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Potter [née Attenborough], Marian Anderson [Mary] (1900–1981), painter, was born on 9 April 1900 at Rockford, Barnmead Road, Beckenham, Kent, the second of the four children of (John) Arthur Attenborough (1873–1940), solicitor, and his wife, Kathleen Mary, née Doble (1872–1957). She was educated at St Christopher's, Beckenham, and at Beckenham School of Art. She won a scholarship to the Royal College of Art but out of preference went to the Slade School of Fine Art instead. When she arrived there in October 1918, she was taught by Professor Henry Tonks, who believed that students should learn to paint exactly what they saw; Mary would argue furiously with him but thought him a wonderful teacher and in turn became a star pupil. She won a near record number of prizes. At the Slade she was extremely popular and was remembered as a great party-goer. Her ‘turn’ was to sing songs and accompany herself on the ukulele. She became known as Att (short for Attenborough), a name which remained with her until her fifties. After leaving the Slade she shared a studio in nearby Fitzroy Street and became an early member of the . She exhibited with it on at least three occasions but resigned early on, never liking to align herself with any kind of movement. She also exhibited at the New English Art Club. Very few of these early paintings can be traced, but according to the critic P. G. Konody her work was ‘competent and accomplished’.

At a boat race party given by A. P. Herbert, Mary Attenborough met the critic and radio producer , whom she married on 7 July 1927. They rented from the Herberts a tiny house overlooking the Thames in Chiswick Mall. Mary painted the world around her—a vase of flowers on a window sill with the river in the background, or an ornament on a bookcase. She and her husband later moved into a bigger house—Thames Bank, a few doors along Chiswick Mall. Two sons were born: Andrew in 1928 and Julian in 1931. Bringing up a family made inroads into her painting. None the less on a normal day she would paint at least throughout the morning. Records of over 100 Chiswick oils exist: undoubtedly she painted many more. Her first solo exhibition was at the Bloomsbury Gallery, London, in 1932, followed by a second in 1939 at Arthur Tooth & Sons. With the onset of war Mary and her husband, who was working for the BBC, moved to Manchester. Opportunities to paint were limited but she sold The Golden Kipper to the Tate Gallery at this time, and two pictures to the Manchester City Art Gallery. In 1941 the Potters moved to a farmhouse deep in the Essex countryside, where Mary had more freedom to work. She received commissions for a number of portraits, mostly of local friends. Her talent for portrait painting had been recognized by Henry Tonks, who had set up commissions for her when she left the Slade. She liked to paint her closest friends, of whom the actress Joyce Grenfell was one whose portrait she painted extremely successfully, capturing her humour as well as her depth of character. While she undertook portrait commissions for financial reasons, she continued with her other work. At the end of the war the Potters moved to a flat in Harley Street, London. The Essex paintings, together with the first of many views of Regent's Park and of Harley Street, were shown at Arthur Tooth & Sons in 1946. Over half were sold, including a series of paintings of the windswept seafront at Brighton in winter. She was slow to build up enough paintings for a further show because of family distractions. Her next exhibition was at the Leicester Galleries, in Leicester Square, London.

In 1951 Mary Potter and her husband moved to the Red House in Aldeburgh, Suffolk. Stephen Potter already knew Benjamin Britten through his work at the BBC, and it was not long before the Potters took part fully in Aldeburgh life, serving on the council of the music festival. Sessions of the Aldeburgh Music Club were held either at the Red House or at Crag House, Britten's home on the seafront. Every summer Britten, Peter Pears, and the Potters formed the nucleus of countless tennis parties on the grass court at the Red House. From this time until his last illness Britten became Mary's very close friend. Other friends made at this time included Sir Laurens van der Post, who was living at Aldeburgh, a tennis opponent as well as a collector of her work. Many years later he attended all her exhibitions at the New Art Centre in Sloane Street, London. With more time to paint, Mary Potter began a regime of long hours of work every day which was to become ever more unrelenting over the next thirty years. In 1954 her husband asked for a divorce, which became effective in 1955. As the Red House was too large and too expensive for one person, it was decided that she and Britten should swap houses, and in 1957 she moved to Crag House. Her work was shown regularly at the Leicester Galleries, and her pictures were sold to many leading collectors and museums.

In 1963 Bryan Robertson, director of the Whitechapel Art Gallery, London, proposed that Mary Potter should have an exhibition there and persuaded her that she was capable of developing in new directions, on a larger scale. A retrospective exhibition of her work opened at the gallery in October 1964 and was a brilliant success. The accompanying catalogue had a foreword by Sir Kenneth Clark and the exhibition toured to Sheffield, King's Lynn, and Chichester. At this time Mary Potter moved into a studio house commissioned by Benjamin Britten and designed by Peter Colleymore in the garden of the Red House, her old home. As her reputation grew steadily she continued to be involved in the Aldeburgh festival. She held exhibitions, and painted many portraits of musicians such as Janet Baker and Britten. Seeking to change her exhibiting arrangements, and on the recommendation of Sir Kenneth Clark, another great friend, she approached the New Art Centre in Sloane Street, London, where both the directors of the gallery responded enthusiastically to her work. From 1967 until 1980 an exhibition of her work was mounted every two years at the gallery, and for each exhibition she produced about fifteen new paintings.

Using beeswax mixed with paint Mary Potter achieved a chalky luminous quality in her paintings, and from the 1950s her range of colours was pale and subtle. She always put strict instructions on the back of each painting not to varnish or glaze the work, abhorring the use of shiny varnish or gloss, both widely used by many artists to give their work a false depth. Her later paintings became more diffuse and abstracted; their misty colours were never bright and very seldom pure. She painted in an evocative shorthand, the lines and half-shapes suggesting the whole. Certain images continued to appear in her work, such as a leaf-shape, a fraction of tree trunk, or the misted disc of a sun. Her paintings at this time expressed joy, beauty, and freedom, and some of her best and most original work was produced in these last years.

Honours and wider recognition came during this period: in 1979 Mary Potter was made an OBE, and in 1980 the Tate Gallery held an exhibition of her work, in two of its rooms, which included many of the paintings it owned, together with loans from other museums. In May the following year the Arts Council of Great Britain organized a full-scale retrospective of her work at the Serpentine Gallery in London. With its magical light filtered through the leaves of the trees of Kensington Gardens, the space was a perfect setting for her paintings. The show received outstanding critical acclaim and was attended by 25,000 people before it went on tour. Critically ill with the lung cancer which caused her death four months later, she went to London for the hanging and the private view. Mary Potter died on 14 September 1981 at her home, the Red Studio, Golf Lane, Aldeburgh, and was cremated on the 16th at Ipswich crematorium.

Madeleine Bessborough

Sources  

private information (2004) [family; friends] · J. Potter, Mary Potter: a life of painting (1998) · New Art Centre Sculpture Park and Gallery Archive, Salisbury · CGPLA Eng. & Wales (1982) · b. cert.

Archives  

Tate collection, corresp. with Lord Clark


Wealth at death  

£63,626: probate, 26 March 1982, CGPLA Eng. & Wales