Insects on Hogweed, mixed media with pencil notes, 27.9cm x 38.1cm

For those coming across the work of the British painter, Mary Newcomb, for the first time her paintings may look naïve. Her proportions seem wrong. Her fore- and backgrounds come across as being amorphous, all on one plane. She seems not to use perspective. But there is knowledge, sophistication and perspective there in quantity; the sharp-eyed way she saw things and her observations are spot on.

Newcomb did not go to art college. She studied Natural Sciences at Reading University and taught science and maths at Bath High School. But while in Wiltshire she did take evening classes at Corsham Court, not far from Bath, an arts school run by Clifford and Rosemary Ellis, printmakers, painters and designers. She then married Godfrey Newcomb, went to live in East Anglia and had two daughters. Her husband was a farmer but also a potter so at first Mary and he made slipware that had its roots in Medieval pottery. Then she found her metier was painting and her subject was rural life, animal, vegetable, human, the sky and land of where she lived, East Anglia.

Thus while she was not entirely self-taught her art is free of many constructs that artists have long battled to unfetter themselves from. Still it was a choice made consciously. Her brushy paintwork is descriptive; long liquid strokes tell of the topography she saw, stubby short-textured ones stand for the wiry coat of a dog or scraggy coat of a goat. Her figures have eyes dug into the paint with the wooden end of a paint brush or the stub of a pencil. They tell us of the clouded gaze of old age or the deep dark pools that are animal’s eyes. The postures she captures indicate self-importance, expectation or just sheer unfettered joy.

She captures animals’ natures exactly; her cows stand ruminating, herded together halfway up, or halfway down the expanse of a field. Her hares are mad as March and her dogs do what dogs do, cocking their heads as though saying “oh, c-o-m-e on” to their master. She captures exact moments, and also stillness. Here is the flora and fauna that she lived with and observed daily in her rural life, with her farmer, potter husband as they moved from farm to farm.  

The colouring she uses looks simple; great bands of colour combining rich hues; yellows, mauves, deep purples and alizarin. Without the figures one might think of the Abstract Expressionists. They are almost tactile and she uses them to conjure both hills and undergrowth in the mind’s eye or sunlight on a field of rough grass, or snow laying across hills. Her colours are not raucous but subtle, gentle tones rich with suggestion.

This making poetry, as poetry her paintings are, of rural life puts her in the English tradition of Blake, Palmer and Turner and within her own century Winifred Nicholson, Mary Potter and Elisabeth Vellacott. She has been publicly praised by her contemporaries from Ben Nicholson to Mary Fedden.

Now these paintings that one could live so long with and still find them endlessly rewarding are to have two exhibitions running simultaneously; one beginning on 12th April and running to 26th June at her first gallery and one she stayed with always, Crane Kalman in Brompton Road, London, the other at Compton Verney, in Warwickshire, entitled Mary Newcomb: Nature’s Canvas, running from 18th May to 5th September, a homage to her rural observations.