Issue Number: 116
The abiding appeal of Mary Fedden’s bold modernist still lifes and lyrical landscapes lies in her unabashed love of life. Mel Gooding pays tribute to the artist, who died aged 96
In the later years of a richly creative life, Mary Fedden RA was probably the most widely loved British artist of her time. Her art delights in the particularities and variegations of things: the longitudinal stripes of a marrow or a melon, the hidden symmetries of a cut apple or lemon, the markings of cats, birds, butterflies, eggs and seashells, the hues and luminosities of lily, daffodil, polyanthus and poppy.
Mary Fedden RA, in her studio at Durham Wharf, Hammersmith. Photo © Eamonn McCabe. Her subjects comprised a distinctive repertoire of fruit and flowers, bowls, baskets and vases, household cats and wild birds, fish, playing cards, feathers, plovers’ eggs, carved wooden fruit from India. They were deployed against evocative landscapes, coastlines, hills and harbours, vineyards and farmlands, places known and loved.
Born in Bristol in 1915, Fedden went to school at Badminton, which she hated; all she ever wanted to do was paint. When she arrived at the Slade at 17 ‘it felt like going from Hell to Heaven.’ Bright colour, however, was not encouraged: ‘good taste’ required, she said ‘a little mud added to your orange and red’. It was the theatre design tutor Vladimir Polunin, who had worked for the Ballets Russes, who first introduced her to the modernist strong colour and simplified design that characterised her later painting.
It was also Polunin who introduced Mary to Julian Trevelyan, recently returned from working at Stanley William Hayter’s famous Atelier 17 in Paris, where his companions included Calder, Ernst and Miró. He had just married Ursula Darwin (later Mommens), the potter. Mary became a friend of the couple, and a frequent visitor to their studio-home by the Thames on Hammersmith Mall. On first setting eyes on Trevelyan in the Slade forecourt, and knowing then nothing of his situation, the young student had exclaimed, ‘I’m going to marry him!’ And so she did, 16 years later. In early 1949 Mary invited Julian, deeply unhappy at his estrangement from Ursula, to travel with her to Sicily. Arriving in Taormina after a freak snowstorm, she augmented their depleted funds by selling small paintings of the white piazza, souvenirs of a rare event. They spent Easter in the central valley – Milton’s ‘fair field of Enna’ – the site of Persephone’s abduction to the Underworld, from which she was to return each spring. In the course of an enchanted Mediterranean springtime, they fell in love.
They returned to live at Durham Wharf, which was to be their home and workplace forever after, and were married in 1951. There was something paradisal about their life together in the sequestered huddle of small riverside warehouse buildings on the Thames at Hammersmith. For Julian the river and its traffic was a constant subject; for Mary the interior provided the images of a familiar world. Pebbles, feathers and eggs would bring into the paintings the pied beauty of their distinctive patterns and contrasts, intimations of the strange and other. Married for almost 40 years (it is said they fell asleep every night holding hands), both artists conceived of the places of their frequent travels in the light of the idyllic and the marvellous.
It is clear from Fedden’s own account that the most important influence on her painting was the constant personal, creative and critical presence of Trevelyan. It was not so much a matter of style (although that was important during the 1950s and 60s, when their painting shared a summary quickness of brushy application and strong colour) as of emotional attitude and creative commitment. After Julian’s death in 1988, as if in response to his absence, Mary became more prolific, her colour more intense, her design more exuberant.
The Arcadian spirit that illuminates her landscapes and still-life tableaux alike links the deceptively simple aesthetics of her art to deep sources of thought and feeling. Her paintings testify to an unabashed love of the world and its objects. Fedden’s essential subject, as it was for Matisse, to whose work her own pays modest and unselfconscious homage, is le bonheur de vivre. Her gift was by nature lyrical, celebratory and emblematic, creating out of everyday objects and scenes the poetic image that brings a glimpse of an attainable, if transient, earthly joy. This was the open secret of her extraordinary breadth of appeal, and of her phenomenal popularity.