Fifty years after her degree show, artist Mary Webb is back in Newcastle for a major exhibition of her work. DAVID WHETSTONE met her
STANDING on the polished parquet floor at Newcastle’s Hatton Gallery, Mary Webb murmurs: “There are a lot of ghosts around.
“It is quite strange because I had my degree show in the Hatton 50 years ago next year.”
The ghosts do not reveal themselves but clearly visible are her paintings whose shapes and colours seem to dance in defiance of the leaden sky outside.
All are part of Mary Webb: Journeys in Colour, an exhibition organised with the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Art in East Anglia.
“It is nice to be back for this kind of anniversary of one’s work,” says Mary.
She first came to Newcastle as a fine art student in September, 1958, and it was here that she learned to surrender herself to the joys of colour and to develop her own artistic style.
What brought the young Londoner to Newcastle, a city soon to be in thrall to council leader T Dan Smith and his plans for a “Brasilia of the north”?
“I was quite keen on English history at school, as well as fine art,” she recalls.
“My teachers suggested it might be good to do a university course rather than go straight to art college.
“I applied to Reading and Newcastle, was offered places at both and didn’t know what to do. Then a teacher said I had to go to Newcastle because so many good people were there.”
Victor Pasmore, famous now for the Apollo Pavilion at Peterlee, was head of painting and Quentin Bell, son of Bloomsbury Group leading lights Clive and Vanessa Bell, was teaching art history. Kenneth Rowntree succeeded Lawrence Gowing as professor of fine art in Mary’s first year and Richard Hamilton, one of the fathers of British pop art, was on the staff.
It was, says Mary, “a very good set-up here”.
Photographs in a display case recall those years. There are two grainy black and white shots of Mary’s degree show and also a group shot of “the class of ‘63” posing outside Newcastle’s fine art department.
There’s a portrait shot of Mary by Richard Hamilton – who died last year – and another of him taken by her. But Mary has particular memories of a visiting tutor and artist called Richard Smith whose “rainbow project” proved particularly influential.
“I grew up in a very austere time, post-war, and there was no colour,” she says.
“But I used to see copies of National Geographic magazine, which I thought was so wonderful, and also American comics. I used to love the colours.”
Given the “courage” by Smith to use bright colours as the decade of psychedelia dawned, there was no going back. Next came the grids and angled shapes.
Mary explains how she developed a “language” that would enable her to describe places in paint.
“This was about Manhattan,” she says, indicating a painting of towering rectangles in relatively muted tones.
“It seemed so appropriate to have buildings of that scale on this tiny island. They were made of the most marvellous materials, shiny green, black and olive.
“I took a trip around the island and it was like a great collage going past. I decided I needed to use those exact colours.”
Postcards and photographs taken back to the studio are the starting point for many of Mary’s paintings, their vibrancy invariably contained within a square.
There’s a series of paintings with the title Utah – Mary went there recently – and another called Brancaster, after the Norfolk seaside village.
Some titles are purely descriptive, as in Coral, Black, Green and White. All, though, have their place.
Before one painting, she explains: “I live in the country and I used to take my dogs out for a walk at night and noticed how the colour bleeds out of things at dusk. So here you see pink going into red and green growing steadily darker. It’s a way of describing that experience.”
Among her influences Mary lists the French artist Robert Delaunay who, with his wife Sonia, developed an art movement called orphism which featured strong colours and geometric shapes.
Delaunay died in 1941 but Mary wrote a dissertation on him as a student and struck up a friendship with his widow. Mary’s photo of Sonia Delaunay, who died in 1979, is also in that display case.
Reflecting on her arrival in Newcastle, Mary says: “Coming up here was quite a shock because I’d come straight out of school, aged 19.
“I’d been at a girls’ school and came here to be taught by men who were also artists. We were aware that they all had studios and were practising what they preached and that gave it a very professional feel.
“But I think I learned as much from other students.
“I loved Newcastle but it was very different in those days. Architecturally, it had had a bit of a battering.
“I used to live in Brandling Park (in nearby Jesmond) and used to walk in to the college.”
Mary remembers a lively social life. “We used to have very good parties. We used to take a lot of trouble over them.”
The twist was the new dance floor fad and The Animals, with growling frontman Eric Burdon, were on their way. But Mary says, a trifle ruefully, that the music scene on Tyneside didn’t really start making waves until after she had left.
After getting her first degree, Mary won a Hatton Scholarship which enabled her to stay on for another two years with her own studio in Eldon Place. She then returned to London and did postgraduate studies at Chelsea College of Art.
She went into art education, spending two years in Harrogate and the bulk of her career in Norwich. But she never stopped painting.
One series of paintings, she explains, are full of the joie de vivre she felt on taking early retirement from Norwich University College of the Arts in 1990.
Back in Newcastle, Mary’s colourful paintings are a bright spot in a dark season. Even the ghosts, you sense, are dancing.
Mary Webb: Journeys in Colour is at the Hatton Gallery, The Quadrangle, Newcastle University, until February 13. Entry is free and the gallery is open Monday to Saturday, 10am to 5pm. Check www.hattongallery.org.uk or call 0191 222 6059.