Initially termed as ‘a minor producer of charming still lifes’, the late artist Mary Fedden OBE went on to sell her work for six figure sums. Our arts contributor, Julia Bagguley, reflects on Fedden’s journey from mural maker to internationally known painter.
In the dining hall of Lucy Cavendish College hang two paintings. They are the work of the artist Mary Fedden OBE (1915-2012). There is a third in the reception room, above the Warburton Hall.The acquisition of these paintings by Lucy is pure serendipity. In 1996 the college was granted a Royal Charter and the then Trustees expressed a wish to donate a gift to mark the occasion. They asked Mary Fedden to visit the college to see if she would be inspired to paint a special picture. She enjoyed her visit, was impressed by the friendly atmosphere and the College’s aims and ambitions, but regretted she could not paint to order.
However, that was not the end of the story. She decided that the college should be given an existing picture and Lady Renfrew (fellow of Lucy Cavendish College), together with two of the Trustees, visited her home and studio at Durham Wharf, overlooking the Thames at Hammersmith, to choose a suitable painting. They chose Rain on Skye (1997, oil on canvas), a view from a Hebridean cottage window. During their visit, Fedden said she wished to give the college a painting herself as she had enjoyed her visit so much. She suggested The Pink Room (1979 oil on hardboard), a large painting of a chair standing on an oriental kilim carpet, an earlier work which she had retained for herself rather than offer for sale.
At the same time Lucy`s financial advisers, Laing and Cruikshank, resolved that they, too, would donate a third picture to mark this special event in the college’s history and Three Purple Poppies (1998, oil on canvas) was selected. Lucy Cavendish is fortunate to own these three high quality examples of her work.
Mary Fedden was born and educated in the south west, but by 1932 she was a student at the Slade School of Art in London where she spent four happy years. Her most influential teacher was Victor Polunin, who had worked as a designer with Serge Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes and had enjoyed close personal contacts with some of the important figures in European modernism. ‘He gave me a direction for colour and design … looking back I am sure he was a wonderful inspiration to me,’ Fedden noted of her relationship with Polunin. She drew on his teaching, working on sets for Sadler’s Wells and the Arts Theatre Club in the West End and producing wartime propaganda murals.
During WW2, she worked in the Land Army and as a delivery driver in the newly liberated Europe. Returning to painting she worked on mural commissions including the Festival of Britain in 1951 and the P&O cruise liner ‘Canberra’ in 1961. Her first solo exhibition was of a group of flower paintings, shown at the Mansard Gallery in 1947 at Heal’s Department Store. After selling a painting from the exhibition to the editor of Woman, she obtained a three-year commission to create covers for the magazine. She recalled: ‘I did these paintings quite quickly, sort of eight times a year and, in between, I could get on with my own painting, and started selling fairly well’. Both enabled her to enjoy a degree of financial independence.
At the Slade she had met her future husband, artist and printmaker Julian Trevelyan, and, after a series of interrupted meetings and partings, in 1949 they settled at Durham Wharf where they made their home and created individual studios. They formed a strong social and professional partnership, giving one another advice and influencing their individual styles. Whilst her individual æsthetic evolved over the years her work was publicly overshadowed by that of her surrealist husband and she was regarded, patronisingly, as a minor producer of charming still lifes.
This was to prove a gross underestimation of Fedden and her work. With the benefit of hindsight and drawing on her long career and prodigious output the development of her æsthetic is evident. Her early work is lifelike with a dark palette – reminiscent of the Slade’s painterly ethos. During the 1950s her work matured and developed into styles which became unique to her. A typical painting would include a hybrid between a still life and a landscape. Each was composed with a flat picture plane and still-life objects; shapes of fruit and flowers, vases, pots of mustard and marmalade, fruit, glasses, bottles, feathers, cats even, were arranged against a flat, brightly coloured field.
Initially the objects overlapped into a coherent whole, but her later works are pared down with flat plains of colour and carefully placed objects occupying their own space. Compare the Pink Room and Rain on Skye. As the art critic John Russell Taylor cogently observed ‘Mary’s draughtsmanship is boldly simple and conventionalised, but would never be called childlike. These all, in their various ways, suggest directness and simplicity but never naïvety’. By way of explanation she said, ‘I really float from influence to influence’ and ‘each of my paintings is a mixture of things that I’m looking at, and my thoughts and imagination’. Her own list of important influences included the Nicholsons – Ben and Winifred – and Christopher Wood, all of whom are well represented around the corner from the college, at Kettle’s Yard.
In his biography of the artist Mel Gooding writes, ‘Fedden’s painting reflects her personality in its capacious love for the objects of its attention’
She did not confine herself to her studio. From 1956-64 she was a Tutor in the Painting School of the Royal College of Art – the first female in the post. This was a period she called the ‘years of a very brilliant generation’; her pupils included Patrick Caulfield, David Hockney, Allen Jones and Ron Kitaj. It is not difficult to segue her influence on Hockney’s work and, although he never specifically gives her credit, she must have inspired his use of flat perspectives and bold colours. Think of those LA pool paintings with bold figures set against bright blue flat landscapes.
Ironically, after her husband’s death in 1988 – ‘I miss his bright discerning eye every day’ – personal recognition followed. She has been the subject of two biographies: in Mary Fedden (1995), Mel Gooding writes, ‘Fedden’s painting reflects her personality in its capacious love for the objects of its attention’; in Mary Fedden: Enigma and Variations (2007), Christopher Andreae observed: ‘She paints with unstinting disregard for the tastes and opinions of others and paints fast and often. She paints ‘through the bad times’ and paints on because continuing to paint is what she chooses and loves to do, and it is what drives her. Stopping is just not part of the plan.’
Over such a long life her output was prodigious and she lived long enough to see small watercolours – originally sold for £15 each at Durham Wharf’s open studios in the 1980s – grandly framed and selling from dealers’ walls for six figure sums.
She exhibited regularly; in her home town of Bristol at the Royal West of England Academy, which gave her a retrospective exhibition in 1988 and the Arnolfini. She exhibited several times at Glyndebourne and designed the cover for their 1999 programme, a still life of a Glyndebourne picnic. In 1992 she was elected an Academician of the Royal Academy and served as President of the Royal West of England Academy during 1984-1988. In 1996 the University of Bath gave her an honorary doctorate in recognition of her contribution to British art. An OBE followed a year later.