Mary Potter OBE (1900-1981)

Winter Sea - SOLD

Oil on canvas

40 x 50 cm (15½ x 19½ in)

Painted in 1953

Provenance: Purchased at the 1954 Leicester Galleries exhibition by John Barrow, a member of The Contemporary Art Society, and thence by descent.
Exhibited: Leicester Galleries, October 1954.

The view is of the shingle beach and sea at Aldeburgh, Suffolk, painted near Crag House, the home of the composer, Benjamin Britten and the opera singer, Peter Pears. Mary Potter had moved to Aldeburgh in 1951 and struck up a friendship with Britten and the two would spend time together. It is the view Britten had when composing from his first floor studio (see photograph, below) and was painted when Britten was still living there. It is, therefore, the view he looked out on while composing his great works of that time, Peter Grimes, Billy Budd and Turn of the Screw.

© Benjamin Britten Archive. All rights reserved.

The sea had played an important part in Britten’s life since boyhood when he was brought up in Lowestoft, and this view with its atmospheric, almost symphonic tonalities of salmon pink, greenish blue, whites and shades of brown could easily be understood in relation to Britten’s music.

A more specific reference, however, is the concrete block, just visible in the painting, nestled into the shingle, which is almost certainly a remnant of the sea defences built to counter high tides and flooding. A similar view by Potter, Sea Defences, 1952, in which concrete blocks are more prominent, is in the Usher Gallery collection, Lincoln.

In January 1953, there were serious floods along the east coast which breached the inadequate sea defences claiming 50 lives in Suffolk. Aldeburgh, pinned between the River Orde and the North Sea, was badly hit and the ground floor of Britten’s house was flooded. So it is quite likely that Winter Sea, with its turbulent waves, bears the memory of those floods; such a quiet painting, but such a threatening undertow.

Four years after this was painted, Britten complained to Potter that walkers along the beach distracted his concentration. He may also have been worried that, as homosexuality was illegal, and he had recently been cautioned by police, that passers-by along Crag Path may have been spying on him. So they swapped houses – he moving into her house, the Red House, a five-minute drive inland, which was more secluded and is now the Britten-Pears Foundation, and she into Crag House.

Mary Potter was born in Beckenham, Kent, and studied at the Slade School from 1918 to 1921, winning a Slade Scholarship in 1919. She exhibited with the New English Art Club from 1922, under her maiden name of Mary Attenborough, and the London Group from 1929. Along with Ivon Hitchens and Winifred Nicholson, she was briefly an early member of the Seven & Five Art Society. During the 1930s, she lived in Chiswick with her husband, Stephen Potter, a writer and BBC producer.

After the war she lived near Regent’s Park where she painted in the light, muted colour harmonies that became her hallmark, before moving to Suffolk in 1951. She developed a technique of drawing in detail and then eliminating to create emphasis on atmosphere. She mixed her paint with beeswax to achieve a chalky quality and subtler tonalities.

Following her 1954 exhibition at the Leicester Galleries, in which Winter Sea was included, the art critic 0f The Sunday Times, John Russell, wrote of her work: "Its first impact is deceptive. So much quietness, so much greyness, so much distilled, reflective light, so subdued and delicate a crust of paint – might all this not make for monotony? It might; but it does not, because Mrs Potter’s pictures, so casual seeming, are in fact minutely planned. In the big beach-scapes every fragment of sea-wrack has its place, and keeps it; and the weather is instinct with the fleck and dazzle of the sea."

In 1965, the museum director Kenneth Clark wrote that Potter's works "exist in the domain of seeing and feeling; we know that they are exactly right in the same way that we know a singer to be perfectly in tune."

Examples of her work are held by Tate Britain, local museums and art societies throughout the country, including the Government Art Collection and the Contemporary Art Society. Major retrospective exhibitions of her work were held at the Tate Gallery in 1980 and at the Serpentine Gallery in 1981.


Winter Sea by Mary Potter OBE (1900-81) at Kynance Fine Art, London.