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Thinking Places , Portland Gallery, London, 2009 - Introduction

It was about 200 years ago that the practice of painting straight landscape began to attract a following. The popularity of this genre was illustrated by the 22,967 paying visitors who attended the 1809 Watercolour Society exhibition. This explosion of interest, fuelled by the works of Turner, Constable and later Piper, Nash and Sutherland, has set up a curiously British interest in and following for fine landscape art and the work of Mary Anne Aytoun-Ellis is amongst the most accomplished.

Her landscapes are made with extraordinary detail of observation but, just as significant, she introduces mystery and unanswered questions. She offers clues as to what may be behind or beside the viewpoint, beyond the horizon, or indeed a few yards into the woods. She achieves all this through an exceptional range of technique, a quite extraordinary application, and a poetic imagination, displayed in many works by a subtle use of colour.

Just as landscape is unchanging so Mary Anne's methods are timeless too. There is an intensity about the work - in many ways similar to eighteenth century miniatures and the work of the finest British Artists of the 1970's such as Graham Sutherland. With some drawings she may concentrate minutely on small passages. She then covers the rest of the composition and  draws with a variety of pencils; scratching into the surface, glazing some parts and then wiping glazes over them with a cloth; she uses large and small brushes, nothing in between, all the time focusing on only a few square inches. When she is satisfied, and only then, she moves on to another part. Examine 'Beyond Sight: Distant Sea' (below); it shows a contrast between a magnificent see-through tree, with shadowed and highlighted branches, and a distant quite dense impasto. From this one can start to appreciate the full range of her methods.


Mary Anne's painstaking methods, skill and knowledge are central to her achievement. Whatever scale she is working on, large or small, the unique concentration of detail in her work is underpinned by her understanding of egg tempera and the quality of her draughtsmanship. In the case of some of the larger works, her ability to join sheets of paper  almost seamlessly, laying them onto panels, allows this intensity to be maintained.

Arguably the masterpiece is the quite extraordinary 'Ash Bole - Hollow Way'.  Originally Mary Anne planned to record the view looking up into the branches but she became distracted and then fascinated by the activity in and among the roots of the Ash tree. She observed it for a year, taking a chair (which she hid in a bush) so that she could sit for each session. She drew the roots, the brittle leaves, the pieces of chalk and stone and the texture of the tree trunk with its flecks of black and green mould - a depiction I have only seen matched by John Constable's painting of an Elm tree in the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum. Then beyond the woodland detail you catch a glimpse of the sun just about to disappear over the distant horizon - just a few minutes and the Ash bole will be in darkness.

Such works are testament to her astonishing intensity, her skilful drawing and brushwork and are supplemented by the mysterious inclusion of figures and animals. I am tempted to view her work close up and then step back a few feet away and each time I look I see something new. Artist and critic John Ruskin would have championed Mary Anne just as he did Turner in his time. He acknowledged the skill, the detail but also such spirit when he wrote 'Go to Nature in all singleness of Heart, rejecting nothing'.

Henry Wemyss, Senior Director of British Drawings and Paintings, Sotheby's


© Mary Anne Aytoun-Ellis, 2010