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Mary Casserley’s Art Deco-inspired paintings

PUBLISHED: 10:03 10 December 2018

The Courthouse by Mary Casserley

The Courthouse by Mary Casserley

Mary Casserly

Berkhamsted’s Mary Casserley is inspired by history, trains and the posters of the Art Deco period. Her paintings celebrate them all

Have a go at describing Mary Casserley’s paintings and you’d be hard pushed to find more apt words than effervescent and quirky. But then that’s hardly surprising given those terms equally reflect their creator.

‘I was born arty,’ the 51-year-old says. ‘I went to Watford School of Art to do my foundation. After a fine art degree I started sewing and made recycled patchwork velvet clothes – one-offs, a bit hippy.’

Outlining her background, with a promise to ‘be really quick’ (though there’s no need), Mary reveals how a year travelling culminated in a chance meeting with the director of the National Heritage Board of Singapore, resulting in a book commission featuring 70 images she drew over a three-month period, ‘which paid for my backpacking’. On returning home she became a technician in the art department at Berkhamsted School, a role that lasted 20 years.

Canal winter scene by Mary CasserleyCanal winter scene by Mary Casserley

Her paintings have two key influences – history and trains, the latter accentuated by thousands of postcards accumulated by her father. ‘The whole family are collectors,’ Mary explains. ‘We hoard things – that’s the word.’

Mary says it is the distinct gouache artwork, and particularly the posters, of the Art Deco period that inspires her style.

‘There’s an original 1930s poster in dad’s study. It’s flat, simple and beautiful and I wished I could paint like that. Next thing I was on a walk with my son and saw a water tower with the sun catching it at an angle. I thought, I’m gonna do it. I’d never used gouache before, I didn’t even know what it was, but I got some from school and made a pig’s ear of it but it gave the effect I wanted. In the early ones, I put my son in everything. I added my brother, wearing a Watford scarf, to The Courthouse.’

Berkhamsted geese by Mary CasserleyBerkhamsted geese by Mary Casserley

In her old bedroom at her parents’ Edwardian house not far from Berkhamsted High Street we’re surrounded by numerous framed images Mary has produced over the last four years. This artistic hub overlooks the back garden where only a modest amount of sunlight seeps in towards the end of the day. It’s home to shelves of art books, materials and drawers of original artwork.

Championing all things local, the artist not only sources the tools of her trade from her hometown, but her subjects too. Berkhamsted’s 16th century half-timbered courthouse, The Rex Art Deco cinema and Victorian gothic town hall have all been captured in colourful paintings. And many of her works hark back, not only to the colour block style of 1930s advertising, but depict the scene as if it actually was the 30s complete with characters in period dress and cars of the age.

‘I can be somewhere and I just see it finished – see the composition. I paint what I know. I sketch and take photos for reference then put everything, such as the way people are dressed, into the past.’

Mary at her studio desk in what was her old bedroom in her parents' Edwardian home in BerkhamstedMary at her studio desk in what was her old bedroom in her parents' Edwardian home in Berkhamsted

At her solid desk, made of railway sleepers, Mary’s starting point is a pencil sketch on cartridge paper followed by painting the sky.

‘This is quick and easy and makes me feel I’ve done half the painting,’ she laughs.

The snowflakes in her winter scenes haven’t been added with white paint but are the result of leaving sections of paper exposed. The flakes’ random shapes are one of the few features that divert attention away from the feel of a linocut.

Coombe Hill in the snow by Mary CasserleyCoombe Hill in the snow by Mary Casserley

And the attraction of gouache over say oils? ‘I compare it to granulated sugar and icing sugar. You can’t use granulated to ice a cake because it goes lumpy, but icing sugar is milled fine. The pigment in gouache is also milled very fine. I use paint and a brush and pencil on paper. I’ve put on the back of my cards: No computers were used to paint this picture. That’s not what I’m about.’

As chairman of the local history society and a member of the Chiltern Society, an appreciation of the area’s heritage resonates throughout our conversation. But she’s not stuck in the past by any means – marketing prints of her work online. ‘Before 9am I’ve done three hours on Etsy and eBay. What I have, in bucketfuls, is self discipline.’

In contrast, pricing her work is the sort of challenge that induces a head in hands moment. But she’s obviously got it right, as card and print sales are healthy and she’s developed good relationships with gift shops in the county, such as The House of Elliott in Hemel Old Town, Tring’s Fancy That and Berkhamsted Imaging. But she admits it’s not about the money but rather the sense of satisfaction when someone buys her work.

And the future? Along with expanding to art fairs next year, Mary has plans to broaden her choice of subject matter to embrace more of the Chilterns. One thing’s for sure, regardless of the subject, Mary will capture it with a vintage charm.

For more on the artist, see marycasserley.com

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