WHEN Helen Bellany first saw her future husband, he was sitting at a piano, draped in a fishing net, thundering out “crazy jazz”. It was Fresher’s Week in 1961 at Edinburgh College of Art. Helen was 18 and newly arrived from Golspie. John Bellany was in the year above, a talented painter with a reputation for being “wild, outrageous and slightly crazy”.

“If you’d told me then I was going to marry him, I wouldn’t have believed you,” Helen says, laughing. It took nearly 18 months for Bellany to ask her out but they decided, almost immediately, to spend the rest of their lives together. “It was like a sort of recognition,” she says, thoughtfully, “of something that was familiar to me, apart from romantic attraction. And what a journey we went on.”

The story of that journey is told with unflinching honesty in Helen’s book, The Restless Wave: My Two Lives with John Bellany, published earlier this year. It was a journey which took them from love at first sight to the depths of alcoholism and despair, through a painful divorce and a joyful second marriage, and to Bellany’s recognition as one of the greatest Scottish artists of his generation.

“It was a difficult life, at times, but I never think of it as a difficult life,” Helen says. “We paid the price for huge happiness, and it was a small price, really. We had so many funny, lovely, joyful, crazy times that I would laugh out loud when I was writing.”

We are talking in the Bellanys’ New Town flat, under the penetrating stare of one of John’s last self-portraits. By the time he painted it, he knew he was dying. His gaze is clear-eyed and unknowable. “You can never know another person 100 per cent,” Helen says. “Human beings are mysteries, the same as works of art. To this day I wonder about him, I wish I could ask him things. I’m still curious about him.”

She started writing the book while caring for Bellany in his closing years. “I could see the way things were going, he was getting more and more frail, I knew time was running out. I wanted to hold on to my life, to gather it in to me. It was a way of keeping him within me, as well.”

She says what defined Bellany more than anything else was his “unbounded joie de vivre”, a “life force” which shone out of him as a student, and stayed with him despite the ups and downs of life. From the first time she saw his work, in a small exhibition at the art school Sketch Club, she knew it was special. “It was extraordinarily strong and spoke so eloquently about what was inside him,” she says. “I knew that whatever life held in store for him, what he was going to do was going to be worthwhile.”

In the canon of Scottish art, Bellany’s work is unique. He drew on a deep seam of imagery, a kind of personal mythology formed by his upbringing in the fishing communities of Port Seton and Eyemouth, which stayed with him throughout his life. Although he lived most of his adult life in London, the traditions, beliefs, landscapes and superstitions of Scottish fishing communities informed everything he painted, lit by the colours of European expressionism.

When Bellany finished postgraduate studies at the Royal College of Art in London, he was offered a teaching job back at the art college in Edinburgh, but turned it down, on Helen’s prompting. “It would have been wonderful, it was much cheaper to live up here, full of things we loved and people we loved and our children would have had a much better start in life. But I thought he would get a secure position at the art college and that would be death to his creative spirit. I think an artist has always got to be challenged.”

So the Bellanys – with children Jonathan, Paul and Anja – continued to live in London, in a succession of rented flats, in which the best room was always John’s studio: “It didn’t cross my mind that it would be anything else. I wasn’t sacrificing anything. [The painting] was just the thing that came first.” Money was always scarce, Bellany being on what he cheerfully described as “invisible earnings”. More than once, the bailiffs came and they had to borrow from friends to pay their rent. “Our concern was much greater than money,” Helen says. “We didn’t notice that we hadn’t got anything.”

FOR years, they were carried on a tide of optimism and youthful idealism, but it wasn’t enough. Bellany was drinking more heavily, staying out late; Helen was increasingly alone, the man she knew and loved was disappearing. In 1974, she reached the end of her tether and asked him to leave, filing for divorce because she needed to apply for benefits as a single mother. She says writing about this period was so difficult she shelved the book for six months.

“I think when somebody you love dies, that’s a devastating thing, but I found the break-up with John the most painful thing I ever went through. I knew he was somewhere around in the world, but we couldn’t be together.” She suffered from a depression she describes as “blackness that permits no light or form of escape”. In time, she started work, training as an art therapist, then as a psychologist and Bellany married Juliet Lister, a sculptor whom he had met at Croydon School of Art where he was teaching.

Even alcoholism did not dim the ambition and scale, the life force of Bellany’s painting. The work from this period is the subject of an exhibition at the Open Eye Gallery during Edinburgh Art Festival, John Bellany: The Wild Days. Helen says: “They were wild paintings, but there’s a defiance in them. I love them, they’re full of defiance and desperation, and the life force is still singing in them. I just think they’re wonderful, uninhibited; there’s nothing to lose, I suppose.”

On Anja’s 14th birthday in 1984, Helen went to collect her from John’s house. Though they had barely spoken for years, he suggested they all have lunch together. The next day, he took the family on a day trip to Dieppe. It was then that Helen noticed the symptoms of acute liver failure and insisted Bellany see a doctor. A few days later, the diagnosis was confirmed and he was given the ultimatum: stop drinking or die. He was 42.

Bellany stopped drinking immediately. Helen, who had worked as a psychologist with people suffering from drug and alcohol addictions, was amazed. “I’ve never seen it, ever. The drink was gone, just like that, it was as if it had never been.” But Bellany was weak and, when he assured her his marriage to Juliet was over, Helen agreed to move back in to look after him.

“I was cautious but – this was the great joy – the drink was gone, I found him again. We got on so well together. We could talk about all these things we knew we shared, and that mattered to us.” As time went on, they “decided to pick up the pieces again”. In 1986, they remarried.

It was a time Helen remembers as “a relentless pattern of swinging from one extreme to the other, from crazy happiness to frantic despair”. For the first time, John was selling paintings in some numbers. Collectors such as Billy Connolly and David Bowie became personal friends. But Helen knew what the doctors had said: that the damage to his liver was irreparable. The clock was ticking.

“That was the hard, hard thing, because we were so happy. I’d have to remind myself: ‘Look, don’t love this too much because it’s going to come to an end.’ He was making huge plans and he was so happy making them, and I had to say, ‘Yes, that would be wonderful wouldn’t it?’ knowing that he had no awareness of the predicament he was in.” She made the decision, then, not to tell him. “I knew he was terrified of death. I thought, no, let him get the best out of life. I don’t regret doing that.”

By late 1987, emergency trips to St Thomas’ Hospital were becoming more commonplace. Bellany had reached the end of the road: his only hope was a liver transplant (“That had never been on the cards, I believe, until I mentioned it, out of panic.”) The surgery was still pioneering – one in three patients did not survive – but Bellany came round in intensive care in Addenbrooke’s Hospital, Cambridge, making motions for pencil and paper. He needed to draw to know he was alive.

AND so began his second life, which he embraced with every ounce of the joie de vivre that he did his first. The life force was back with a vengeance. In the next two decades, the Bellanys travelled the world as guests of galleries and collectors – Los Angeles, Mexico, Australia, China. They bought a house in Italy, near Barga. Grandchildren arrived, the family drew back together. Everywhere they went, John painted. The work was “vibrant and full of a different kind of energy, a happy energy, whereas before it had been defiant and in desperation”.

The man who had feared he might not reach 45 celebrated his 50th and 60th birthdays in ebullient spirits. However, by the time he turned 70, he was struggling physically. His body was giving up, and the heavy medication he had taken since the transplant was beginning to exact its price in mood swings and night terrors. Perhaps most painfully, he had begun to suffer from macular degeneration: on bad days, he could no longer see to paint.

The religion and superstition of his upbringing haunted him. “He was very, very scared of death,” Helen says. “He would say he was a daylight atheist. When the sun was shining outside, when the sun was shining on his life and everything was wonderful, he was an atheist. When the darkness came in the night, well …” He was difficult to live with, and knew it. One of the most touching things in the book is a handwritten letter from him to Helen apologising for upsetting her on one bad day, and telling her how much he loves her.

He died in August 2013. Helen writes in the closing chapters of the book about his 1984 painting The Sea Cat, which hangs on the wall of their Edinburgh lounge, a monumental figure, melancholy but kind. “I see the Sea Cat as waiting for him, waiting to take him away on a boat. I think it’s melancholy and sad but loving. I think of it as sailing out into the Firth of Forth, past all the places he loved. He disappeared into one of his own paintings – which is the best place to be.”

The Restless Wave: My Two Lives with John Bellany, by Helen Bellany, is published by Sandstone Press, priced £19.99. Helen Bellany will be in conversation at the Edinburgh Book Festival on Friday August 17. John Bellany: The Wild Years will be at the Open Eye Gallery as part of Edinburgh Art Festival from July 28-August 27.