SHORTLY AFTER she married the artist John Bellany on a tidal wave of love and happiness, in 1964, Helen Bellany discovered a flaw in her wedding ring. “There was, to my horror, a small fissure where it had probably been made smaller for me. This went about a third of the way through the ring.”

Fishing communities such as the one in Port Seton where Bellany was born and raised and in Eyemouth, where his beloved grandparents lived and which so inspired him, were governed by superstition - as was Helen Percy’s idyllic Highland upbringing in the village of Golspie, in Sutherland. A student at Edinburgh College of Art, where she and Bellany met and fell in love, she was young and immature enough, she recalls, to still be fettered by such observances although she knew that her ring was solid and in no danger of breaking.

“But it still had this fault line,” she writes in her memoir, The Restless Wave: My Two Lives With John Bellany, her first book and one that has taken several years to complete because she began it when they knew time was running out for John, who died aged 71 in 2013, after a long illness, surviving alcoholism, many near-death episodes and a “miraculous” liver transplant in 1988. It is a lavishly illustrated, passionate 400-page love letter to a remarkable man, a celebration of a unique talent and a portrait of a great love.

In The Restless Wave, Helen (74) writes: “I tried to banish this feeling that the flaw in the ring was a bad omen but it bothered me. There was nothing I could do about it, however, as I always believed it was bad luck ever to take off your wedding ring, even to have it mended.” When we talk about this moment, she exclaims of her uncanny superstition: “That was just so stupid!”

Nevertheless, it was peculiarly prescient. In the wake of enduring the bleakest and blackest time of her life, Helen removed the ring that she had been convinced she would wear forever. After 11 often deliriously happy but turbulent years of marriage, she told the by-now hard-drinking-and-partying Bellany that she and their three young children were leaving him.

And yet, she says sitting in the colourfully furnished New Town, Edinburgh home that they both loved, with its glorious, sun-drenched views of the valley over the Water of Leith and across the Firth of Forth, they came out of the darkness and into the light. After almost a dozen years apart, they remarried in 1986 and shared three more decades together. “We were always soulmates, despite everything disintegrating from great happiness into awful times,” she says in her soft, lilting voice that echoes her Highland roots.

The story of how they and their once-troubled children survived “awful times” to make happy, fulfilled lives is profoundly moving, particularly the difficulties she endured as a lonely, despairing, single parent, bringing up Jonathan (now 52), Paul (49) and daughter Anya (47) in south London. (The couple moved there in 1965 when Bellany won a place on the Royal College of Art postgraduate course; Helen was pregnant with Jonathan.)

When Jonathan was 12, he had his dinner money taken from him by “black boys who carried knives” - a chilling reminder that knife crime has long haunted London streets. At 14, he began hanging out at the York Tavern, a notorious skinhead haunt. He wore Doc Martens and to his mother’s distress shaved his head. One of Helen’s favourite portraits in The Restless Wave is of Paul - who also became involved in skinhead activities, particularly the music scene - as a young skinhead. “John painted it before we came back together. It’s the most tender portrait of an innocent, young boy.

“Although I expected challenges from the children as they grew up, I believed my fundamental values were instilled in them. I was unprepared and totally dismayed to hear them now voicing racist views,” she writes. “My caring and responsible elder son was a sitting target for indoctrination by elements he saw as providing a deterrent to the menace of street violence, the source of which he now believed to be solely black kids.”

She tells of a party that Jonathan, luckily, did not attend where a friend was murdered - again as a result of racial conflict. Her son, she says, believed he should fight against such injustices.

Thirteen-year-old Anya - whose dyslexia was not diagnosed until she was 18 - also had problems and was bunking off school. “She was on a steady self-destruct course. On top of the considerable difficulties she had to deal with in reading and writing she was a troubled girl whose family life had disintegrated.... All of sudden I found myself worn out. There was nothing in my daily life that seemed to offer solace. The energy I needed for my job [ironically, with the Turning Point project for rehabilitating drug- and alcohol-dependent adults] was waning. Home life was desolate.”

Meanwhile, as well as working full time, Helen was studying for a part-time, four-year degree in psychology at London University. She finally carved out a life for herself after the “sheer misery” of their divorce in 1977.

“But I was desperately lonely. At weekends when I did not have the children with me - they were with John - I had a hedonistic fling or two. I thought if he can do it, I can do it. I put all my energies into burning the candle at both ends. A lot of the time there was a frantic edge to my pleasure-seeking, a slightly desperate need to believe that I was happy.”

After the break-up, Bellany’s drinking escalated as he continued to surround himself with a storm of fellow carousers. “He was no longer the person I had known. I always saw the person he was but he could no longer be himself, although he remained full of ideas about art and very serious about it.”

In 1979, he met and married Juliet Gray, a sculpture student at Croydon School of Art, where he taught. She came from an aristocratic family - her great-grandmother was the Victorian pioneer of photography, Julia Margaret Cameron. Julia was ill for most of the marriage - spending long periods in hospital since she was also an alcoholic and suffered from manic depression. She committed suicide in 1985 by which time Helen and Bellany were reunited.

It is no exaggeration to say that Helen saved him. She had been banished from his life and was never invited in when she went to collect the children. But he asked her to go on a day trip to Dieppe, where they had honeymooned, to mark Anya’s 14th birthday.

“If I had refused, I would not have realised how ill he was and he would have died. We were so lucky.” When she got home, she called a doctor and John was diagnosed with acute liver failure. She got him to hospital immediately. “I couldn’t believe the damage he had done to himself, but we ended up having such a life together.

“It was incredibly hard to relive it all while writing the book - the marriage break-up, the family difficulties, John’s suffering because I have such clear memories. I remember everything. Perhaps it’s the artist in me. This memoir is, though, a tribute to my children as well as to John. It’s about how they came through all this heartache.

"My children are intelligent, sensitive people who muddled their way through and came out of it. I’m so proud of the people they’ve become, the people they always have been despite what they might have got involved in. I’m proud of all of them and my two lives with John.”

Her “fabulous” children, their partners and eight grandchildren live within five minutes of the home, near Saffron Walden, which the Bellanys bought in 1990 and where she is based - the family also owns a house in Tuscany, where John loved to paint, but which she will sell soon, although a small permanent exhibition space is being created in his memory. “Selling it will break my heart,” she sighs.

Jonathan runs his own painting and decorating firm and has twins, Scotty and Jamie (13) with his Belgian wife, Chantal. Anya, who triumphed over her dyslexia to gain a first-class honours degree in history of art and classical literature at Liverpool University, has four children, Luke (19), Olly (18), Arabella (16) and Joe (12), and works with children with disabilities. Paul teaches creative writing and filmmaking; his wife, Angie, is Helen’s partner in running the estate. They have two sons, Sam (30) and Richard (15). Paul is currently cataloguing the archive - “a mammoth task.” He also made an acclaimed TV film about his father, Fire in the Blood, which has been screened several times.

“Their father was the most extraordinary man -- he never hurt me physically although he would shout and rant but it was just surface bluster. Still, he certainly led us a merry dance. I really did not want the suffering we underwent as a family to be the focus of this story. It was just part of the personal hell that we created for ourselves,” says Helen, sipping tea in the kitchen, which is filled with memorabilia of her late husband’s work as is every room in the spacious flat.

She is surrounded by his deeply personal, bold paintings and drawings with their unique language that is at once realist, expressionist and surrealist. Some vast, some small. There are hundreds and hundreds and hundreds more in storage - “I can’t say how many but there are some absolute beauties, ‘beezers,’ in John’s words.” she says. Walk around the apartment and you see that Bellany was one of the greatest Scots painters of the post-war period and an immensely influential artist - Damien Hirst, for instance, is an admirer and long-time collector of Bellany’s artworks.

STYLISH, silvery-haired, slim and elegant in a purple poncho, black leggings and boots, Helen Bellany has the most radiant, transformative smile - it lights up her face which is often shadowed with sadness as we talk. Then she will recall a funny story about her husband and loud laughter rings out. “We had so much fun!” she exclaims. “So much laughter - and, yes, a lot of tears.”

It is obvious that she had, to coin a phrase, a talent to a muse. “I was his muse. Sometimes he wasn’t even aware of it. I used to say my face was a pattern on his visual cortex. He just knew that face so well. I think that sometimes he wished he could paint someone else. I find myself in a lot of his paintings and that’s a special thing.”

Her memoir is packed with images of the couple together, his paintings and drawings, as well as photographs of wonderful times with family and friends, such as David Bowie, who came to lunch with his son Duncan and friend Coco, and Sean Connery and wife Micheline. Bowie was a huge admirer and collector of Bellany’s work - “a colossal vote of confidence from someone we admired as a visionary.” So inspired by Bellany’s work was Bowie - and Billy Connolly, a family friend whom he painted - that they both visited his cherished Port Seton (not together, sadly), the source of so much of the everyday life and mythology that imbues Bellany’s enormous output.

Was John too prolific? “Well, Picasso was prolific. He turned out thousands of pieces. John had to work that way - it was like breathing. The ones that aren’t ‘beezers’ had to be made in order for him to make the great ones. He worked and worked every day, all day. You asked me if I thought John’s work was out of fashion now - according to some critics. I believe that John is above fashion. He has his place in the history books. He’ll never be forgotten.”

An artist in her own right, does she ever regret not continuing to paint, I ask as we look at some fine portraits she painted while at college.

“My drive was not strong enough. If I had wanted to carry on being an artist I could have but I lived through John’s work. Now that, for a feminist, is a bad thing to say.”

Shaming even? “It is shaming. But I had the privilege of seeing these amazing works being created and to live with an amazing creative mind. I make no apology for that. It wasn’t easy. Deep down, even when he was angry with me during the years apart when we never saw each other, I knew the thing we had between us was indestructible. I felt he knew that, too.

"When we split up, I became angry. Some people might say, ‘Thank God, she got angry!’ Perhaps it was about time but I always knew there would be time for me to write and draw, which I’m doing now. I know a lot of people might get exasperated with my story because I never really fight back, but I wasn’t intimidated by John although he got more and more intimidating as he got older.”

She makes no apologies for making her husband’s work her life work, but with The Restless Wave she has discovered a widow’s might, that a woman can be full of power when she emerges from the great man’s shadow. Her own creativity is no longer being subsumed by the fact that she is someone else’s representative on earth - the keeper of the flame. “But I never felt I disappeared. And with this book - sorry, John! - I’ve got the last word. This is my story.”

Grief ambushes her frequently, although not when she looks at his work, which gives her joy. “I go to Eyemouth, that special place, because that’s where I feel John’s presence. Yesterday, I stopped there on my way to Edinburgh and parked by the harbour. It’s a pilgrimage. Love takes me there because John was so loved, so much loved wherever he went.”

The Restless Wave: My Two Lives With John Bellany, by Helen Bellany (Sandstone Press, £20). John Bellany: The Wild Days exhibition will be at the Open Eye Gallery, Edinburgh, as part of the Edinburgh Art Festival, from July 28.