Landscape artist returns time again to capture the changes on her home patch

by Simon Parker, Western Morning News - March 7, 2016


When Mary Martin says “I don’t think if I spent a whole lifetime here I’d ever stop wanting to paint this place”, she neatly sums up an outlook that has permeated her life and work over the past five decades. Mary is the sort of artist other artists’ dream of being: someone who lives it, who couldn’t be content doing anything else. Born and bred in the Tamar Valley, she might be regarded as the Cornish Cezanne, in the sense that just as the French post-impressionist painted Mont Sainte Victoire more than sixty times, so Mary captures her home patch with integrity, accuracy and a wholly authentic eye. Back she goes, again and again, wrapped up from the winter chill, trudging with paints, brushes and easel, to flower fields and orchards, lanes and woodland.

It is the same landscape Mary has drawn and painted for half a century – and yet it isn’t. In her lifetime, agricultural practices have changed out of all recognition, while the once-common countryside practices of coppicing, cider-making and cherry picking have all but disappeared.

Later this year around eighty fresh examples of her sought-after canvases will make up an exhibition – the first for three years – in the parish of St Dominic. And such is Mary’s popularity and stature in Cornwall’s creative hall of fame that the majority of the paintings will be snapped up on the morning the exhibition opens.

Looking around her studio – a former daffodil bunching loft where she has lived and worked for forty years – at the latest work by this most singular of artists, it’s clear Mary was born to be a painter.

“It’s such a long way back, but I do remember when I was about nine or ten being out with a sketchbook, being an ‘artist’ and doing lots of drawings of ice and dewdrops and nature,” she said. “I always was interested in nature.”

Born at Gooseford, a smallholding outside Callington, Mary is one of three sisters.

“It was a traditional upbringing,” she said. “We helped out on the farm and Mum was always setting up still-lifes for me to do – she often painted them with me. I still have some of the sketchbooks I made back then, from when I was only five or six years old.”

Attending a dame school at the age of three, she moved to primary school at five, and then went on to Callington Grammar. Mary’s idyllic childhood was shattered, however, when she lost her farmer father when she was only nine years old.

“It was a ghastly time, and everything changed. It took a long time to heal and we had to leave Gooseford. But we all pulled together after Father died. We were a strong little unit.”

Throughout those years of grief and readjustment, Mary continued to pursue her vision of capturing rural life in the Tamar Valley.

“I painted throughout my time at secondary school,” she said. “But it wasn’t brought out as it is today. There was no free expression and you were told to make it as realistic as possible. I think I must have approached painting in the way I did in spite of what the teachers said. No one had gone from Callington to paint in a serious way so I wasn't following a trend. The teachers wanted me to study English at university because I loved it and I was good at it and always had my nose in a book. But I had other ideas. No one had gone from Callington to paint in a serious way so I wasn’t following a trend, but Mum was supportive and backed me up.”

Feeling the need to “get away”, Mary headed first to the West of England College of Art in Bristol, where she studied for a pre-diploma.

“I lived on a shoestring in a terribly run-down hostel, sharing with strangers and down-and-outs. But I worked like stink in that year. The pre-diploma course was hard, and I had a tough tutor who wanted us to experiment all the time, while rejecting traditional perspective. So I had to do my other work behind the scenes. I got the impression the tutor didn’t like me much because I think he could sense I was going to be an artist of my choosing, no matter what he tried to do. It was a hell of a grounding, though, and properly rigorous. I was always conscientious – that was the country girl coming out – whereas a lot of the other students didn’t work hard at all because they had some romantic idea of being an artist, and didn’t have a clue how hard it would be.”

From Bristol, she went to Gloucester College of Art in Cheltenham, and spent the next three years concentrating on landscape for a Diploma in Art and Design.

“The regime was much more laissez fair,” said Mary. “I studied art history, sociology, philosophy and life drawing and would go out walking the countryside. It convinced me of the value of open air painting. In the holidays I began painting the landscapes around my home in earnest.”

Surprisingly, considering her subsequent profile in Cornwall, Mary’s debut exhibition didn’t take place in the Tamar Valley, or even in the UK, but at a small restaurant in the French town of Revel.

“I won a scholarship to study in France and the owners’ son in the hotel where I was staying took me under his wing and staged an exhibition of my work. I suppose it was my very first exhibition.”

If there is a moment in Mary’s career which could described as “the big break” it was being offered a scholarship and being accepted to study at the Royal Academy, under the tutelage of the distinguished figurative painter, Peter Greenham.

“When I got to London, I felt I’d only just started and I realised this was what I really wanted to do,” she said, expressing the kind of quiet, but intense enthusiasm with which fans of Mary’s work are familiar.

“The people at the Royal Academy were much more ‘with it’ as we said back then, pushing us into the deep end of life drawing. I was so pleased to be in the middle of everything. I went to every gallery, every concert, every ‘happening’, every protest march, every Andy Warhol film. It was a good time to be in London, and because I was bit of a loner I’d let the rest of the art school crowd go off to the boozer while I wandered about the city. I even went to the strip joints in Soho and found a place that sold nice organic apples – like the ones from home – and used them for still-lifes.”

After exhausting every delight the capital had to offer, Mary headed straight home to East Cornwall, moving back with her mum and settling down to a life dedicated to art.

“I sold a few paintings to collectors at my final RA show and I remember delivering them to penthouse flats, which was all very strange,” she said. “My tutors said I should stay in London and make contacts, but I didn’t want that. I felt I’d properly done London and was ready to get on and paint and make something of myself.”

Her debut show in Cornwall was held at St Dominic Village Hall 1974. With help from sisters Sally and Virginia – who continues to make all of Mary’s frames – it proved to be a small local success and began a tradition of displaying work in the community in which it is created. While enjoying numerous solo shows over the years – from Bristol to London, Plymouth to Tresco – the Tamar Valley events continue to bring her the most satisfaction and pleasure.

“That first show at the village hall did very well and most people were buying paintings because the subject showed their ground, their farm, their property,” said Mary. “Looking back, it wasn’t very professional, the work wasn’t framed, just mounted and pinned up – but it seemed to work. After that I was having three or four solo shows a year. I was working my guts out and really enjoying it.”

Over the years, with the stalwart support of her sister Virginia and the rest of the family, Mary’s biennial shows have attracted huge crowds, with long queues forming outside before the doors even open.

“We do enjoy doing it all ourselves,” said Mary, who was elected a Bard of Gorsedh Kernow some years ago in recognition for her contribution to Cornish culture. “It’s great to have a painting bought by someone who appreciates it as a piece of work, without the baggage of place.”

But she recognises this approach doesn’t suit everyone interested in art.

“Some buyers know they are paying way over the odds at an established gallery, but they like the kudos or verification – and I understand that – rather than buying off the wall of a village hall.”

Mary has lived and worked in a converted barn, once owned by her uncle, in the hamlet of Bury for more than forty years. Never one for an extravagant lifestyle, she and her husband James grow their own fruit and vegetables and have become experts on old South West apple and cherry varieties. Several books, with text by both Guardian newspaper columnist Virginia and engineer James and paintings by Mary, have appeared in recent years, including A Cornish Pomona, Olives, Lavender and Vineyards, Burcombes, Queenies and Colloggetts, and Silver River.

Over the years, Mary has achieved great things by tenaciously ploughing her own furrow. But does she ever wish she’d plugged away in London, nurtured contacts, and played the gallery game?

“My work is perhaps too traditional – or parochial – for the galleries I’d like to show in,” she said. “And anyway, I’m too sod-minded and I wouldn’t have fitted in. It might have helped my career if I’d bowed to the wishes of the London galleries, but it might not have made me any happier.”

Copyright Mary Martin 2019

Mary Martin broke the mould to study at the Royal Academy

Her paintings record more than 50 years of rural life