mary fedden: beauty in finessed simplicity

I actually came to know Mary Fedden’s work in a round about sort of way. Truth is, her name was so frequently mentioned as an inspiration or influence by so many of my favorite British creators that I simply had to learn more.

Turns out she’s one of Britain’s finest and best-loved contemporary artists, one who painted daily right up until her passing in 2012 at age 96. She’s most well known for her distinctive still lifes, characterized by a bold use of color, odd and inventive perspectives, and flat picture planes. 

Artist, printmaker and illustrator Mary Fedden in her Durham Wharf Studio

She made the ordinary extraordinary with her signature näive yet sophisticated style, elevating the beauty of favorite subjects such as fruits, feathers and plants. Her extensive body of work spanned over seven decades.

Born in Bristol, England in 1915, Mary hated and dropped out of Badminton girls’ school to attend the Slade School of Fine Arts in London at age 16. While there, she studied under Russian scene painter Vladimir Polunin, who had worked with the Ballets Russes and with Pablo Picasso.

After completing her studies, she briefly designed sets for Sadler’s Wells before returning to Bristol to work as a teacher and portrait painter. Polunin’s influence was evident in her opulent palette, reminiscent of the sumptuous colors of the ballet’s sets and costumes. 

With the outbreak of WWII in 1939, Fedden served in the Women’s Land Army and Women’s Voluntary Service, where she was commissioned to create murals for the war effort. She later worked as a driver for the NAAFI in Europe.

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