Butterflies
By Mary Newcomb

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Year
1997
Media
Printmaking
Subject Matter
Landscape
Reg. Number
G807
Size
98 x 84 cm

The first thing you see in this work is the subject of the title - the butterflies. White and black brush strokes that embody life and movement and that totally eclipse the earthy landscape made of rock and trees. This predominance is not negative, however, because the viewer is filled with a sense of lightness and awe: seeing the nature miracle of life is always wondrous. Then the vision ends, and you - the witness of this piece of rural life -leave with scent and sight and sound of butterflies in your heart.

Visionary painter Mary Newcomb displayed an affinity with English folk art and a grasp of natural science that was anything but naive. Although falling into the tradition of Blake, Turner and Palmer - and latterly of Winifred Nicholson, Mary Potter and Elisabeth Vellacott - in making poetry from the rural picture, she was an untrained and entirely intuitive artist who always claimed she could not draw properly. Late in life she thought she had finally understood the meaning of the word "tone". But this extreme modesty, coupled with an elusiveness some wrongly thought fey, masked an inner resilience, a steely quest to pursue an intensely felt vision. Ironically, work by this outsider's outsider came to be collected by the stars of a cosmopolitan world, including film directors, television personalities and business magnates. In her scintillating work all could recognise the truth of precious things that may previously have gone noticed.

Her art lay in the rhythms of nature and the rituals of rural life - in her chickens, guinea fowl and, best of all, sheep, in village fetes and country shows, or in incidents glimpsed as she travelled on the bus, or walked or bicycled. Her canvas ranged from the tiniest insects to the night sky. Lyrical titles could underline the poetry of the pictures. Perspective and proportion could run amok in her work - walkers or cyclists were dwarfed by bunches of allotment flowers. But, however unwittingly, she made a key point about the ways in which everything can connect within the harmony of the universe. There was always, moreover, an overwhelming sense of awe and often a note of wry comedy about the strange nature of existence. Towards the end, her paintings became sparer, lighter, larger and increasingly abstract; they were works that could hold their place on the walls of major museums. But they always referred back to observable reality as she saw it.

Mary Newcomb (nee Slatorn) (1922-2008) was born in Harrow-on-the-Hill, but she developed a passion for the English countryside while growing up in Wiltshire. After a general sciences degree at Reading University, she taught maths and science at Bath high school. On a trip at Walberswick, she met trainee farmer Godfrey Newcomb, who had been raised in India. After their marriage they lived on small farms in the Waveney valley where a fledgling painter would find everything she needed for her art. Her first creative venture was in clay: she and Godfrey turned out decorative slipware which harked back to medieval pots and was popular with a new wave of craft shops. Within a few years Godfrey was running the farm and pottery, as Mary finally found her vocation in painting.

She became a stalwart of the Norwich Twenty Group, before daring to take a bag of work to London dealer Andras Kalman. On that occasion the Knightsbridge premises were thronged with people, so Mary went home again. But her second attempt resulted in an instant meeting of minds and the start of a model relationship between artist and dealer.
With a dozen solo exhibitions at Crane Kalman from 1970, and further shows across Europe and in America, the Newcomb name was firmly on the map. There were purchases by numerous public galleries including the Tate and in 1996, a splendid monograph by Christopher Andreae, recently republished.

Godfrey Newcomb died in April 2003 and Mary suffered a debilitating stroke in the October of that year from which she was not expected to recover. But she had a tenacious hold on life, and a fascination for the immediate world even in extremis. Although she was severely paralysed and unable to eat or speak, her mind remained her own to the very last morning four-and-a half-years later, in 2008.