Mary Fedden

Mauve Still Life

1968

Medium
Oil paint on hardboard
Dimensions
Support: 610 x 819 mm
Collection
Tate
Acquisition
Presented by the artist 1997
Reference
T07336

Summary

Mauve Still Life 1968 is a small oil painting on hardboard by the British painter Mary Fedden in which a table-top is depicted simultaneously from two angles, from the side and from above. This provides a flattened surface on which sits a small bowl containing five figs to the left, and to the right a large basket holding a bunch of grapes, two avocado halves, an apricot and what is possibly a halved melon. Between the bowl and the basket sits a pomegranate. Blues and purples dominate the palette and contrast vividly with the white of the grapes, the orange of the other fruits and the thick gold edging of the basket and the table. A scumbled brown, gold and white floor can be glimpsed between the table legs and beyond the edges of its surface. The painting is signed in red paint to the bottom left with the artist’s surname and the date of its production.

It is likely that Mauve Still Life was painted in Fedden’s studio at Durham Wharf on the Thames at Chiswick, London, where she had moved in 1949. Although most of her oil paintings are on canvas supports, some, including this still life, were painted on the smooth side of a hardboard panel. The paint has been applied loosely with a brush using a wet-on-dry technique. It is likely that the oil paints used are a mixture of Rowney (for the oranges and browns) and Winsor and Newton (for the non-earth colours), brands of paint that Fedden preferred. She used a brown oil paint diluted with turpentine to sketch the underpainting for the composition; this has been left exposed in some areas, such as the border of the table. The paint surface varies from single layers of colour to high levels of impasto. Fedden was known to enjoy oil paint’s ‘buttery consistency’ and would often apply it straight from the tube (see Andreae 2009, p.111). She has also scraped back many areas of the painting: for instance, the brown area below and around the legs of the table has been scraped to reveal the white oil-based ground beneath.

Mauve Still Life is one of many works that reflect Fedden’s career-long preoccupation with still life painting. As the artist has explained, ‘I come back from holiday with sketchbooks full of landscapes … and then I’m back to still life. It’s my real love’ (quoted in Andreae 2009, p.118). Mauve Still Life can be viewed as a semi-abstract exploration of form, colour and space. The dominant mauve colours seen in this image recur in other paintings Fedden produced at this time, most notably Fritillaries 1968 (private collection) and Breakfast 1969 (private collection). Andreae has asserted that Fedden was ‘emphatic that her still-life motifs have no symbolic or emblematic associations or significance’ (Andreae 2009, p.120), but he has also suggested that her still life works can be seen as her personal ‘cabinet of curiosities’ (Andreae 2009, p.118).

During the 1950s Fedden’s painting style developed under the influence of her husband, the British painter Julian Trevelyan, who had worked in Paris alongside artists such as Max Ernst (1891–1976) and Pablo Picasso (1881–1973) and was a founding member of the British Surrealist Group. Mauve Still Life shows this new style: the colours are saturated and the objects more separated than in earlier works such as Still Life with Sheep 1938 (Tate T04850). Andreae has noted that Fedden wished that ‘she could still paint as she did in the 1960s’, as she liked the ‘loose outlines to each colour’ which she felt that she lost in later decades when she became what she called a ‘hard-edge painter’ (Andreae 2009, p.76).

Mauve Still Life was first exhibited in a retrospective of the artist’s work at the Royal West of England Academy, Bristol, in 1996. It remained an important painting to Fedden, who stated in 1997 that ‘although Mauve Still Life was painted thirty years ago, I did not show it until the retrospective exhibition in Bristol in 1996, because I was very fond of it, and did not want to sell it’ (Fedden in Tate Gallery Cataloguing Form, 4 December 1997, p.3, Tate Artist Catalogue File, Mary Fedden, A22826).

When this work was painted Fedden and her husband were firmly established in London’s artistic circles. As a tutor at the Royal College of Art in London in 1958–64, Fedden had taught painting to the British pop artists David Hockney and Patrick Caulfield. She openly acknowledged the influence of Hockney’s creative attitude on her own work, stating that through him she experienced ‘something to do with the excitement of painting, I think; he was very deeply thrilled with painting’ (quoted in Andreae 2009, p.99).

Further reading
Mel Gooding, Mary Fedden, London 1995, p.16, reproduced p.31.
Mel Gooding, Mary Fedden: A Retrospective, exhibition catalogue, Royal West of England Academy, Bristol 1996.
Christopher Andreae, Mary Fedden: Enigmas and Variations, Farnham 2009.

Jo Kear
May 2015

Supported by Christie’s.

Technique and condition

The painting was executed on the smooth side of a single piece of 3 mm hardboard panel. The board was prepared with a thin coat of what is probably an oil-based primer white primer, which may also have a layer of animal glue size beneath it.

The paint was applied exclusively by brush in a fairly loose manner and mostly using a wet on dry technique, although there are some isolated areas of wet-in-wet evident. The paint is oil colour, possibly a mixture of artists' tube paints supplied by Rowney (for the earth colours) and Winsor and Newton (for the other colours), which are known to have been the artist's preferred choice of paints. An initial locating of the composition was made with a thin layer of light brown oil colour, which would have been excessively thinned with a diluent such as turpentine. This is still visible in many areas, for example along the left border of the table. Once the composition had been roughly established and this thinned paint had dried, the other colours were applied. The palette for the painting is polychrome, although clearly with a high content of mauve / purple. Most of the paint would have had a paste-like consistency and was probably used straight from the tube without any further thinning. Many areas consist of a single layer of paint, and there has been much use made of scraping back into the paint. In the brown area beneath the table, for example, the scraping back reveals the white ground layer beneath it. In other areas a number of layers have been built up to produce a heavily textured surface with quite high impasto. For example, the insides of the two fruit bowls have a white underlayer which holds all the texturing and the purple layer on top is in fact relatively thin.

The painting was varnished with the painting in its frame, probably by the artist. Fedden is known to have varnished her works with a retouching varnish (usually based on ketone resins). The frame is original to the work, although the artist has expressed that she would not mind if it were coloured or replaced. The painting is in a very good condition. The hardboard is providing adequate support and the paint layers are not exhibiting any cracks or other forms of deterioration. The varnish layer is still transparent and has not yellowed appreciably. There is one slight damage to the hardboard support on the left edge which has been crudely restored so that the brushstrokes in the paint layers around the damage do not quite match up. The appearance of this repair was recently improved slightly with some additional inpainting. In addition, the framing of the work was modified to hold a supporting panel behind the hardboard, which should prevent the hardboard from developing a disturbing bow in its plane. At the same time glazing was added to the frame so that now it offers a far higher level of protection to the painting.

Tom Learner
November 1997