A Natural Scientist Who Turned Her Eye to Art England's Mary Newcomb Depicts Small Moments in Her Pastoral Paintings

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Mary Newcomb

By Christopher Andreae

Lund Humphries Publishers Distributed in the US By Antique Collectors' Club 200 pp., $80 Imitation has long been the bugbear of Western painting. Lecturing to the Royal Academy of Art in the late 18th century, Sir Joshua Reynolds scorned the mere copying of nature. He thought that imitation was a wobbly theory, based on a flawed understanding of how much intellectual engagement is required of painters. The contemporary English painter Mary Newcomb wrestles with the problems of imitation in the terms laid down by Reynolds 200 years ago. She attempts to merge factual observation with mental perception. The result is a signature style that addresses seeing as both uncomplicated and perplexing. Newcomb has continually painted the "surprising differences between what her eyes see and what she thought she knew," writes Christopher Andreae, a staff writer and art critic for The Christian Science Monitor, in this impressively crafted catalogue of her work. Mary Newcomb, who lives in the Constable country of East Anglia, began drawing for her own pleasure at the age of 8 or 9. She was educated as a natural scientist, not an artist, and taught high school science for several years. While in college, she began to unite her drawing and watercolor work with her scientific observation of nature. After a long incubation period, she started working in oils. As her style matured, she seems to have fused artist, naturalist, and scientist. Although she works primarily in oils, her work bears semblances of both line drawing and watercolor. Out of these early media experiences, Newcomb has fashioned a personal visual vocabulary. Newcomb speaks of herself as self-taught, but her work differs from that of folk artists. She uses neither the broad vistas nor large areas of undifferentiated color characteristic of folk painting. She habitually depicts small moments, like a grasshopper alighting on a flower, a swan brooding on a nest, or goldfinches flitting in the sun. …