Sun shines again on two amazing artists

Ian Collins Two women painters are hailed in the Castle Museum’s current show The People’s Choice. Ian Collins now salutes the three women who made this possible.

Ian Collins

The People's Choice - a Norwich Castle display of 100 pictures picked and described by Norfolk folk - celebrates two women painters in particular.

Both artists were recent and local. One, Mary Newcomb, died a few weeks ago after spending her final years in a nursing home in the Suffolk village - Darsham, near Southwold - where the other, Peggy Somerville, lies buried.

Largely or totally untrained, these wonderful women were reticent to the point of reclusiveness - but both drew with sublime confidence on the landscapes and atmosphere of East Anglia in producing hundreds of jubilant pictures.

Otherwise, save for the similar stature of their talent, their stories couldn't have been more different. Peggy had been a child star who moved into lasting and apparently lonely obscurity from teenage years. Mary, a farmer's wife, was feted late in life.

The castle has a handful of major Newcomb paintings, but a great trove of Somervilles - thanks largely to her sister, Rosemary, pictured, who died near Aldeburgh last weekend, aged 93, and who also deserves her place in the story.

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Picture the scene in a swish West End gallery almost exactly 80 years ago, with London society flocking to a “retrospective” exhibition by an artist who had just turned 10. Her pictures, first breezy watercolours and then brilliant oils, had been hung in grand mixed displays ever since she was three.

The Somervilles were a highly creative and unconventional clan - with 10 children, the youngest born amid the cataclysm of world war one. Rosemary appeared on Boxing Day 1914, with Peggy making her entrance three-and-a-half years later.

Restless and fairly well-off parents sought rural remoteness - first in Lincolnshire, then in Ashford, Middlesex, and finally in Suffolk. Private tutors were engaged for the sons in the belief that conventional academic study would ruin their future careers.

The three daughters, with marriage perceived as their ultimate lot, were thought to need some formal education beforehand and so were sent to school. Ironically none would wed.

Rosemary danced, but a family aptitude for painting was most marked in her siblings Stuart and Peggy - both of whom found their life-long vocations from infancy.

But Peggy was the sensation. So marked was her innate skill that she was withdrawn first from art lessons and then from schooling altogether. Although firmly encouraged, her talent was given absolutely free rein as she found her subjects among the fields, woods and local gypsy encampments and her style from nowhere and no one.

Then that 10-year-old's triumph reverberated in news stories all over the world. She was acclaimed by the noted painter Sir John Lavery - and later by Walter Sickert and Matthew Smith. There were stampedes for the pictures.

Peggy was to the pre-war painting world what Daisy Ashford was to literature and Shirley Temple to movies. But child stars grow up and novelty value dims. Very soon, and with another war, she was eclipsed.

She carried on painting, however. First at Newbourne, near Woodbridge, and then while caring for her widowed mother - at Westleton and finally at Middleton, near Southwold.

In watercolour, oil and pastel she worked on a private vision of pure bliss and a singular East Anglian impressionism.

Peggy nursed her blind and bed-ridden mother into her 90s, and then herself succumbed to cancer. Rosemary, having had a teaching career in Northumberland, came to care for her near the end and then, after Peggy's death, aged 57 in 1975, devoted herself to the teeming treasures in the studio.

With the late Stephen Reiss, former Norwich art dealer and manager of the Aldeburgh Festival, and Messum's gallery in London, she worked tirelessly to reclaim her sister's rightful reputation.

There were to be books, television profiles and exhibitions on both sides of the Atlantic, and that huge gift to the castle, until nobody could remember that Peggy Somerville, the People's Choice, had ever been forgotten.

The People's Choice is at Norwich Castle until August 31. Adult admission £3.


t Mia Nadarajan, museum visitor. Summer - I chose this picture because it was painted with very bright colours. It made me think of going to the seaside and having a picnic. It also reminds me of watching the boats drift calmly on the sea, this is because I like going to the beach in the summer. The painting is different because the ladies are wearing long skirts and blouses. I think they lived in the Victorian times. When I saw the painting I thought it looked like I could step into it. You could almost hear the sound of the sea splashing on the shore. I love the dogs and I would like to hang it in my room.

t Shalini Singh, EDP selector. John and Charlotte - My first impression of the painting was its gentleness. The two children seemed to have been captured in their own world. The outlines are not sharp and the brushwork is loose and relaxed. As I work with children, this painting appealed to me very much. It seemed to suggest the carefree days of childhood. The colours have a freshness, but are not overly bright and the two children seem happy to be together. To me, looking at it felt like recalling a wonderful childhood holiday.

t Freya Williams, age 6, EDP selector. Still Life with Flowers and Mirror - I like this picture because in it you can see the front and back of everything. I also like the colourful pretty flowers. I can see the painter's paint brush strokes. Also I think that someone has been eating an apple while looking in the mirror before painting the picture.