Mary Fedden

The Staffordshire Horse

1948

Artist
Mary Fedden 1915–2012
Medium
Oil paint on board
Dimensions
Support: 763 x 643 mm
Collection
Tate
Acquisition
Presented by the artist 1997
Reference
T07243

Not on display

Summary

The Staffordshire Horse is one of a small group of early paintings in which Mary Fedden explored what would become her principal genre, the still life with a view beyond, which was already a staple subject of such painters as Winifred and Ben Nicholson and Paul Nash. It was characteristic of these early paintings that they included realistic architectural features between the foreground and the landscape. The room depicted in this painting was Fedden's studio in her flat in Redcliffe Road, Chelsea, where she lived with her friend the studio designer Maise Meiklejohn. The Staffordshire china horse was the artist's own. Fedden's still life paintings proved so popular that, after her first solo exhibition, at the Mansard Gallery in Heal's Department Store in 1947, she was commissioned by the editor of Woman magazine to paint covers for the journal.

These early paintings, of which only a handful still exist, show how Fedden mixed her Slade School training - low-key colours and an emphasis on observed fact - with a highly understood sense of pattern and form. Many of her trademarks appear in this painting: the sliced fruit with its decorative pattern of seeds, the domestic pottery with the chevron design, and the single bright flowerhead judiciously placed.

Further reading:
Mel Gooding, Mary Fedden, Aldershot, Hants 1995

Terry Riggs
November 1997

Technique and condition

The painting was executed on a single piece of thick (9 mm), laminated paper/pulp board, possibly millboard which is still visible in many areas of the painting. The board is still flat on the front and back faces but its edges exhibit some severe saw marks, especially along the top edge. There is also some delamination around all edges of the panel, which is typical of millboard. The artist recalls priming the board with two layers of rabbit skin glue size, before the application of paint.

The paint used was oil, probably Rowney's Student grade oil paints and thinned in areas with turpentine. A small amount of resin was possibly added to the dark paint in the centre of the large red flower to achieve the sharp impasto, although the artist does not recall mixing anything into her paints and thinks this more likely to have been paint straight from the tube. The paint is vehicular, fairly lean, matt and mostly opaque, although there is some glazing (mainly in deep shadows of the flower and fruit). The application technique varies from rather thin washes used in the background to areas of reasonable impasto in the details of the horse, flowers, fruit and curtains. All areas have been applied with a fairly narrow brush and mainly wet-on-dry. In addition, the wooden end of the brush has been used in the net curtains to scrape back through the (then) freshly applied paint.

The painting was varnished by the artist after it had been fixed into its frame with a very thin coating of a retouching varnish. Fedden recalls doing this a few weeks after the painting's completion. It was carried out primarily to even up the dull and glossy areas. Although not discoloured appreciably, it had differentially sunk, especially in the areas where there is no paint, and looked rather streaky. With the artist's approval, the varnish was therefore recently removed and a thin layer of a more stable varnish was re-applied to achieve a more uniform surface, which was felt to be more characteristic of the work's original appearance.

The frame is possibly original to the work and is a simple design, made of plain hardwood with a gold insert. The painting is in generally good condition. There are only a few losses in the paint layers, probably caused by mechanical abrasion, although in most cases these are behind the frame rebate and not visible when the painting is framed.

Tom Learner
October 1997

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