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Mary Fedden
Dates: British, 1915-2012
Biographical Account:

Fedden, (Adye) Mary (1915–2012), painter and printmaker, was born on 14 August 1915 at 52 Downs Park East, Westbury-on-Trym, Bristol, the daughter of Harry Vincent Fedden (1872–1937), sugar broker, and his wife, Ida Margaret, née Prichard (1884–1972). She was educated close to home at Badminton School. 'At school, painting was the only thing I wanted to do', she later recalled; 'I'd never thought of doing anything else but painting' (BL, NSA). When, in 1932, she enrolled at the Slade School of Art, 'it felt like going from Hell into Heaven'. At the Slade she learned to draw with discipline and precision, and to paint in the acceptable mode, tonal and figuratively objective. 'Bright colours were not encouraged': taste required, she said, 'a little mud added to your orange and red'. It was the theatre design teacher Vladimir Polunin, who had worked for the Ballets Russes, who first excited her interest in the modernist strong colour and simplified design that were to enliven her later painting: 'he gave me a direction for colour and design that I didn't get from the rest of the staff'. In spite of this aesthetic awakening, she returned to Bristol where, until the outbreak of the Second World War, she taught life drawing at the art school and painted conventional landscapes, and portraits to commission, in an attic studio in her parents' house.

 

In 1939, after brief spells with the Women's Land Army and the Women's Voluntary Service, Fedden returned to London to live in Redcliffe Road, Chelsea, with her friend, the costume and stage designer Maise Meiklejohn. She painted murals for propaganda displays, and, at night, the sets, often designed by Meiklejohn, for the lively Arts Theatre in Great Newport Street. She did no work of her own during this period. Life in London during the blackout and the bombing was both frightening and exhilarating. In 1944 she enlisted, and, as a driver for NAAFI, served first in France and then with the allies as they advanced to Berlin. The work was exciting and at times hazardous, and she was deeply affected by the suffering and devastation she observed.

 

Living in Chelsea after demobilization, Fedden began her painting career in earnest. At her first one-person show, at the Mansard Gallery in Heal's department store in 1947, she showed a number of still-life and flower paintings whose melancholic mood and florid neo-romantic manner she later described as 'fleurs du mal', and that had in them theatrical aspects of whimsical fantasy. The show led directly to a regular commission to paint covers for the popular magazine Woman, and this enabled her to live professionally as an artist at the very outset of her career. Aspects of all her later painting are to be found in these post-war window still lifes and dreamlike landscapes.

 

In 1949 Julian Otto Trevelyan (1910–1988), the painter and printmaker, and his first wife, Ursula, friends of Fedden since before the war, separated. Shortly after, he accompanied Fedden on an extended holiday to Sicily. In the course of an enchanted Mediterranean springtime they fell in love. They returned to live together at Durham Wharf, Trevelyan's warehouse home and studio on the Thames at Hammersmith, and married on 20 March 1951. The Arcadian spirit that pervades so much of Fedden's later art can be traced to that Edenic experience in Sicily. Its almost mythic significance is acknowledged in her ecstatic recollection: 'It was absolutely magical. It was the most wonderful thing that ever happened to me, and almost the most wonderful thing that ever did happen. It was marvellous' (BL, NSA).

 

It would be difficult to overestimate the significance of Durham Wharf in Fedden's life, or the centrality of her life there with Trevelyan to her development as a painter, or the importance of their frequent travels together, to Tuscany, the Cévennes, Malta, Greece, and Kenya. Her manner changed radically under his mentoring, and although at times in the 1950s their styles converged in painterly landscapes, his influence was, ultimately, essentially personal, a matter of creative attitude and commitment to art as a way of life. He was a continuous, positively critical presence. His death in 1988 seemed, however, to release prolific creative energies in Fedden, and she quickly consolidated and refined an entirely distinctive and sophisticated personal style. In her later years she became extraordinarily popular, and the most widely and unsuccessfully imitated painter of her generation.

 

Fedden's later style, in its diverse manifestations, was indeed inimitable; it developed out of a particular artistic life in particular personal circumstances. Her still lifes and peopled landscapes, though in no significant way diaristic, referred constantly to aspects of her day-to-day life and travels. They have an objective quality, in the sense they create of a perfectly fixed image of magical conjunctions in which each object and formal element is given its own place. Her late work finds emblematic or even mythic significance in what are mostly ordinary things, unremarkable places, and inconsequential events. The late paintings are characterized by bright, unmixed chromatic colour, the setting of a specific colour key, by the repetitions and intervals of the abstract patterns—stripes, dots, arabesques—found in textiles, pottery, chair-backs, the petals and leaves of flowers, a tabby cat's fur, and by a discrete placement of a familiar repertory of motifs across the pictorial surface. These still lifes feature an arbitrary but deliberate selection of distinctive objects with emblematic resonances: feathers, birds, eggs, pebbles, fruit (often cut to reveal its hidden symmetries, the dark seeds within the pale flesh), flowers, jugs, pots, bowls; the landscapes, of known and loved holiday places, are recollected as fresh and living arcadias.

 

Fedden was a tutor at the Royal College of Art from 1956 to 1964 (where her students included David Hockney) and at the Yehudi Menuhin School from 1964 to 1974. She was president of the Royal West of England Academy from 1984 to 1988, elected a Royal Academician in 1992, and appointed OBE in 1997. She died at Durham Wharf on 22 June 2012 of respiratory failure and old age, having maintained her wide circle of surviving friends, and painted and exhibited with great success until within a few months of her death. She had no children.

Oxford Dictionary of National Biography

sources

M. Gooding, interview, 19 Jan 1991, sounds.bl.uk/related-content/TRANSCRIPTS/021T-C0466X0005XX-ZZZZA0.pdf, 2 Sept 2015,

BL NSA, National Life Story Collection: artists' lives

M. Gooding, Mary Fedden (1995)

The Times (23 June 2012)

Daily Telegraph (23 June 2012)

The Guardian (23 June 2012)

Bristol Post (25 June 2012)

The Independent (26 June 2012)

Western Daily Press (28 June 2012)

M. Gooding, ‘The art of Mary Fedden’, RA Magazine (autumn 2012)

J. Manser, Mary Fedden and Julian Trevelyan: life and art by the River Thames (2012)

C. Andreae, Mary Fedden (2014)

personal knowledge (2016)

private information (2016)

b. cert.

m. cert.

d. cert.

archives and artists sound recordings

BL NSA, National Life Story Collection: artists' lives, M. Gooding, interview, 19 Jan 1991

BL NSA, interview recordings

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