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Notable Society members of the past - Mary Charlotte Greene

Mary Charlotte Greene, (1860 - 1951) Cambridge Artist. Joined the Cambridge Drawing Society in 1894 and became President from 1926 to 1929.

 

This is the first article produced by CDS Archivist Colin Lees, who is researching the history of the Society. More articles will follow, which collectively will form a greater archive for all to enjoy in the years to come.

Known to her family as Polly, Mary Charlotte Green was born in the village of Takeley, midway between Great Dunmow and Bishop’s Stortford, in the Uttlesford district of Essex, to a prosperous family whose fortune had been made in the brewing industry.

Mary Charlotte Greene (1)Though she lived to the great age of 91, as a child Mary was considered ‘delicate’ and consequently received little formal schooling. As a young woman, however, she went to live in Paris with her younger sister Helen, where she studied art at the Académie Julian. Unlike the Ecole de Beaux-Arts, the Académie Julian accepted women students and did not impose a language test upon foreign applicants. She later went on to study at the Royal Academy Schools in London.

Mary’s father died in 1881, whilst visiting his sugar plantations on the island
of St Kitts. In 1894 Mary’s elder brother, Sir William Graham Greene, Permanent Secretary to the Admiralty, purchased Harston House near Cambridge. Old- fashioned and in need of improvement, the house was nevertheless large enough for his widowed mother Charlotte and his sisters to live with him there.

Mary Charlotte Greene (2)Mary regarded Cambridge as an artistic backwater, set in what she described as ‘impossible country’, far from the artistic life she had enjoyed in Paris and London; but as a dependent spinster, she had little option but to accept the move and make the best of it. Initially she took little artistic inspiration from the flat Cambridgeshire landscape and wrote, “I wandered over the countryside looking for subjects to paint and found none that I cared for.”

Around 1900, Mary’s recently widowed sister Florence moved in and took charge of Harston House, leaving Mary free to follow her artistic pursuits. She gave weekly art lessons to a small group of children at the Old Vicarage in Grantchester; she began visiting Cambridge and, though she had a studio at Harston, established another in the city, off St Andrew’s Street, where she held exhibitions.

Mary joined the Cambridge Drawing Society in 1894 and was its President from 1926 until 1929. She gave lessons to other members, including Gwen Raverat who would go on to become a celebrated wood engraver. Early Society meetings were held at her Cambridge studio and though several sources claim that Mary’s membership ended with her Presidency in 1929, it is clear from CDS records that she remained an active member throughout the 1930s and 40s until her death in 1951. Six of her paintings were displayed In Memoriam at the Society’s annual exhibition in 1952 and today a collection of her works is held at the Cambridge and County Folk Museum, though they are not currently on display.

Mary Charlotte Greene (3)

In his boyhood, the author Graham Greene (1904-1991) spent summer holidays at Harston Hall, and in his autobiography A Sort of Life remembers his aunt as “dear muddled-headed Polly who painted bad pictures and wrote ambitious plays for the village institute”. His judgement of her work is a matter of opinion, of course, but examples currently available to view on-line reveal that – whatever their artistic merit – they form an important record of areas of the city which have changed greatly or have long since been lost to the developer’s wrecking-ball.

Sources: (i) CDS records; (ii) the Harston History webpage and (iii) A Picture of the Cambridge Drawing Society by Anne C. Clay.

The photograph of Mary C. Greene in her studio is from the Harston History website and the picture of Red Lion Yard can be found on the Art-UK website, along with other examples of Mary’s pictures.

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