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Palimpsest, Portland Gallery, London, 2017 - Foreword

Chaos and anarchy may not be the first words that come to mind when you see Mary Anne Aytoun-Ellis' paintings, but this is how she recently described her creative processes when I interviewed her in her studio at the foot of Lewes Castle in East Sussex. She was referring to her idiosyncratic and unpredictable method of reworking large or small areas of a painting, obliterating or overpainting existing layers of paint, splicing together numerous pieces of paper and gessoed board, adding detail, taking some away, scraping, scratching or even torching the paint surface to create new effects. In this, she is led and inspired by nature, emotion and creative intuition.

This exhibition is called Palimpsest, a title chosen by Aytoun-Ellis because she was intrigued by the word itself and its common association with manuscripts and literature. By coincidence, it is also a term I used to describe her work when I first saw it back in 2014, the last time she exhibited at the Portland Gallery. It is indeed a wholly appropriate and symbolic way to describe her unique method of painting, overpainting, erasing, revealing and working with multiple layers of paint and paper. As in medieval manuscripts, each of her paintings consists of many complex layers of both material and meaning.


Aytoun-Ellis, who works both en plein air and in her studio, using egg tempera, pencil, watercolour and pen and ink, told me that there is a piece of Sussex woodland where she has been working some seven years. Some of the ink she uses she extracts from blackberry leaves collected on her walks. Here is an artist who, more than anyone I have ever corresponded with, immerses herself in nature, in landscape, in the beauty and physical makeup of the chalky, mossy, watery Sussex countryside, and responds to it by letting her paintings develop and grow, sometimes in what seems an almost destructive fashion and often over a very long period. Individual pictures may take up to five years to finish. As the landscape changes with the seasons and over time, so do her paintings, and one may wonder whether they are ever truly finished. Indeed, even a painting that has already been framed and displayed may, on occasion, be reworked completely.

This is the ‘chaos and anarchy’ Aytoun-Ellis refers to and relishes. It is what lies at the heart of her work, what drives her creatively, and what results in the intricate and mysterious landscapes she paints. Her work is marked by complete dedication to location, nature and detail, infused with emotion, mysticism and allegory, the latter often manifest in the inclusion of wild creatures such as deer, woodland birds and birds of prey. Very occasionally figures enter her landscapes, but, much like the deer and birds, they are included to tell us more about the landscape they are part of, to provide scale and a symbolic human element..

All this is part of her intense and organic way of creating images of expansive landscapes that are both highly intimate and quintessentially English in style and subject matter. In the manner of great landscape painters of the late 18th and early 19th century, she combines meticulous and careful observation of nature with symbolism and notions of the Sublime and the Romantic. Her landscapes are both real and hyperreal, often truthful in their detail yet imagined in their scope and iconographical composition. And what of the artist herself? One of the paintings in this show is titled Self-portrait as a Hawthorn Tree, which was painted over six consecutive seasons, and depicts a large tree in a landscape. This perhaps sums up how Aytoun-Ellis sees herself in relation to her art. She is as much a part of this painting as her work is a part of her, and, given the subject matter of much of her art, we see an artist acutely aware of the significance of home, space and landscape. At the end of our interview, I asked if she could point to anything that had not been mentioned in introductions to earlier shows, she told me that after twenty years of working intensely, almost without interruption, in complete dedication to her art, she is beginning to realise just how much of herself is present in her work.

Alexandra Loske, art historian and curator



© Mary Anne Aytoun-Ellis, 2010