Margaret Green

Painter inspired by coastal Suffolk
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The Independent Online

Margaret Green, painter and teacher: born West Hartlepool, Co Durham 7 March 1925; married Lionel Bulmer (died 1992); died Saxtead, Suffolk 4 November 2003.

With her husband Lionel Bulmer, Margaret Green formed one of the most enduring partnerships in modern English painting. They were members of that large band of artists for whom coastal Suffolk was both home and artistic inspiration.

The holiday life of the region's dunes and beaches was a key element in Green's work. Through a long painting career, she produced figurative work that is remarkably consistent: colourful, strongly designed and immediately attractive, yet with lasting appeal.

East Anglia has for several centuries been an artists' haven. The long, uncluttered vistas and huge, open skies were an obvious attraction for the early Norwich School artists such as John Crome and John Sell Cotman. By the early 1890s, the tiny coastal resort of Walberswick, a favourite spot of Green's, was a focus for painters associated with the New English Art Club, such as Fred Brown, Walter Sickert and Philip Wilson Steer.

These stalwarts of the New English, of which Margaret Green would later be elected a member, were interested in the region's singular light and appealing subjects. The chance to acquire a modestly priced property within reach of such quiet resorts as Walberswick, Southwold and Aldeburgh was another reason why many artists flocked to the region, as it would be for Green and her husband.

They had very different backgrounds. Whereas Bulmer was a Londoner, inheriting sound draughtsmanship and an interest in buildings from an architect father, Margaret Green was born in Hartlepool, Co Durham, the elder of two daughters of a stock-taker in a local steel plant. Her father was a member of the local art club and once Margaret had decided, at 16, that she wanted to be a painter, she had parental support.

It was on a holiday visit to North Yorkshire that Margaret Green's portrait was painted by the artist Patrick Heron, who was staying in the adjacent cottage. She never met Heron again, but this artist, who was to become one of the most persuasive advocates and outstanding practitioners of the modern movement in Britain, had spurred Green towards her lifetime's work.

After West Hartlepool School of Art she won a scholarship to the Royal College of Art, 1944-47. She was a star pupil, winning Henriques and Travelling Scholarships, a Silver Medal and Painting Prize.

When Green joined the Royal College it was still evacuated to its wartime Lake District headquarters at Ambleside. Bulmer was immediately attracted to the brilliant, beautiful Green and by the time the college returned to South Kensington in 1945 they were inseparable.

Gilbert Spencer was Professor of Painting, Charles Mahoney a notable teacher. Fred Dubery, eventually a neighbour and close friend of the Bulmers in Suffolk, remembers that Green also retained a high regard for the artist Victor Pasmore, although he was to take a non- representational route very different from hers at the time that she was finishing her studies.

It is not uncommon that when two painters marry, the husband continues with the career while the wife sacrifices hers to become housewife and mother, perhaps only later taking up her brush again. The Bulmers were unusual in that their careers continued in tandem. They could even paint harmoniously side-by-side. "They were the most married people you could possibly imagine," says Dubery. "They were never out of each others' sight or hearing." This personal closeness was accompanied by a clam-tight reticence about personal details. "If Margaret could obfuscate something, she would." Green's year of birth was a closely guarded secret, as was their year of marriage.

Green's £160 travelling scholarship from the Royal College enabled them to spend much of an idyllic year wandering and painting in France. They became content with the simple but good life, reflected in the subjects they chose to focus on: commonplace things and occurrences. A still life with apples, friends in an interior, people in a park, a dress shop, Monday washing day and figures on a beach proved the backbone of Green's work. This was evident in From City to Sea, the exhibition at Messum's gallery in London just under a year ago that reviewed the Bulmers' lifetime achievement.

After the Royal College and the Scholarship trip, Green and her husband settled in Chelsea, first in a rented room in Elm Park Gardens, then in a studio in Lucan Place. They both taught, she at Walthamstow Art School, eventually to be recruited to the Royal Academy Schools.

Green proved an inspiring teacher, especially good at all the practical matters such as colour-mixing, gessoing and drawing, but could appear daunting, especially to female students. Dubery believes that despite being outwardly formidable,

there was a quiet and rather timid woman behind all the huff-and-puff. Margaret never went abstract as a painter. Faced with a term like conceptualism, she would say: "I don't even understand the word." She would not even begin to think about it. She would stand her ground and have no messing with anything she didn't understand.

Films were a great interest, Dubery remembers. At Walthamstow, "one of her students was Peter Greenaway, who made the film The Draughtsman's Contract. She thought highly of him."

When they could, early in their marriage the Bulmers explored the countryside for subjects. Sussex and the South Coast were favourite spots and the beach scenes began. For a while, an unheated, rented room overlooking the River Arun was their country base. However, they wanted something more permanent. They bought a van, took Dalton's Weekly and in the late 1950s, for £850, bought an ancient, wilderness-surrounded thatched cottage at Onehouse, near Stowmarket, Suffolk, while always retaining a base in London.

By clearing overgrown gardens running down to the River Rat they created a carefully planned, largely self-sufficient garden. This produced not only flowers and vegetables, quince wine and their own beer but also for Green a compelling subject. "Lionel and Margaret were great plantsmen. During the summer they always set aside part of the day to work in the garden," says Dubery. "With it and interests such as music, theirs was a very quiet and domesticated life."

At her Suffolk and London studios Green painted steadily, but it was not until 1972 that she had a solo show, at David Wolfers' New Grafton Gallery. She and Bulmer had shared an exhibition at the Trafford Gallery in 1954. Otherwise, her characteristically reticent works, oil on board and often no more than a few inches square, made mixed show appearances at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition, Leicester Galleries' Artists of Fame and Promise, Roland, Browse and Delbanco, South London Art Gallery, d'Offay Couper Gallery, William Ware and Charles Keyser Galleries, in touring exhibitions and in the provinces.

Paintings by Green and Bulmer were included in Richard Scott's seminal exhibition Walberswick Enigma - Artists Inspired by the Blyth Estuary, held at Christchurch Mansion, Ipswich, in 1994, and Green's work was in Walberswick Post-War to Present, at Chappel Galleries, near Colchester, in 1998. These were forerunners of Scott's authoritative 2002 survey volume Artists at Walberswick, in which both artists are featured.

Over the years, Margaret Green's work was acquired by numerous private collectors and a string of notable public and corporate collections. These included the Chantrey Bequest, the Financial Times, Queens' College, Cambridge, the Ministries of Information and Public Building and Works, and galleries in Carlisle, Coventry, Leeds and Nottingham.

David Buckman