Mary Newcomb, RA, RSW, RSA
Visionary painter Mary Newcomb displayed an affinity with English folk art and a grasp of natural science that was anything but naive. Although falling into the tradition of Blake, Turner and Palmer – and latterly of Winifred Nicholson, Mary Potter and Elisabeth Vellacott – in making poetry from the rural picture, she was an untrained and entirely intuitive artist who always claimed she could not draw properly. Late in life she thought she had finally understood the meaning of the word “tone”.
But this extreme modesty, coupled with an elusiveness some wrongly thought fey, masked an inner resilience, a steely quest to pursue an intensely felt vision. Ironically, work by this outsider’s outsider came to be collected by the stars of a cosmopolitan world, including film directors, television personalities, business magnates. In her scintillating work all could recognise the truth of precious things that may previously have gone noticed.
She was born Mary Slatford at Harrow-on-the-Hill, but she developed a passion for the English countryside while growing up in Wiltshire. After a general sciences degree at Reading University, she taught maths and science at Bath high school. Next to nature, art really was her mainspring and, in 1945, she volunteered as a student helper in the Flatford Mill Field Studies Centre being set up by bird painter Eric Ennion on the Suffolk-Essex border. Lodging in Willy Lott’s Cottage, overlooking a favourite scene of Constable, she learned the art of observation and of taking copious notes and sketches to keep an image fresh in the mind’s eye.
On a trip organised by Ennion to boost bittern-friendly reedbeds at Walberswick, she met trainee farmer Godfrey Newcomb, who had been raised in India. After their marriage they lived on small farms in the Waveney valley where a fledgling painter would find everything she needed for her art.
But her first creative venture was in clay, having earlier taken evening classes at Corsham Court, the Wiltshire arts school and bucolic idyll run by Clifford and Rosemary Ellis. She and Godfrey then turned out decorative slipware which harked back to medieval pots and was popular with a new wave of craft shops.
Within a few years Godfrey was running the farm and pottery, as Mary finally found her vocation in painting while also raising daughters Hannah and Tessa (the latter now a distinguished artist in her own right).
She became a stalwart of the Norwich Twenty Group (where lucky buyers secured her pictures for £20), before daring to take a bag of work to London dealer Andras Kalman, the Hungarian refugee who had championed LS Lowry in his first gallery in Manchester. On that occasion the Knightsbridge premises were thronged with people, so Mary went home again. But her second attempt resulted in an instant meeting of minds and the start of a model relationship between artist and dealer.
With a dozen solo exhibitions at Crane Kalman from 1970, and further shows across Europe and in America, the Newcomb name was firmly on the map. There were purchases by numerous public galleries including the Tate and in 1996, a splendid monograph by Christopher Andreae, recently republished. Her art lay in the rhythms of nature and the rituals of rural life – in her chickens, guinea fowl and, best of all, sheep, in village fetes and country shows, or in incidents glimpsed as she travelled on the bus, or walked or even bicycled. Her canvas ranged from the tiniest insects to the night sky.
Lyrical titles could underline the poetry of the pictures. A view of an ancient farmhouse lost in a field and closed up save for a tiny attic opening was called Mrs Meek Opens her Window to the Larks. After the Train had Gone showed horses running in a field. Perspective and proportion could run amok in her work – walkers or cyclists were dwarfed by bunches of allotment flowers. But, however unwittingly, she made a key point about the ways in which everything can connect within the harmony of the universe.
With pictures such as Ewes Watching Shooting Stars and Some Bees do not Die but Remain on their Backs Confused, there was always an overwhelming sense of awe and often a note of wry comedy about the strange nature of existence.
Her successive studios contained jumbled notes and drawings and souvenirs from rural journeys latterly as far afield as Orkney and the south of France. Several pictures would be in progress at any one time; first streaked with vibrant combinations of abstract colour, then propped against the wall, and turned into new positions until they suggested a remembered scene. New images could be brushed on top of upside-down old ones. Towards the end, her paintings became sparer, lighter, larger and increasingly abstract; they were works that could hold their place on the walls of major museums. But they always referred back to observable reality as she saw it.
Acclaimed by fellow artists from Ben Nicholson to Mary Fedden, she was also admired by numerous writers. JG Farrell, who was to be swept off a rock while fishing in Ireland, ended his novel The Singapore Grip by detailing her paintings on the wall above him as he wrote.
Mary found in East Anglian author Ronald Blythe an especially kindred spirit – his words and her pictures memorably combining in the book of essays Talking to the Neighbours. Soon afterwards, the cover painting, showing bullfinches whirring around a thistle like ponies on a carousel, was destroyed in a fire in Kalman’s flat.
Godfrey Newcomb died in April 2003 and Mary suffered a debilitating stroke in the October of that year from which she was not expected to recover. But she had a tenacious hold on life, and a fascination for the immediate world even in extremis. Although she was severely paralysed and unable to eat or speak, her mind remained her own to the very last morning four-and-a half-years later. Her final lease of life sounds hellish, but was not.
The atmosphere in her nursing home at Darsham, near Saxmundham, Suffolk, was astonishingly like that of her successive houses – an old cat might be asleep on a bedside armchair, birds thronged window feeders and chickens pecked at a glass door.
Mary, who had always existed primarily in a rich interior world, was not so much stoic as endlessly interested and often amused. She was perfectly aware that she had painted some wonderful pictures.