Mary Potter

Mary Potter was born in 1900 in Beckenham, Kent. She studied at the Beckenham School of Art in 1916, and at the Slade School under Henry Tonks and Philip Wilson Steer from 1918. On leaving the Slade in 1921 “with a clutch of seven prizes” Potter was advised by Tonks that to succeed as a painter she must never marry. Between 1922 and 1923 she was a member of the avant-garde 7 & 5 Society, and her work shows noticeable affinities with fellow members Ivon Hitchens, Winifred Nicholson and David Jones.

Potter began exhibiting with the New English Art Club from 1922 under her maiden name of Mary (originally Marian) Attenborough, and had her first solo show at Bloomsbury Gallery in 1931. Disregarding Tonks’ advice, she married the writer and humorist Stephen Potter in 1927, and during the 1930s they lived at Chiswick, where she painted views of the river.

From the 1930s through to the 1980s Potter regularly exhibited with the Redfern Gallery, Leicester Galleries and New Art Centre. The Second World War forced a hiatus in her career, although she did show Golden Kipper at the 'United Artists' exhibition at the Royal Academy in January 1940.

In 1951 the Potters moved to the Red House, Aldeburgh, Suffolk, and fell in with artistic community there, joining the Aldeburgh Music Club and often playing tennis with Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears in the Red House's large garden. Six years later, following the break-up of her marriage, Mary swapped houses with Britten and Pears, moving to Crag House on the seafront, which the composer and his partner had found lacking in privacy as their fame grew.

Potter died in September 1981.

Mary Potter is now recognized as one of the foremost British women painters of her time, her work characterised by a gently modernist exploration of colour, form and light, usually in a domestic setting and suffused with a sense of stillness, sitting broadly within the British Neo-Romantic tradition. Her paintings were exhibited at the Tate Gallery in 1980 and at the Serpentine in 1981, and she was a prize winner at the John Moores Exhibition in 1981. A retrospective exhibition toured from Davies Memorial Gallery, Newtown during 1989-90, with another at Brighton Museum and Art Gallery in 1999. She is represented in many public collections including Tate Gallery, Arts Council, and the Contemporary Art Society.

The Aero commission

Potter was commissioned to paint at least one portrait for the Rowntree Aero Girls campaign. Her late son Julian Potter was working for the advertising agency JWT at the time and told us in 2013 that "the portrait was retained by the advertising agency for Aero J. Walter Thompson and hung in my office for a time when I worked there. They may still have it, along with one or two other Mary Potters they bought". Potter's sitter, who wishes to remain anonymous, recalls that, "Mary explained that she wanted me to wear my old duffle coat and woolly hat with a bobble, I said 'can't I wear something pretty and less dreary?' But Mary was firm, explaining that Aero is different, so the whole point is that you have to be different".

Written by Kerstin Doble

Sources and more on Mary Potter

David Buckman (1998), The Dictionary of Artists in Britain Since 1945, Art Dictionaries Ltd.

Julian Potter (2004), Mary Potter: A Life Of Painting, Lund Humphries.

Mary Chamot, Dennis Farr and Martin Butlin (1964), The Modern British Paintings, Drawings. and Sculpture Vol II, Tate Gallery/Oldbourne Press.

Saunders Fine Art. Retrieved 14 May 2014.

Tate Gallery Collection. Retrieved 14 May 2014.

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