Tributes to 'visionary' Suffolk artist

Mary Newcomb, one of Britain's best-loved artists, died in Suffolk at the weekend. EADT columnist Ian Collins recalls their 30-year friendship.

Mary Newcomb, one of Britain's best-loved artists, died in Suffolk at the weekend. EADT columnist Ian Collins recalls their 30-year friendship.

ONE of my first tasks as a cub reporter, back in 1978, was to interview a farmer's wife in the Waveney Valley who was making a name for herself in the art world.

After meeting Mary Newcomb, and studying her visionary ruralist paintings, the scales fell from my eyes. From then on I knew for sure that my native East Anglia was a place of magic.

She was also to teach me a huge amount about life, and most especially from October 2003 when, lately-widowed, she suffered a severe stroke which she was not expected to survive.

Although largely paralysed, and unable to speak or eat, Mary held her grasp on life - remaining always serene and very often amused in a Darsham nursing home amid sleeping cats and window-pecking chickens. Last summer I took her out in a converted ambulance and a wheelchair to skim a nearby pond for newts.

She was sustained by all the pictures in her nimble brain right up to her death, aged 86, in Ipswich Hospital, on Saturday.

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While 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, Mary Newcomb was an untrained and entirely intuitive artist who always claimed she couldn't draw.

Ironically, this extreme outsider came to be hailed by the cosmopolitan world - film directors, television personalities, business magnates. Her work offered a universal truth precious few had previously noticed.

Born at Harrow-on-the-Hill in 1922, Mary Slatford developed a passion for the English countryside while growing up in Wiltshire. For a time she taught maths and science in Bath.

In 1945 she became a student helper in the Flatford Mill Field Studies Centre set up by bird painter and former Fens doctor 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 to boost bittern-friendly reedbeds at Walberswick she met trainee farmer Godfrey Newcomb. After their marriage they lived on small Waveney Valley farms, first at Needham and then at Linstead Magna, where a fledgling painter would find everything she needed for her art.

But her first creative venture was in clay. She and Godfrey turned out decorative slipware harking back to medieval pots and 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 noted artist in her own right).

She became a stalwart of the Norwich Twenty Group (where lucky buyers secured early pictures for £20), before daring to take a bag of work to London dealer Andras Kalman.

The Hungarian refugee who had championed L.S. Lowry in his first gallery in Manchester was a brilliant choice, but Mary turned tail when finding his Knightsbridge premises crowded. Her second attempt launched what was to prove a model relationship between artist and dealer.

With a dozen solo exhibitions at Crane Kalman from 1970 until a typical sell-out show last autumn, and further displays across Europe and in America, the Newcomb name was firmly on the map. There were purchases by numerous public galleries including the Tate and Norwich Castle Museum.

Her art lay in the rhythms of nature and the rituals of country life - in wild things, in her guinea fowl and sheep, in village fetes and agricultural shows, in incidents glimpsed as she travelled on the bus or train. Her canvas ranged from insects to the infinity of night skies.

Perspective and proportion could run amok in her work - walkers or cyclists were dwarfed by bunches of allotment flowers. But she revealed how everything can connect within the harmony of the universe.

Pictures such as Ewes Watching Shooting Stars and Some Bees do not Die but Remain on their Backs Confused demonstrated an overwhelming sense of awe about the strange nature of existence.

Her successive studios - latterly at Newton Flotman near Norwich, and finally at Peasenhall near Saxmundham - contained jumbled notes and drawings and souvenirs from rural journeys from Orkney to the south of France.

Several pictures on the go at any one time were first streaked with vibrant combinations of abstract colour, then propped against the wall, then turned into new positions until they suggested the background to a remembered scene.

Towards the end her paintings became sparer, lighter, larger and more abstract - works holding their place on the walls of major museums. But every picture referred back to observable reality as she saw it.

Mary Newcomb found in East Anglian author Ronald Blythe an especially kindred spirit. His words and her pictures memorably combined in the book of essays Talking to the Neighbours, now reissued by Norwich-based Canterbury Press.

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