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Nature’s Canvas: Mary Newcomb’s vision of the British countryside

delicate watercolour sketch of insects on flowers

Mary Newcomb, Insects on Hogweed, Date unknown. © Mary Newcomb Estate

Compton Verney will be shining a spotlight on the remarkable talents and relationship with nature of the self-taught painter Mary Newcomb from May 18 2021

Natural scientist, farmer and artist – Mary Newcomb’s (1922-2008) life and art were rooted in everyday observation and the natural world.

A self-taught artist, her work is now held by the Tate and her monograph is published by those custodians and connoisseurs of twentieth century art, Lund Humphries, but who was Mary Newcomb?

This retrospective featuring over fifty works, may offer some clues. It is displayed alongside extracts from her writing and offers the most extensive survey of her work ever, placing Newcomb’s career in the context of her contemporaries, including Stanley Spencer, Milton Avery, L.S. Lowry and Winifred Nicholson all of whom you can see filtered through the pastoral vision of her canvases.

Newcomb’s practice was rooted in the British countryside and she developed her unique visual language and poetic vision in Suffolk, where with her husband – the potter and farmer Godfrey Newcombe – who she married in 1950, she lived for much of her life.

semi abstract painting looking across fields towards a sunset

Mary Newcomb, Old evening walk, 1971 (c) Estate of the Artist

watercolour of a dandelion

Mary Newcomb, Dandelion © Estate of the Artist

painting of a ferry boat on a river

Mary Newcomb, The Boat Trip, 1976 © Mary Newcomb Estate

watercolur of sheep looking towards the night sky at shooting stars

Mary Newcomb, Ewes Watching Shooting Stars, Date Unknown © Mary Newcomb Estate

It was a natural fit for Newcomb, whose CV at the time included a degree in Natural Sciences from Reading University and a spell studying pottery at Bath School of Art, and for a time the couple produced popular rustic ware ceramics. But it was painting that captured her imagination and she began painting between raising their two daughters and working on the farm.

This real world experience of working the countryside gave her paintings an authenticity that appealed to buyers and through her membership of the Norfolk artist collective, the Norwich Twenty Group, her work began to sell. This encouraged her to approach the Crane Kalman Gallery with whom she exhibited regularly from 1970.

She was championed, exhibited and collected by Andras Kalman (the original collector of Compton Verney’s British Folk Art collection, the largest in the UK) and exhibitions across Europe and America led to her paintings residing in major collections including the Museum of Modern Art in New York, The National Gallery of New Zealand and The Museum of Sao Paolo in Brazil.

Kalman also encouraged her to keep a diary, and on New Year’s Day 1986, Newcomb – then aged 64 – wrote: ‘I wanted … 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.’

painting of people picking apples from an orchard

Mary Newcomb, Apple Picking, 1969 © Mary Newcomb Estate

painting of plants in a greenhouse

Mary Newcomb, Kew, The Delicate Jungle, 1979 © Mary Newcomb Estate

painting lookinmg down a lane towards a haystack

Mary Newcomb, Hay Newly Cut, 1988 © Crane Kalman Gallery

painting of butterflies landing on flowers

Mary Newcomb, The Butterfly Arena (The Castle Ruin, Hyeres), 1989 © Estate of the Artist

On display for the first time, Newcomb’s diary is at the heart of this exhibition, which explores her artistic practice and her ability to capture fleeting moments, the changing seasons, and the recurring rituals of country life, in both her words and canvases.

Newcomb’s work is often regarded as following in the tradition of William Blake and J. M. W. Turner, in that she found poetry in every aspect of rural life. She had a fluid approach to perspective and proportion, and created her work intuitively. Indeed, her unique style drew comparisons with Alfred Wallis and other folk artists represented within Compton Verney’s collection.

The exhibition will feature works produced throughout Newcomb’s career and include examples of her late paintings, which became larger and increasingly abstract, as she shifted her focus to the sky and wider universe beyond.

Another artist and pastoralist mentioned in the same breath as Newcombe is Samuel Palmer, and there has always been a whiff of the visionary to her work. To some tastes her canvases may teeter on the edge of mawkish sentiment – especially some of the figurative work when seen in isolation – but if you look deeper and across her whole output, there is an almost Blakean wonder going on here that offers a timeless window into the beauty of the natural world.

painting of a woman walking through a filed towards a church spire carrying a large bunch of flowers

Mary Newcomb, The lady with a Bunch of Sweet Williams, 1988 © Crane Kalman Gallery

Mary Newcomb: Nature’s Canvas is at Compton Verney Art Gallery from May 5 to September 5 2021


Compton Verney Art Gallery and Park

Warwick, Warwickshire

Discover the unique delights of Compton Verney, where there’s something for everyone to enjoy. 120 acres of stunning parkland and lake surround an award-winning art gallery, with a family friendly café and gift shop. Escape the everyday to wander through our historic ‘Capability’ Brown landscape, marvel at our world-class art…

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