Maria Sax Ledger

Artist 'discovered' at 60
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The Independent Online

Maria Martha Sax, artist: born Zurich 12 July 1916; married 1937 Neville Hallam (two sons; marriage dissolved), 1950 Peter Ledger (died 2003; two daughters); died Dolgellau, Gwynnedd 26 March 2006.

The career of Maria Sax Ledger embodied many of the problems faced by women artists in the 20th century. Until the age of 60, she worked without any contact with the official institutions of art. None the less she painted every day and, significantly, never exhibited with amateur groups. Until the late 1970s she gave her paintings away to friends and relations.

She was "discovered" at the age of 60 when the painter John Henshaw organised a solo show at Warminster Art Centre. Over the next 20 years she exhibited frequently in North Wales, mainly at Coleg Harlech and at Oriel Plas Glyn-y-Weddw, Llanbedrog, her professional career culminating in 1996 with a Welsh Arts Council retrospective organised by Susan Daniel (now director of Tate St Ives) at Oriel Mostyn, Llandudno.

Although self-taught, Sax Ledger could hardly be described as a naïve painter. She was no Grandma Moses; her models were the best early modernists. A powerful poetic colourist, she was strongly influenced by Van Gogh and by German Expressionists like Nolde and Schmidt-Rottluff and artists working in Switzerland such as Chagall, Ferdinand Hodler and Giovanni Segantini.

She was essentially a painter, but she paid little attention to the hierarchies of art. She embroidered in an anarchic fashion and put enormous energy into the interiors of her houses and the design of her clothes. In her later years, with the collaboration of her doughty dressmaker, "Marlene" of Penrhyndeudreth, her appearance became a vivid extension of her art.

Her childhood was troubled, caught between Bohemianism and the harsh strictures of bourgeois Swiss society. She was born Maria Sax in Zurich in 1916 and educated at Château de Montmirail, Neuchâtel, and at Institut Minerva, an élite boy's school in Zurich at which she was the only girl. Her flamboyant father, Karl Sax, the director of an insurance firm, was also a poet, novelist and essayist. He was seen by her as a "genius", unmatched by any other man, and he made her aware of the rich intellectual and political life in Zurich in the 1920s.

Although Zurich was her playground she also spent memorable summers climbing and hiking at a summer camp at Mollis in Canton Glarus. As a teenager she spent long hours in the Zurich Kunsthaus and studied the paintings owned by her father's friend Oskar Reinhardt. She briefly attended Zurich University. Her apparently idyllic life was cut short by her father's suicide in 1935.

Rebelling against her autocratic brothers, she impulsively ran away to England and found herself incompetently baking cakes in the basement of a Surrey teashop. In 1937 she married Neville Hallam, an eccentric medical practitioner almost twice her age. Homesick, she began to paint on the wooden furniture in the kitchen, ostensibly to cheer up her cook.

By 1950 she was married to Peter Ledger and living in one of England's few Modern Movement houses, near the North Downs. There she began to paint in earnest, on canvases but also on doors, round door-frames and on windows. Her activities certainly tempered the austerities of Ernst Freud's functionalist architecture. She was encouraged in her art by a tiny network that included the Australian painter Bill Veale, the Dutch artist and mineralogist Henk Huffener and the Swiss dealer in African art Herbert Reiser.

As her choice of friends suggests, Sax Ledger found the English an impenetrably cold race. In compensation she idealised every aspect of her childhood and talked every day about her father and her "homeland". Switzerland became a lost domain where the snow fell thickly, where children skated till midnight on ponds deep in the woods, where lovers fell into fast-flowing rivers, grasping haplessly at clumps of blue flowers and were swept away crying, "Vergiss mich nicht!" This obsessive "Heimweh" translated into her paintings. They were landscapes of the imagination, invariably dominated by an orange sun, ranged left. A sequence of paintings documented the folk life of old Helvetia - its village funerals and weddings and its unforgiving and often eerie tales and legends.

When she moved to North Wales in 1980, the remarkable landscape of Ardudwy might have outfaced her imagination. But she was never tied down by actuality or by the ambient beauty of the Artro valley. In Wales, she created a large studio that became her exclusive territory. As her work passed from the world of the gift to the rather more bracing world of the commodity she took on the mantle of celebrity with delight and was frequently interviewed and filmed, still a strikingly beautiful woman in old age, dispensing intuitive and often eccentric insights to a circle of youthful admirers.

Tanya Harrod