Friday, 8 July 2011

Mary Fedden at the RWA

Mary Fedden, Fruit Dish, 1992

These are strange times at the Royal West of England Academy, an institution which has traditionally served the region's artists with a genteel lack of concern for footfall or fashion. With the appointment of a new director, Trystan Hawkins, the old dowager has been given a thorough makeover, with a cafe installed where the New Gallery used to be and a summer exhibition designed to pull in the crowds and - judging by the merchandise on offer - part them from their cash.

There's a giant Damien Hirst sculpture of a 1960s Spastics Society collecting box on the balcony and an exhibition, combining behind-the-scenes photographs and paintings, of professional ballroom dancers. The paintings are by Jack Vettriano, who is 'arguably one of the country's most popular living artists', according to the exhibition flyer. The photos, by Jeanette Jones, capture the tension, excitement  and fear of a tough competitive world; the paintings offer a less emotionally intense, more glamorous vision.

Mary Fedden, Window Still Life, 1994
The president of the RWA, Simon Quadrat, has recently resigned in protest at the populist programming, and you can see his point. The director's response is that people will come to see Hirst and Vettriano and, having paid their £5, will have a look at paintings by Lisa Milroy, sculpture and works on paper by Elisabeth Frink, and a mini-retrospective of Mary Fedden.

There are three gorgeous etchings made by Frink in the 1970s, but I really came to see Fedden, an RA and former president of the RWA who is now in her nineties and still painting. She was born in Bristol during World War One and, after studying at the Slade, returned to paint and teach here. The Second World War and marriage to Julian Trevelyan took her away from the city, and today she lives beside the Thames in London.

Mary Fedden, Red Tulips, 2010
The Portland Gallery in London held a major retrospective of her career a couple of years ago, but the RWA show is different. For one thing, it has the great virtue of being small. While a big show can be a lot of fun I think I prefer a one-room exhibit; rather than rush from picture to picture, trying to take them all in, you can relax, focus on one or two favourite paintings, and compare work easily. It's fascinating to see a still life painted in the early 1950s (and perhaps in need of a clean) beside one made in the 1990s.

There are some intimate details - a watercolour of an elephant painted for a friend - but most of the work is of a familiar kind: still lifes of fruit and flowers and jugs, with perhaps the view from a window beyond, also some landscapes. What one tends to lose when looking at reproductions, apart from the texture of the paint, are the subtle variations in colour that add so much to the feeling of a painting. There really is no substitute for seeing a painting live...

Perhaps the next stage in the 'Your Paintings' scheme should be for participating museums and galleries to put on a whole host of one-room shows - not massive, expensive affairs but small, manageable exhibitions. Look what 'Ravilious in Essex' has done for the Fry Art Gallery and tourism in Saffron Walden (3000 extra visitors in a couple of months). Many other artists have a dedicated hard core of fans who would willingly travel for a small, well-thought-out, show.

Mary Fedden, Lilies, Bird and Zebra, 1999
The pictures shown are from the database of Mary Fedden's work at the Portland Gallery, London, which represents her.

You can see photos of the work hanging at the RWA here (scroll down a bit)...


  1. Hi,
    Interesting post and you may want to see another one on this topic at Rosemary's:

    Now me, in far away Poland can feel like being there:)

  2. Thanks Bozena - I've put a link to Rosemary's page in the post...

  3. Here is a link to works currently for sale at Portland Gallery

    please note, all Fedden images are copyright of the artist, care of Portland Gallery

  4. I have a card which has common elements with your first picture - the plate, fruit bowl (no grapes) and bottle with a circle on, but the view is out of a boat window looking along a canal to an orange factory. I would love to get a much larger version of this. Can you help please? Gilly.