Two extracts from the essay Passing Events of Light – on the paintings of Alice Mumford


On meeting Alice Mumford one realizes that the honesty and integrity of her painting are but reflections of her own personal qualities, of her openness and lack of guile. The intrinsic decorative appeal of her work is undercut by an application that combines nuanced formal relationships with painterly energy, in an art in which nothing appears preordained, for Mumford has no interest in easy effects or prettification. Her use of colour stems not solely from observation, but also from a deep understanding of the theories surrounding it: she relates particularly strongly to Winifred Nicholson’s writings on colour. Long resident in Cornwall, her landscapes are those of the county, and in this her work bears similarities with certain artists associated with St Ives such as Christopher Wood and Ben Nicholson, whose recurrent motif of a still life set against a view through a window she also shares. The window serves to frame a picture within a picture whilst also activating a spatial continuum between interior and land or seascape: a convergence of the domestic and the elemental. There are compositional rhymes and echoes; the blue of a tablecloth’s pattern might answer that of the sea; the skewed angle of the corner of a book placed on a tabletop that of the eaves of a house seen in the middle distance. The things the artist selects as components in her paintings – teapots, cups, vases, jugs – are chosen both for aesthetic reasons of colour and shape, and for the marks they carry of a history of usage. She takes delight in the simple eloquence of flowers, a bowl of peaches, or the unpretentious artistry of a hand-painted pot set down on a red cloth. Such objects appear also in paintings by those artists Mumford most admires: in Winifred Nicholson, Matisse, and particularly in Bonnard, whose interiors, imbued with poignant autobiographical resonance, gave her she says ‘permission’ to paint such things.

In Seamus Heaney’s When all the others were away at Mass the poet describes how, whilst at his mother’s bedside as she lay dying he focussed not on the prayers of the attendant parish priest, but on a memory of the wordless intimacy he once shared with his mother as they peeled potatoes together, the potatoes ‘gleaming’ in their pail of clean water as, seated in close proximity, they carried out their task.[i] It is a poem Mumford admires for the way it illuminates the importance of human connection, in the rituals of ordinary life played out in domestic settings, with their inventories of everyday objects and implements. For her the link between art and life is fundamental, and her predominant subject matter of still life relates to what she describes as: ‘the evidence it provides of a shared moment; the feeling of a shared meal, being around a table and a conversation.’

In recent years Mumford has made a vital stylistic shift, in which much stronger colour combines with more open, expressive brushwork. She often paints wet-in-wet, loading more than one colour onto the brush, so that the striations in an individual mark might contain several intermingled hues. Objects tend to be defined less clearly, and are stated somewhat provisionally, or simply outlined in dilute pigment to form compositional anchor points. Others are as though engulfed in light, reduced to hovering motes of colour as space and objects appear to coalesce. Shadows, alive with flickering colour, are often writ large. Occasionally the edges of forms are re-established by scratching vigorously into wet or semi-dry paint with the handle-point of the brush, resulting in an urgent surface animation. In all of this the artist cites her 2010 exhibition “Colour Blast” as a breakthrough. Here the work was markedly broader in application, and altogether more dynamic in its use of pure colour. [ii] The transformation came about after making a series of freely worked and brilliantly coloured still lifes in gouache. The increased speed of production allowed by the water-based medium triggered a reconsideration of her approach to painting in oils. Describing the ensuing change and its ongoing repercussions in her work, she states: ‘I think so much of painting is tempo.’ The pace of application, its rhythm and momentum, is a concern central to painting from (and after) life. It demands a concentrated balance in which observation, memory, intuition and artifice each play a part. As well as learning from Bonnard, Mumford has gained also from looking at Winifred Nicholson – the way in which she conveyed skies and seascapes with very direct marks of the brush for instance – and from the later, gestural work of Anne Redpath. In both artists she admires the immediacy of the painter’s touch and the pleasure taken in the raw material life of the medium.

[i] Seamus Heaney, “Clearances”, from Opened Ground: Selected poems 1966-1996, Faber and Faber, 1998.

[ii] “Colour Blast” was at Badcock’s Gallery, Newlyn, October 2010.

© Ian Massey 2015.

Excerpted from the essay Passing Events of Light by Ian Massey, from the monograph Colour from Coast to Coast by Alice Mumford, Sansom & Company, 2015.
Published to coincide with an exhibition of paintings by Alice Mumford at Belgrave St Ives, 7-28 September 2015.
All photographs courtesy Belgrave St Ives.
Posted in: Essays