Born in Luton in 1951, Mary Mabbutt attended Luton School of Art (1970-71), Loughborough College of Art & Design (1971-74), and the Royal Academy Schools (1975-78). She lives in Falmouth in Cornwall, where she moved in 1979 to work as a tutor in painting at Falmouth College of Art. Self-portraiture is at the heart of her creativity. She says, ‘ I have probably used the self-portrait more than any other subject as the starting point for my paintings. I paint what I do, where I am. In the making of my paintings, there is a tension between, on the one hand, desire to work from a memory and, on the other hand, a realisation that the memory does not hold enough visual interest – so I find I also need to work from observation as part of a process of live visual discovery.
‘I am keen to avoid the ‘stare’ of self-portraiture. I am not scrutinising my appearance or my expression in a ‘search for truth’. I am trying to make a painting where I can explore composition, space, light, colour, and how to fit incident into the whole but also maintain my grasp of the initial subject. The 2011 Self-Portrait depicts me as a painter, in my studio. On the back wall are postcards indicating some different approaches to painting – Barnett Newman, Edgar Degas, Philip Guston, Peter Doig, Chardin, and Chris Offili. The context of the red studio is a nod to Matisse. A number of small studies were done from life to help me make the larger painting.’
Matisse’s Atelier Rouge (or The Red Studio; 1911; Collection: MOMA, New York) was a radically innovative work in the history of modern painting, portraying his studio from a mind’s-eye perspective – with his easel, recent modernist portraits and sculptures, comfortably curving chair, plant with trailing leaves and a clock without hands (perhaps symbolising time suspended in a paradisical moment) dynamically juxtaposed both against each other and the buoyant blood-red backdrop. Mabbutt has a similar kind of kind of intutive approach whereby shadowlessly contoured forms (domestic and studio objects, implements and furnishings, cats, flowers, trees, plants etc. – and frequently her own self-image) are counterpointed in richly austere, audaciously original harmonies of rhythmic and colourist patterning.
Matisse once famously said, ‘What I dream of is an art of balance, of purity and serenity devoid of troubling or depressing subject matter…rather like a good armchair which provides relaxation from physical fatigue.’ It is fair to say that Mabbutt also aspires to ‘an art of balance, of purity and serenity’. She says, ‘in considering the viewer of my paintings, I want to avoid any angst-ridden preoccupation but rather to share a positive, active, accepting role of myself as a woman. I have hung onto this line from A.S. Byatt’s novel Possession: “If you can order your thoughts and shape them into Art, good; if you can live in the obligations and affections of daily life, good. But do not get into the habit of morbid self-examination. Nothing so unfits a woman for producing good work or for living usefully.”’
Her Self-Portrait shows her monumentally realised like a tall, svelte sentient sculpture, a dynamically still presence in a chic long dress of charcoal, slate and dove greys – wearing orange-red earrings of strident simplicity – and with the elongated form of an Art Deco-ish lizard brooch resting on (but seemingly about to scamper off – so alive it is!) the vast swathe of her left lapel. In many cultures historically, the image of the lizard has symbolically signified tenacity and powers of regeneration (if the creature loses a tail in a struggle for survival, it will quickly grow another one) as well as ecstatic self-focus as it bathes and luxuriates in the sun. As a painter, Mabbutt is dedicated to the daily, playful self-renewal of making art in her studio – literally the subject of her self-portrait (illustrating well T.E. Lawrence’s dictum that ‘happiness comes in absorption’).
The viewer inelucatbly follows a line from the introspective descent of the figure’s countenance (eyes occluded from the viewer) down through the emphatically slender left arm and sinuously long-fingered hand to the elegantly exaggerated paintbrush – itself just on the verge of descending into a tiny rectangle of orange paint on the tabletop. That minute physical interval between paintbrush tip and phosphorescent pigment is an acutely charged one. The art pinned to the wall helps put Mabbutt’s solitary creative moment into a more universal cultural context. Both cool and sonorous greens of nature can be discerned beyond this flaming studio space – in narrow bands within the postcard images and through the window frame.
She says that ‘paintings that have particularly encouraged me during many years of working are The Tailor by Giovanni Battista Moroni, Chardin’s Woman at the Urn, Derain’s My Family, Christopher Wood’s 1927 Self-Portrait and Robert Colquhoun’s Leaping Cat. At the National Gallery recently I was delighted to look again at Goya’s Duke and Duchess of Osuna and their Children.’
A Smaller Comfortable Chair (2015) is a recent self-portrait in which Mabbutt is seen lounging with unembarrassed abandon on her sofa, her bare feet with miniscule red-painted nails (a witty, uniquely particular colour accent) resting on a coffee table. Each abstracted form and incisively delineated (yet also subtly impalpable) detail in this picture of lemon yellows, tart greens, fierce ochres and silvery greys, adds to an urgently serene overall air, one of vibrant domestic repose.
Mabbutt’s paintings are in the Collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; The Arts Council, London; The Usher Gallery, Lincoln; and Falmouth Art Gallery.