Today we saw the exhibition, Mary Newcomb’s Odd Universe, at Norwich Castle Art Gallery – an excellent retrospective of the work of the painter Mary Newcomb, who died last year. Some of her most evocative paintings were there: poetic, pastoral and often revealing a quirky sense of humour. Largely inspired by the animals, plants and landscapes of the Norfolk countryside, her work is an intense song of colour, often shading into abstraction, and with some elements of primitivism, particularly in the way that key elements of a painting may be foregrounded without respect to scale or perspective. Two of my favourites, unfortunately not reproduced, were ‘Cowslips in Moonlight’ and ‘Collared Doves Lifted by Light’.
The exhibition was curated by the writer Ian Collins, a friend of the artist for 30 years, and arranged around the themes of Fire, Earth, Water and Air, moving from early earthy paintings and watery images to end in the poetry of flying things (butterflies, birds, planets, balloons).In her work, Mary caught the essence of the Waveney Valley and the serenity of life on a small, ramshackle farm.
“She wasn’t influenced by existing local landscape painting… she was a visionary. She painted things nobody else saw – small things sometimes. Even though her work is immensely accessible, she was the kind of person who had a vision all of her own. She may have seen a cyclist or a bird wandering across the road or the washing hanging out and its movement in the weather, and she studied it intensively. She brought something so simple to painting that no-one had really even seen before. She points us to things we know all about but haven’t looked at properly. When you look at them, you think, ‘Why didn’t I notice that before?'” Ronald Blythe, East Anglian writer and Mary’s friend.
‘We saw the very brightest lights on the very darkest nights.’
‘The rook remembers the red flower she saw in the earth garden.’
From the exhibition leaflet:
Rural visionary Mary Newcomb (1922-2008) was a self-taught painter whose work is both unique and universal – growing from the soil of Waveney Valley farms in the 1950s to a late blooming in airy poetry.
Trained in science and first drawing birds at Flatford Mill Field Studies Centre in 1945, she met husband Godfrey Newcomb on a bittern-boosting trip to Walberswick. They farmed, potted and restored gypsy caravans as Mary found her vocation as a lyrical painter which she pursued in a series of ancient houses – and on foot, bicycle, bus and train – across Norfolk and Suffolk.
Praised by Ben Nicholson and collected by film stars, Mary Newcomb remained the unaffected poet of the rural scene, communicating the joy of existence in the world of country rites and rituals and the wonders of nature.
Towards the end of her life Mary Newcomb’s paintings became sparer, lighter, larger and ever more abstract; but they always referred back to specific incidents, noted, savoured and remembered.
Mary Newcomb was also a gifted writer. She began a Diary in 1986; the first entry reads:
I wanted to say these things and to record what I have seen to remind ourselves that – in our haste – in this century – we may not give time to pause and look – and may pass on our way unheeding.
The entries in her Diary include observations such as:
Today a man cycled madly down a hill between yellow rape fields, head down, trousers flapping. There was a grey church on a hill, a farm house tucked into a corner of trees – a typical East Anglian scene perpetuated from spring to spring. Time still passes but it passes more slowly here.
A new painting…It will be difficult to do, but I will try…On the common a lady walks stiffly along in her best suit and hat. The sky is mediaeval blue. The clouds are white. The lady stops and takes off her jacket and reveals a soft yellow blouse. She stoops to smell flowers that have no scent and goes on her way – her stiffness gone.
Mary Newcomb found a kindred spirit in the East Anglian author Ronald Blythe, and his words and her drawings combined memorably in a book of essays, Borderland.
Her art celebrated the rhythms of nature and the rituals of rural life; wildlife and farm animals, village fetes and agricultural shows, incidents glimpsed as she travelled by bus, train or bicycle.
‘If there is a god for our planet, it is the sun.’
Ian Collins, curator of the exhibition, met Mary during one of his first interviews as a journalist back in 1978:
“When I first met Mary at her farm, I left after the interview and looked at the landscape as though it was a Mary Newcomb painting. She has that really powerful impact and yet she paints very gentle pictures too. Some make you feel like you can fly – utterly uplifting. She paints a very accurate picture of the Waveney Valley and its rural history, but she likes to play around with perspective and proportion. She stands out because her paintings are like nobody else’s. She didn’t know where they came from – she didn’t know how she did them. They almost emerged as if by magic. To focus her mind before painting, Mary used to write maxims. One that best explains her inspiration is, “Press close to farms, for all your life comes from them”, which is something many people in Norfolk can relate to. Mary wrote these words in large print on the walls of her cottage and studio to give her guidance. She’s a poet in paint and that comes across in the words and pictures of a very beautiful, but utterly East Anglian landscape”.
Newcomb’s theme is country behaviour: her entire work is like a landscape through which insects, animals, birds and people are continually moving. They come in and out of her vision like entries in a diary; part and parcel of an intense inner life.
There’s a definitive book on Mary Newcomb by Christopher Andreae which introduces Mary Newcomb’s universe, lavishly illustrated with 150 full-colour reproductions. Her paintings and drawings are set alongside extracts from her Diary and an illuminating text by Andreae.
Christopher Andreae’s text is based on conversations and correspondence with the artist as well as close study of her Diary, paintings and drawings. It considers the relation of Newcomb’s work to so-called ‘naive’ painting and to naturalist artists and writers, and analyses the unique self-taught ‘language’ of her art.
Roger Deakin, in Wildwood: A Journey Through Trees, wrote an excellent account of Mary Newcomb’s work:
Every now and again if you’re lucky, exploring a wood, sitting by a river or looking out of a train, you may experience what a friend of mine calls ‘a Mary moment’. Such minor epiphanies, often apparently unremarkable in themselves, will lodge in your memory and may be recalled in their essentials long afterwards. They are the distinctive subjects of the Suffolk painter Mary Newcomb: a flock of goldfinches dispersing, a magpie flying up from a wet road, a football match seen through a hole in an oak leaf eaten by a caterpillar. These are all actual titles of paintings by Mary Newcomb. Such poetical vignettes are essential to the particular effect of these deceptively modest pictures.
Mary Newcomb belongs firmly in the greenwood tradition, peering unnoticed from behind leaves like the Green Man at things that are very often half hidden themselves. In the Newcomb world, people and plants sometimes surreally hybridize, as in Girl at the Garden Centre in the Rain, in which a woman, mostly hidden beneath an outsized green-and-black striped umbrella, has grown into an umbellifer. And in Lady with a Bunch of Sweet Williams, a woman standing in an exuberantly flowering meadow, hidden from the waist up by her giant posy, seems to have burst into full bloom in sympathy. Such chameleon impulses in many of the paintings come close to a visual expression of Andrew Marvell’s lines in ‘The Garden’: ‘Annihilating all that’s made/To a green thought in a green shade’. They have a notable affinity with poetry. Mary is an admirer of John Clare, whose words ‘I found my poems in the fields and only wrote down what I saw’ describe very well how she paints, and the connections she notices between, say, pylons and cobwebs, or butterflies and bits of torn paper. Indeed, the notes in her diaries are very often written without punctuation in a style that strongly suggests that of Clare as well as the stream of consciousness she wants to express.
I appreciate Mary’s pictures in a way that must be informed and biased by my affection for the part of the world where we have both lived through the poignant closing years of what might be called the old rural Suffolk: the northern stretch of the county broadly defined by the valley of the River Waveney. In her evocation of the natural, mainly rural life of Suffolk, Mary Newcomb is comparable with two other artists of the borderlands, John Nash and Ronald Blythe, whose work is based on their relationship with the Stour Valley along the southern margins of the county. The setting of some of Mary’s work in Ronald Blythe’s book Borderland seems an entirely natural collaboration. She delights in simple, vernacular structures or machines: rowing boats, bicycles, weather- vanes, telegraph poles, bird boxes, lighthouses, windmills, church towers. ‘They serve a purpose. They have a point,’ she writes in her diary. She also loves to travel, in the old, unhurried way on trains, steamers or on foot, and records her excursions in paint.
When Mary and Godfrey first came to Suffolk, they lived at Needham so close to the Waveney that one night two dog otters fought each other right under their window. ‘They were on their back legs, teeth in each other’s necks, and balanced by their tails,’ Mary wrote to me in a letter. ‘In the morning I saw their bloody trails in the dew on the marsh, going in different directions.’ They farmed in a small way along a stretch of river bank with goats, hens and cows. Mary would get up early and paint from five until seven and then do farm work for the rest of the day, scrubbing eggs clean with cold water or milking goats. Now they had moved to Peasenhall, a few miles inland from Walberswick, where they also lived for a while, and I have driven over with the East Anglian painterJayne Ivimey, an old friend of Mary and Godfrey, for tea.
The house is at one end of the village, with a walled garden and a homemade wooden aeroplane on a pole as a weather vane. The first thing that strikes you about Mary is the calm depth and steadiness of her clear blue eyes. She walks and stands stoutly, with definite steps and great certainty about everything she does, looking remarkably young for a woman in her eightieth year. She wears her rich dark-brown hair, which has never turned grey, neatly cropped. Mary Newcomb bears the air of someone who has worked hard, and to some purpose, all her life. Everything about the house suffuses it with a lively spirit of curiosity and inquiry. There is something of or by Mary in every room of the house except Godfrey’s, which houses his beloved Philip Suttons. Godfrey, says Jayne, is a man of sudden strong enthusiasms: the saxophone, the penny whistle, the spinning wheel.
Mary has been painting rooks. ‘A Brooding Rook in its Heaven’ is the working title of her new work in progress. On the floor beside the canvas are haifa dozen of the birds drawn in charcoal on sheets of paper, and on the wall is another one, standing confidently, bald beak raised aloft, about to caw. The poetical titles always come first. They are like haiku. And there is something Japanese about the clarity and profound simplicity of Mary’s work. This has not come about through any deliberate study of such things. Mary has simply arrived quite independently at similar conclusions through her own original route. Every so often, as we have our tea, a live inhabitant of the rookery beside her garden comes down and pecks about on the lawn.
Mary generally places her paintings on the floor and sits on a low stool, bending over them to work. This accounts for the close focus. Sometimes the picture is propped against the wall, and she uses a small step that enables her almost to walk right into the work. At one point in the diary, she describes herself as ‘so tired I almost fell into the canvas’. Unlike most artists, Mary keeps not a sketchbook but a notebook or diary. She fills it with handwritten thoughts and observations that often find their way into the work verbatim. ‘Be sure to put it down,’ she writes in one diary entry, ‘be it squirrel in a woodpile, men with white-toed boots working on a mountain railway, caterpillars hanging stiffly and staring from a laurel bush, the magnitude of the stars — there is no end.’
That reference to the stars inevitably suggests one of the best-known Newcomb pictures, the beautiful watercolour Ewes Watching Shooting Stars: three ewes on a clear, cold night, invite you to identify with the animals inside their warm coats. The painting reminds me of Ted Hughes’s poem ‘The Warm and the Cold’, an evocation of the animal world on a freezing, starry night in terms of the particular form of shelter each one takes, including, by contrast, the ‘sweating farmers’ who ‘Turn in their sleep/Like oxen on spits’. Newcomb and Hughes share an acute awareness of the minutiae of life in the wild, and a deep, affectionate understanding of the lives of farm animals and all creatures. In another picture, Very Cold Birds Where One has Flown Away it Knocked the Raindrops Off the raindrops are drawn very nearly as big as the birds on a tree, so the three drops in mid fall suggest the absent bird. Proportion is very often skewed like this in a way reminiscent of children’s art or ‘naive’ painting, in order to represent the thing that looms large in the artist’s mind at a particular moment.
Years before she eventually began to write in a series of red-bound diaries from W. H. Smith’s, Mary instinctively preferred writing or drawing on separate sheets of a favourite A5 paper, torn from a book and carefully kept in the folder she carried with her. She was well aware that this was the medium that best suited her mode of thought and sudden, crystalline perceptions. To write in a notebook or diary implies a burden of narrative, of things unfolding in sequence through time, which Mary was temperamentally reluctant to take on. Entering one of her paintings, like entering a wood, alters your sense of time. The act of drawing, as John Berger points out in a recent interview, ‘is a way of learning to leave the present, or rather, of gathering the past, the future and the present into one’.
At the head of a jotted list of projected ideas, Mary writes, ‘The lady in her landscape, her rightness, her industry, her involvement, respect and pride.’ It has the ring of a self-portrait. There is a certainty about Mary Newcomb that includes an absolute belief in the importance of the clear-sighted moments that engender her paintings. The impression you often have, looking at one of her paintings, is that ‘Suddenly there it was, and Mary painted it.’ But, in fact, each painting evolves slowly in the studio. Mary paints a first version, blocking out the main elements, then stands it against the wall. Over a period of weeks or months she will then begin to tear out bits of colour or texture that catch her eye in magazines and arrange them on the floor beside each picture. As we move through the house we step carefully around these pools of colour.
At the end of each day’s work Mary also paints out all her brushes on to pieces of hardboard and stands them near the painting in progress. ‘Just now I’m still stuck on green,’ she says. A particular colour will preoccupy her for weeks, and the painting out of the brushes is much more than ‘a good way to use up spare paint’, as she deceptively claims. It is the gradual preparation of the underpainting that gives the pictures such depth and mystery, and often pushes them to the edge of abstraction. Turner did something similar in his ‘colour beginnings’. It is the most profoundly unconscious part of the painting: the music of the song. I notice a predominantly blue work from an earlier phase, a back view of two figures sitting in the garden. Mary often paints people from behind, perhaps shyly, in a way that suggests that they too are lost in their own private worlds. Another example hangs across the room: three female figures leaning over the railings of Southwold Pier, looking out across a sparkling sea with a pair of distant sailing ships on the horizon. One wears a black-and-white harlequin-patterned dress. Wind catches her hair.
The people in these paintings seem to be part of the landscape. They do not dominate it, but take their place in it like any other being. Mary’s Man Cycling Madly Down a Hill seems airborne on his bicycle in an abstract ‘green shade’, his arms and elbows akimbo over the handlebars like wings, cloth-capped head leaning forward like a bird’s. Mary’s men often appear in the cloth caps worn by Suffolk farm labourers or fishermen until recently: a badge of belonging to the land or sea. These anonymous figures are in some ways Green Men, emerging through deep layers of foliage. The just-visible Lady in an Unsprayed Field Seen in Passing, an after-image, might be a corn spirit. Mary Newcomb seems attracted to paint what is half hidden, invisible even. In The Last Bird Home, the small figure of the bird, in a slight halo of warm amber dusk light, descends into a long smudge of dark-grey hedge we know is crowded with concealed birds, all singing. ‘After a long wet evening,’ Mary wrote while she was working on this picture, ‘the birds must sing. They have to get it out and shout insistently.’ Birds are everywhere in the work, yet they are often half concealed, hard to spot, as in a wood or a hedge. A cock pheasant in a field is actually a half pheasant submerged in grass, and in the diary there is a reference to ‘half men’ as subjects for pictures: ‘half men in hollows, in fields, in dips in the road, in long grass’. This is how it is in the fields, hedges and woods: things heard but unseen, or glimpsed, partly hidden. Seen collectively as hedgerow or wood, trees are abstracted by nature into a mass of colour and texture. The experience is distinct from the architectural look of a single tree. And this is what you see in a Newcomb painting.
‘There is no end.’
A river is a fine place to sit. The river is going somewhere and you are not. There is very slight activity all the time. There is a sense of travelling: either you can go with it, conjure up the view around the next corner. Look back and recreate its passage in your mind.
Out into the river when everything else had gone came a small black tub containing a lady and a large black dog. The very slight wash was silver. Her coat was green. The dog sat on. The woman rowed the boat looking round ocassionally to see the dog.
After half an hour when more light had gone she returned past us, rowing slowly, turning to talk to the dog. The dog sat on like a little black mountain. Both were very peaceful and companiable to one another. It was a perfect moment.