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).
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.
Supported by Christie’s.