This year, on New Year’s day my partner and I went for a walk along the front in Brighton. Our meandering wanderings took us into a delightful shop strategically located on the front – part art gallery, part arty-farty shop called Castor and Pollux. As we rootled through the beautiful pictures I came across a print of a painting that spoke to me, and captured my heart, it was called ‘The Dog in the Garden’. It was the most loving, clever painting I had looked at for many, many years. It was entrancing – the hedge was so hedgy, the birds so birdy-like and the dog so sweetly doggish. The creator of this painting had learned to capture the spirit of nature — the cultivated nature of this land. I wanted to buy the print, but it was a bit beyond my price capability so soon after Christmas, but I was captivated.
Afterwards we wandered into the Grand Hotel for tea, and no sooner had we sat down, I googled the artist’s name – Mary Sumner – and was completely blown away by the images that came up. Here was an artist who understood the allure of English gardens, allotments, landscapes, countryside and also animals and birds; she was massively competent technically, and utterly inspired creatively. About a month after this happened, we were booked into a hotel in Cornwall for a few days, and bearing in mind that Mary Sumner lived in Tiverton in Mid Devon, I decided to contact her in the hope that perhaps we could meet and talk about commissioning a painting. But Mary was elusive. She didn’t respond to her emails, and I couldn’t find her phone number. Urged on by the family, I rang an art gallery close to where she lived, and somebody answered the phone in a sort of friendly way. I asked if this was the Gallery, and he said ‘no’, and I said ‘what a shame, I’m looking for the work of a particular painter’, and the friendly voice at the end of the phone asked which artist, and I replied ‘Mary Sumner’, and the voice said ‘well you’ve come to the right place’. In a strange twist of fate, I had rung Mary’s home number, and her husband, John, had answered. And so we went to visit their magical house in Tiverton, on the way back from Cornwall.
And meeting these two lovely people was one of those strange things, because it was as if we had all known each other for ages. And as we looked at Mary’s prints and talked about the exhibition she was currently working on in Southwold, she merrily explained that just about all her work was sold before it had even been shipped… but we still commissioned one of her great paintings. I said in passing ‘you know how I can afford to buy your amazing work… I’m an interfaith minister and I make my money doing funerals,’ and equally casually Mary replied, ‘that’s useful, I’ve been looking for somebody to do mine.’
Despite her cheerful reply, Mary was dying, but it was difficult to believe, she had such a powerful personality, such a massive hold on life, such a passionate commitment to her implausibly beautiful work. Afterwards we stayed in touch, but we never saw Mary again. We communicated very regularly – my partner supported her in a number of ways, and I sent her recorded meditations to help her relax and also deal with the chemotherapy. She responded by sending us some utterly exquisite prints.
The circumstances of our meeting were so curious, and so mysterious. It is this kind of magic serendipity that obliges me to point out where and what I think Mary may well be up to now; by my reckoning she is appreciating that being in another dimension is even more astonishing and beautiful than being in this one.
It is work like Mary’s that reminds me of the power of spirit over matter. For me, the most compelling aspect of Mary’s work was her ability to capture the ‘spirit’ of animals, birds and scenery. Shortly after she died in June, we took a journey in the car into the country, and I found myself marvelling at her ability to capture the very essence of wood pigeons and finches, poppies and thistles, and many other life forms.
I have a real passion for Vaughan Williams’s melodic depictions of English countryside, and I realise he used music, because thoughts and emotions can be better and more meaningfully conveyed as sound, wonderful sound. Mary Sumner did something very similar – she understood and expressed the soul of nature through her work, painting the very spirit of English countryside in a way that would never be achieved in words. If I could toast you now Mary I would; this blog is the nearest I can get to raising a glass to your prodigious talent. Here’s to you, Mary. We love you, we love your work.
Mary Sumner 1957 to 2016