22 MARCH 1997, Page 48

Exhibitions 2

Mary Newcomb (Crane Kalman Gallery, Paul Costelloe, Brompton Road, SW3, till 19 April)

The pleasure principle

Andrew Lamhirth

Mary Newcomb (born 1922) is that strange anomaly: a self-taught natural painter who yet satisfies the demands of modernism. (Amongst collectors of her work have been Henry Moore and Ben Nicholson.) She is no primitive like Alfred Wallis, there is nothing unthinking or naive about her working practice, yet she will remark, for instance, that she doesn't really know how to draw. Purists find this unset- tling, for Newcomb manifestly can paint and operates a sophisticated modernist shorthand which she seems to tap almost by right.

She began to draw for pleasure as a child (and still does), but received no formal art education, studying science at university before teaching a mixture of science-relat- ed subjects. Her father worked in the cloth trade, and it is doubtless from this source The Beating Down Blue, 1990, by Mar)? Newcomb that she derives her passion for pattern and design. Her gradual approach to painting was really through nature, and the close observation of the plants and animals which surrounded her.

The story of her art since her first solo exhibition in 1970 has been a continual struggle for precision: the desire to say exactly what she wants to say, no more no less. Her breakthrough was to realise that this did not have to be achieved through academically accurate description. New- comb's great skill lies in capturing the essence of a subject: the dogginess of a dog, the sleek puffed breast of a bullfinch, the shadow of a lady glimpsed passing through an unsprayed field. A retrospective of 75 paintings and watercolours by Mary Newcomb is current- ly showing at two Knightsbridge venues the Crane Kalman Gallery, Newcomb's long-time dealer, and the neighbouring Irish fashion designer, Paul Costelloe. This is the first such venture for Costelloe, but the paintings look spectacular among the linens and the lime-green jeans and T- shirts. In fact, the stronger half of the selec- tion is at Costelloe's, including such old favourites as 'Caterpillars on Ragwort (like black and white striped socks on bril- liant yellows) and 'The Boat Trip'. No paintings in particular stand out: 'The Fish Pond', in which fantastic orange comets blaze around a fountain, and 'The Entire Goldfinch Flock'. Newcomb paints the finches punting themselves through the air, soaring like rockets, wings stiff as oars. An unorthodox representation perhaps but marvellously evocative. This is the artist as naturalist, but with- out that restricting botanical exactitude which kills so much nature illustration. These are paintings which play off pattern with the apparent simplicity of near- abstract shapes. Colour is used clearly and intensely. Disjunctions of scale (a huge bunch of sweet-williams completely obscur- ing the bearer's face like an umbrella) focus emphasis, while traditional Renais- sance perspective is forsaken in favour of a i Japanese flatness and fluency. The work s humorous (the reflections of three fat ladies in a boat are huge and headless), but of a piercing delicacy. It is calmly medita- tive and celebratory. It is also immenselY popular. The exhibition, which has been touring the country, is accompanied by the first book on Newcomb, published by Lund Humphries, and priced at £45. Fabulously illustrated with more than 170 colour plates, it contains a speculative text by Christopher Andreae and extensive quota- tions from Newcomb's own diaries. Since nearly all the pictures on show have been, borrowed from private collections, and of the four prints available only the etching of the Suffolk Clun ewe is substantially bet- ter than a poster, the book is an excellent, stop-gap for the devotee, and very good value.