A Natural Scientist Who Turned Her Eye to Art

England's Mary Newcomb depicts small moments in her pastoral paintings

Mary Newcomb

By Christopher Andreae

Lund Humphries Publishers Distributed in the US

By Antique Collectors' Club

200 pp., $80

Imitation has long been the bugbear of Western painting.

Lecturing to the Royal Academy of Art in the late 18th century, Sir Joshua Reynolds scorned the mere copying of nature. He thought that imitation was a wobbly theory, based on a flawed understanding of how much intellectual engagement is required of painters.

The contemporary English painter Mary Newcomb wrestles with the problems of imitation in the terms laid down by Reynolds 200 years ago. She attempts to merge factual observation with mental perception.

The result is a signature style that addresses seeing as both uncomplicated and perplexing. Newcomb has continually painted the "surprising differences between what her eyes see and what she thought she knew," writes Christopher Andreae, a staff writer and art critic for The Christian Science Monitor, in this impressively crafted catalogue of her work.

Mary Newcomb, who lives in the Constable country of East Anglia, began drawing for her own pleasure at the age of 8 or 9. She was educated as a natural scientist, not an artist, and taught high school science for several years.

While in college, she began to unite her drawing and watercolor work with her scientific observation of nature. After a long incubation period, she started working in oils.

As her style matured, she seems to have fused artist, naturalist, and scientist. Although she works primarily in oils, her work bears semblances of both line drawing and watercolor. Out of these early media experiences, Newcomb has fashioned a personal visual vocabulary.

Newcomb speaks of herself as self-taught, but her work differs from that of folk artists. She uses neither the broad vistas nor large areas of undifferentiated color characteristic of folk painting.

She habitually depicts small moments, like a grasshopper alighting on a flower, a swan brooding on a nest, or goldfinches flitting in the sun. Her oil paintings often look like layers of colored tissue paper, producing a subtle and intimate portrayal of everyday life in the English countryside.

While her subject matter is taken from life, her style betokens the experience of remembered images, not the sharp impressions of optical reality. Unlike folk artists, who frequently look outside the canon of art history for sources, Newcomb happily grazed across time and national boundaries.

She has absorbed the painterly techniques of abstract artist Mark Rothko, as well as the simmering glow of Roman wall painting.

She admires both medieval bestiaries and Japanese traditional painting.

In a sense, Newcomb's disregard for accurate scale is not a distortion of truth. She makes an appeal to another order of truth in her art. When we recall a particularly fine tangle of wild flowers, other details drop away, leaving us to dwell on color and light.

When Newcomb remembers a young cuckoo on a telephone wire, the bird is the size of a killer whale. Small wonder that she greatly admires the Swiss artist, Paul Klee.

In the diary that she has kept for a decade, Newcomb lauds Klee "because he found a way of saying exactly what he wanted to say about what he thought and about what he saw in his mind by drawing it out of the paper."

This large-scale book, with its faithfully reproduced paintings, is enhanced by Andreae's appreciative text. His writing informs Newcomb's work, suggesting different angles of interpretation, but never overwhelming her art. Sections of her diary are reproduced, occasionally in her own hand.

That we should stop and smell the roses has become an inert clich in our culture. Mary Newcomb's work takes us beyond roses, to beetles sunning on drain pipes, the way sun bulges through clouds, or the distance cats keep when visiting each other.

* Mary Warner Marien teaches art history at Syracuse University in Syracuse, N.Y.

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