Reid at Porthcurno. The first week, I did a still life and Mike’s brother stole it. The third week I said, ‘How do you know what I want to paint?’ She said, ‘Romi, I don’t think that you should come any more. You should do it yourself. ‘ So that was my 3 lessons! Wasn’t that sensible of her?’
China Dogs III.
the first painting studio and the dog – named Alleluia – that appears sleeping in a quick charcoal sketch found in her studio in 2019
I should have shown you more interesting paintings, etchings, drawings, linocuts and introduced you to the wonderful Toucan [she wrote to me in a letter dated, ‘Hopefully sent, 26th.’]. I must have done him about 50 times. This is how I came by him. Going up the arcade steps in PZ, I found a woman outside her junk shop in floods of tears. I asked her what was wrong? ‘BANK MANAGER.’ What can we do?’ BUY something.’ I went in and my heart completely sank. There was nothing I could see I wanted to buy until – from the very back of the shop the toucan winked at me and squawkd, ‘Get me out of here.’ So for £30 I did in a paper bag… when Patrick Heron saw it and asked how much he said add At LEAST a couple of noughts. Well he has certainly paid for himself ! The toucan is above, centre.
Romi’s son and daughter, Peter and Emily, double portrait
The long sitting room, profile sketch of Romi’s friend Patrick Heron
She had little interest in material things and no idea of the value of money – stabbing in the dark at a figure of ‘twenty thousand AT LEAST!’ for one of her best paintings…But it pained her to part with her pictures at any price; she might agree to a sale then maddeningly change her mind and actually stole one back.
‘Guitar, that’s been drawn hundreds and hundreds of times,’ miraculously saved from a skip (seen in the previous image)
Sofa, banked up by canvases. The indigo blue picture on the back wall was painted by Jeremy le Grice
About the house. I should have showed you the cobbles outside the front door. And thinking of Mr and Mrs Andrewartha and their children [Trewartha’s earlier occupants]. He was very short and wore a very tall bowler hat (apparently). Of course this was way before our time. He kept pigs, wonderful animals, and was a Methodist lay minister. I know it is his spirit and probably his wife’s that makes this house so peaceful.
Life on a small farm with cottages for rent was all about helping with the cows and making loose covers (NOT EASY!) These were dreamy days when you could leave a baby outside in a pram and drive to the flicks, worried only that you had forgotten to attach the cat net [from the funeral address given by Peter Behrens last year.]
Old House. ‘Oh that’s lovely! I haven’t seen that for ages.’
Cobbles and her quick, eloquent sketch of Alleluia the dog in her early studio photo, found amongst paintings stored in the barn.
At Trewartha, the greenhouse-cum-porch outside the front door. ‘Velvet’, her quick little black spaniel bitch formerly known as ‘Velvet Puppy’ was always faithfully about, keeping a watch out for visitors. Our friendship of only two or three years duration was a flawless one, Romi was exuberant and funny, stubborn and outspoken, interesting and interested in people, a committed Anglican, a writer of letters and lists and keen on Radio 4 . Once she had made up her mind I quickly graduated from ‘Very dear Ruth’ to ‘Darling Ruth’ when she wrote.
To her, selling pictures merely confirmed her unshakeable belief in her work ‘Isn’t that AMAZING?’ and ‘Look at THIS one!’ She was particularly good at table top still lifes, Panettone boxes and birthday cakes.
‘Donkeys! I want two donkeys here!’ she said
Bedroom, sketch pads, art books, hot water bottle, and portraits of her grandchildren
Spare bedroom, another picture store
Spare bedroom. Romi’s painting style was spontaneous and dashing, something she attributed to meting out her time having children, being married to a farmer, letting holiday cottages, playing the violin and more
‘The map – I just suddenly thought – I’ll do it – And Oskar Kokoshkar said it,’ she added, mysteriously.
‘Tom and his sister – or mother’ – named Hewitt, after the tennis player Lleyton Hewitt
‘The house? – I think its in Helston – done in about 1960, I was painting only long white buildings then’
label on reverse of the painting above
Studio barn, working space upstairs and painting store below
‘John Dory.For sure I ate it. It didn’t take that long, 45 minutes at most.’
The giant homage to Panettone that became The Last Supper – a semi-devotional work – painted on a huge stretched canvas from the studio of her friend Patrick Heron
Panettone boxes and birthday cake, from the Newlyn Gallery’s 2017 group show
Paint table and Salvator Mundi painting with the Lord’s Prayer, just seen
The Nude in Painting
Newlyn harbour, looking towards st Michael’s Mount
Sketch book, one of many dozens
A picture store, including her very first portrait, Man with Flat Cap, bottom right.
Rebecca reading Rebecca, 1973. ‘There’s a lovely story of how I got that painting: Mike left Becky and me in the middle of lambing, so we went out to look. One had just had one. And Becky said, She’s going to have another, I can tell. What are we going to do in the meantime? I’ll finish my book.
I’ll paint you reading it. And it was Rebecca!’
Romi showed her work at the Arnolfini Gallery, Leighton House, The Royal Cornwall Museum, Cadogan Contemporary, the Michael Parkin Gallery, the Rebecca Hossack Gallery and the Newlyn Art Gallery. One of her pictures was selected for the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition and she was a life member of the Newlyn Society of Artists.
Many more are stored in her studio at Trewartha, family, friends, nudes, a famous musician or author, the High Sheriff, a policeman or fisherman and someone whose name she couldn’t remember simply labelled ‘Hitch Hiker’.
An impromptu monoprinting session in the kitchen with brand new friend Ben Sanderson from the Cornubian Arts and Science Trust / C.A.S.T.
Kitchen with chocolate Easter rabbit.
Romi Tunstall-Behrens, 1939-2019.
She died on Ash Wednesday, at her old studio which she dubbed ‘The First and Last’ overlooking the orchard where she met her husband Mike 63 years ago.