Mary Fedden OBE RA
Born 1915 Bristol, England
Died 2012 London, England
Mary Fedden is best known for her boldly simple yet distinctive still life paintings. Taught by theatre designer Vladimir Polunin whilst studying at the Slade School of Art (1932–36), Fedden proceeded to paint sets at Sadler’s Wells Theatre in London. During the war she served as a driver abroad, as well as in the Land Army and the Woman’s Voluntary Service. Afterwards, she continued to travel extensively with her husband and artist, Julian Trevelyan. In 1949, they moved to a flat in Durham Wharf overlooking the River Thames in London, where she lived until her own death. Fedden was the first woman tutor at the Royal College of Art (1958–64). She served as the President of the Royal West of England Academy (1984–88), elected shortly afterwards to the Royal Academy in 1992. Fedden produced several murals over the course of her career, including propaganda pieces during the war, a commission for Television pavilion at the Festival of Britain (1951), and in hospitals and schools across England. She continued to paint into her nineties, explaining that ‘painting accommodates old age’.
Lulu (1993) is one of Mary Fedden’s many paintings of cats in landscapes or domestic spaces. Lulu sits proud and snug in the centre of the frame, her bright eyes and smile picked up by the flowers. Her upright pose imitates that of the typical still-life fruit bowl and vase. Fedden always had cats in her house, and Lulu features in several paintings. Flowers and fruit picked from her garden are common tropes in the oeuvre of Fedden, with figs comprising a well-documented example.
Whitby Harbour (1992) depicts the seaside town in North Yorkshire, England. The harbour walls frame the composition, as a small dark boat sails out to the open sea. Simple colours concoct the scene – predominantly white, blue, and brown-grey – reflecting the artist’s belief that ‘too many colours cancel each other out’.
Woman on a Beach (1974) and The Brown Shawl 2 (1980) share a similar composition and subject-matter, in their depiction of an anonymous woman lying horizontally propped-up on a beach. The former figure looks away from the viewer towards a brightened horizon, leading the eye into a distant unknown. In contrast, the second figure is depicted in profile, but still her features are obscured through block-colours, with her eye just about visible. The limited colour palettes of both artworks reflect Fedden’s belief that paintings should be predominantly one colour.
White Church in a Landscape (1977) appears flat in terms of depth. Rather than employing linear or three-dimensional perspective – such as that finessed by Renaissance artists – the flat picture-plane of this artwork suggests the inspiration of Henri Matisse on Fedden, whom she paid explicit homage to in several artwork titles. Unrestrained by mathematical linear perspective, the scene appears imaginary and speaks to Fedden’s way of working: ‘I don’t necessarily paint things as they are: I paint them as I want them to be.’ Meanwhile, the loose brushstrokes are characteristic of an earlier stage in her career – one which she sought to replicate in old age, fighting against the tendency to make objects clearly defined.
Man in a Blue Jacket, Woman in a Red Dress (1984) depicts two figures set against an abstract natural backdrop. Pictorial drama is achieved by foregrounding two clear protagonists against simplistic block colours, suggestive of Mary Fedden’s training in set design. The reference to two colours in the title parallel the considered juxtaposition of colour within the artwork, lending weight to the individual figures yet coalescing them into the overall compositional narrative.