Neil Thomas meets a star painter and ceramicist, whose passion remains undimmed after six decades of success.
Maggie Humphry’s paintings are fascinating. They defy pigeonholing. There is no one style – it’s a case of realism meets classicism meets impressionism meets abstract, all done in acrylic or oils with striking use of colour and light. What unites her work is its impact.
She treated me to a tour of her studio and small gallery – part of the four-storey townhouse in Broseley that she shares with husband Peter Tyler.
Maggie proved stimulating company, sharing her passion for her work, art in general and life overall.
She shared some of the stories behind her paintings, words flowing with a contagious enthusiasm.
“These are great stories, many of them cautionary tales, that really lend themselves to art.”
Her output has been staggering over the past two years of the pandemic, as she filled the barren hours of lockdowns and restrictions with the pleasures of painting.
“I’m always investigating different styles and tend to work in themes, usually six or seven paintings at a time, and then I move onto another subject,” she explains. “For instance, during the first lockdown, I read Stephen Fry’s Mythos and so a body of work came out of that.”
Fry’s book is a retelling of Greek Mythology for a 21st century audience and Maggie has committed to canvas her own interpretation of some of the legendary stories of gods and goddesses and their interaction with a human world alive with muscular heroes and breath-taking beauties.
“These are great stories, many of them cautionary tales, that really lend themselves to art. My paintings include the story of King Midas, who turned to gold everything he touched and of Narcissus, who was known for his beauty and fell in love with his own reflection in a pool of water,” Maggie explains.
She has produced a striking painting of the story of Icarus, the young man destroyed by his own hubris. He and his inventor father Daedalus attempt to escape Crete on wings made by the latter from feathers and wax. Icarus ignores his father’s warnings not to fly too close to the sun, which melts the wax causing the wings to collapse and Icarus to plunge to his doom.
“I also did my interpretation of the story of Arachne, who was a talented weaver. She challenged Athena, the goddess of crafts, to a weaving contest and produced a perfect tapestry. Athena was so angry that she could find no fault with the mortal’s work that she beat Arachne who then hanged herself and was turned into a spider, which of course is noted for its web-weaving skills.
“I did Leda and the Swan, the story of the young girl who is seduced by King of the Gods Zeus and also the story of Danae, the daughter of the king of Argon. The king was told by the oracle that he would be killed by his grandson. So, to prevent Danae having children and the prophecy coming true, he imprisoned her in a bronze chamber. Women didn’t fare very well in these stories,” Maggie says with a smile. “However, Zeus desired Danae and poured golden rain into her womb. Soon after, their son Perseus was born. The king cast them into the sea in wooden chest, where they were rescued by the god Poseidon. Years later at the athletic games, Perseus accidentally kills his grandfather with a stray discus or javelin, so the prophecy comes true.”
A buyer has already snapped up one in the collection, showcasing one of Greek Mythology’s most famous stories, that of Jason and Argonauts and their search for the golden fleece.
Moving from ancient legend to modern day reality, an arresting self-portrait captures the frustrations of the past two years as the pandemic forced us to become prisoners in our own homes.
“I entitled it Covid – all dressed up and nowhere to go,” says Maggie with a chuckle as we gaze on a painting of her in glamorous evening wear.
A keen wit infuses much of her work. A case in point is a series of richly-illustrated fans featuring cartoonish figures in animated poses, including The Loving Fan and The Wrekin Fan.
Another body of work arose out of holidays in Spain where her brother lived.
Some of her landscapes capture the spartan beauty of rustic life in Andalusia in southern Spain, with a particular focus on the goat herding tradition there.
“A keen wit infuses much of her work. A case in point is a series of richly-illustrated fans featuring cartoonish figures in animated poses.”
“I love that area and I love goats. There are hills and remote farms – in fact my brother lived down a dirt track that was inaccessible by car. Some of the houses there are 1,000 years old, with a lot of Moorish architecture reflecting the history of the place. People still live in these old houses but a lot of the younger people don’t want to be goat herds so they move into the towns and the tradition is sadly dying out.”
Other paintings reflect the life of small fishing communities on the Catalonian coast in north-eastern Spain, with a focus on the traditional boats used.
“I first drew these classic handmade old Catalan fishing boats in my sketch book in the 1960s. Many have been replaced by fibreglass and the little fishing communities that I saw have changed beyond measure.
“During our summer holiday in 2020, I was delighted to find a workshop in the village of Paulilles, just inside the French border with Spain. Here, at Nobel’s old dynamite factory, traditional Catalan boats were being refurbished and facsimiles lovingly made. There were many old photographs on display, plus a drawing of how a tree was planted and then bent over to grow to the shape of wood needed for boats. It was fascinating.
“I made many sketches and took photographs in order to work on a series of pictures when I got home. I’ve have tried to evoke my memories and feelings plus the shape of these stunning fishing boats. Often the boats went to sea at night with sodium lights on either side to attract the fish, the lights twinkling on the black water.”
Closer to home, Maggie has evoked the spirit of AE Housman, author of A Shropshire Lad, with eye-catching paintings of the county’s landscape, such as her Blue Horse Beneath The Stiperstones.
And newly-completed are a series of colourful impressions of Ironbridge at different seasons. Printed as cards, they are on sale at several outlets including The Bolthole in Ironbridge.
Maggie is more than happy for visitors to pop in and view her work at 23 King Street – you can’t miss it; called The Pink House, it’s exactly that.
As accomplished as her paintings are, though, Maggie made her name in another branch of the arts and crafts altogether – ceramics. For more than 40 years she built a successful business as a commercial ceramicist, with large showcase murals dotted around the UK and overseas.
A commission for Wigan Court House in the 1980s was given the royal seal of approval when it was unveiled by Lady Diana, Princess of Wales.
A 7ft high ceramic plaque of the Virgin Mary with the Christ child, commissioned by the Welsh Catholic Church, adorns the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth, where the Holy Family lived. Maggie’s plaque is surrounded by wild flowers that bear the name Mary.
A 9ft wide mural is a dominant presence at the Ness Botanical Gardens on The Wirral.
A huge dragon mural adorns the Dragon Theatre at Barmouth while a 5ft mural in Rhyl is inspired by the 6th century Welsh bard Taliesin.
Her more intimate work includes small, detailed figures and houses, often reflecting a medieval character, which became highly collectible.
“Several people built up substantial collections, in fact, and one was presented by admirers to Margaret Thatcher when she was Prime Minister.”
Maggie’s big set piece works in Barmouth, Rhyl and The Wirral, as well as other works in Bangor, Ruthin and Liverpool reflect the fact that she lived in North Wales for 30 years, in the small village of Llanfair Dyffryn Clwyd, near Ruthin.
Life was a struggle in the early days, after her move there in 1971 from her native Hertfordshire following the ending of her first marriage. The challenges of forging a career and raising a young son and daughter by herself meant day-to-day living was not always easy.
Maggie Humphry, though, is nothing if not a fighter – she won a battle with cancer a few years ago – and her talent would ensure that she left her mark on the cultural life of Wales.
She moved to Broseley, which she describes as a “lively little town”, in late 1999 and the switch to Shropshire coincided with a move away from ceramics towards drawing and painting.
“Ceramics is physically demanding. Clay would arrive in hundred weight bags which is not easy to carry around and the process of wedging the clay was damaging my hands. I can’t use my thumbs now. I’ve no strength in them and it’s painful when I bend them. One day I said to Peter ‘I don’t think I can do this anymore’.
So, Maggie returned to her first love – etching. “I’d always loved drawing since I was a little girl growing up in Hertfordshire.”
She was born during the war and as a two-year-old recalled a bomb landing on Watford six miles away and shattering their windows at home.
Home life was tough in the post-war austerity years, not least when her parents split and she moved with her mother to a one-room chalet. Artistically, though, she flourished, gifted enough to win a place at St Albans School of Art, where she studied sculpture.
“One of our life models was Quentin Crisp, an extraordinary man. His advice was to do things with style and he certainly did that himself. This was the early 1960s and homosexuality was still illegal, yet he was always true to himself.”
From there, Maggie moved to Wales for the first time, acquiring a degree-level teaching qualification at Swansea School of Art and University.
“Art to many is immensely relaxing and such creative therapy has been particularly important in combating the stress of the past couple of Covid-damaged years.”
By her early 20s, she had become Head of Art at a school in Barnet before taking the decision to become a full-time artist.
“For a couple of years, I was at Digswell House, which was a centre for arts development set up by Henry Morris in Welwyn Garden City. I became the new resident of Hans Coper’s ceramic studio when he moved on. I was so fortunate to have been there with my late friends, the weaver Peter Collingwood, ceramicists Mick and Sheila Casson and etcher John Brunsdon.”
Over the years she has added impressive credentials, such as membership of the Royal Cambrian Academy, based in Conwy, North Wales, and Associate of the Royal Birmingham Society of Artists.
As well as flair and insight, Maggie’s work demonstrates no little versatility, as the crossover in media attests.
“Actually, ceramic murals require a lot of drawing. I’ve been told that I draw like a dream, so when I moved to Shropshire, I sold my kiln and concentrated, instead, on drawing in pen and ink.”
One of early results was a charming book, Maggie Humphry’s Shropshire, which encapsulates her obvious affection for her adoptive home in a series of captivating, coloured drawings. Unsurprisingly, it sold out. Maggie has also illustrated books for other authors.
“At the same time, I was experimenting across several media, including a return to etching. After a few years, I began to paint in oils in earnest and have tended to concentrate on that form of art over the past six or seven years.”
Art to many is immensely relaxing and such creative therapy has been particularly important in combating the stress of the past couple of Covid-damaged years. It does, though, remain to most a hobby. To Maggie, it’s a passion, a life force, a necessity.
“My hobby is gardening,” she says wryly. It is a shared past time with Peter and, in fact, Maggie shows off the back garden with almost as much pleasure as she does her pictures. It is a tranquil suntrap, packed with refulgent blooms, a vegetable patch and greenhouse, planted with all sorts of produce for the kitchen table, assorted sculptures and ornaments, and a small wild patch to encourage insect life, all to the incessant soundtrack of happy birdsong.
After three engrossing hours in her company, I depart, leaving Maggie at her easel. Bright afternoon sunshine floods in through the cinemascope-shaped picture windows which offer views over the rooftops of Broseley towards lush green Shropshire countryside. The studio is infused with a mellow light as Maggie dabs at the canvas in what seems, to an outsider, like a fulfilled life of supreme contentment.
Visit www.maggie-humphry.co.uk for more information.