Tamar artist is as passionate as ever about valley home

by Simon Parker, Western Morning News -Tuesday, June 18, 2013


These days there are very few people other than farmers who are able to live and earn a livelihood in the fields around their birthplace. But for Mary Martin, the lanes, meadows and orchards in the Tamar Valley parish of St Dominic have provided more than 40 years of material for paintings that record and define the changing rural landscape of the area. Although making occasionally forays to the coast, it is the landscape of her childhood which continues to captivate and inspire her.

This weekend sees the launch of a new exhibition of her work – and Mary has strayed no more than a mile or so from her home near Cotehele to paint them. Mary always wanted to paint. After studying at Gloucester College of Art and the Royal Academy Schools in London, she returned to her native East Cornwall with a fiery desire to capture the agricultural landscape of the Tamar Valley.

"When I came back from London I was painting all the time," she said. "I was living at my mum's house, going out all day to paint and only going back to sleep. I wrote in a diary at the time that I didn't think I would be dissatisfied if I did this work for the rest of my life because I saw there was so much to paint and I didn't think I would ever run out of subjects. Forty years on, I still feel the same. I felt so excited about the possibilities back in 1975 – and I still do. Apart from getting older, I remain full of energy for it."

The 80 paintings that make up the Cornish Bard's latest biennial exhibition are arranged throughout the rooms, corridors and stairways of her sister Virginia's home near St Dominic. A similarly "domestic" show was staged a decade ago and Mary said she hoped visitors would again enjoy the informality of the venue. All the work has been completed over the past two years.

"They have all been painted within the sound of the church bells this time," she said. "And even though 2012 was a pig of a year for painting, we did have a fantastic March when it was very hot and dry and I was able to work in the few remaining daffodil farms. Then we had a really good, dry time in May last year when I could work on the hedges down by Halton Quay."

Despite the perennial regularity of her subjects – apple blossom, narcissi, a river curve, a jug of cut flowers, reflections on water, paths, lanes and wildflowers – Mary's work is never formulaic.

In contrast to many other landscape artists, she always works in the moment and in situ. Consequently, her canvases possess a refreshing honesty, authenticity and immediacy. Looking at Narcissus Slope or Apple Blossom In Late Evening or Low Tide Beneath Cotehele Bridge or any number of other paintings in the current exhibition, the viewer can be certain that each particular moment took place. The ordered or jumbled arrangement of Nature's glories – the light, the vegetation, the reflection of cloud on water – are not merely constructed for the convenience of the artist in order to create a pleasing composition.

"You have to grasp the moment," she said. "It is challenging and invigorating. The day might start out dark and horrible and then suddenly the sun will drape through the clouds and you have just the right light. That's what excites me. That's the creative urge and it makes all the boring bits worthwhile if you get moments like that. That's the life-force and even if it doesn't quite work sometimes, you've experienced that moment."

Copyright Mary Martin 2019