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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.

Known to her family as Polly, Mary Charlotte Green was born in Takeley, midway between Great Dunmow and Bishop's Stortford, to a prosperous brewing family.

As a child Mary was considered delicate and received a rather patchy formal education. When she was about six years old her family moved to a house called Riversdale in the village of Grantchester. Whilst her brother Graham went to school in Cambridge, Mary and her sisters were taught at the Old Vicarage by 'Aunt Lally', the unmarried sister of a Mrs Widnall, whose husband, Mary tells us, planted the famous Orchard next to his house.

Colarossi (Greene)

After about five years in Grantchester the Greene family moved to Bedford, where, they believed, the schools were better than those to be found it Cambridge, and Mary was sent to the Moravian School for Girls.  She must have shown artistic talent, for, after her father's death in 1881, she was allowed to study art at the St John's Wood School in London, which prepared youngsters for entry to the Royal Academy Schools. For the first six months of her time at the school Mary lived with her brother Graham in his lodgings at Highgate.  Later she returned to her family when they left Bedford and settled in Hampstead.

In 1885 or thereabouts, Mary won a place at the R.A. Schools and though her studies started well the arrival in 1887 of a strict new Keeper of the Royal Academy, Philip Hermogenes Calderon (1833-1898), changed things in ways that were uncongenial to her. For example, she recalls that she lost valued friendships when Calderon decreed that seniors may no longer associate with students in lower years. Unhappy at the Academy, she did not finish the course.

After the Royal Academy Schools, Mary and her younger sister Helen went to Paris, where she studied art at the Académie Colarossi. (Some sources state that Mary attended the Académie Julian, a similar institution to Colarossi, which also accepted female students. However, Mary's own memoir clearly states that she attended the Colarossi Academy.) Unlike the celebrated Ecole de Beaux-arts, the Académie Colarossi accepted women students and did not impose a strict French language test upon foreign applicants. Here she received tuition from Gustave-Claude-Etienne Courtois (1852-1923) and Rene-Xavier Prinet (1861-1946). She remarked that there was an 'atmosphere of freedom and trust' at the Colarossi school, in which she was able to "recover [her] spirits, which had been lost in the cellars of the Royal Academy."

In 1894 Mary's elder brother Graham, by this time knighted and 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 and his sisters, including Mary, to live with him there.

Greene.Mary C.01a (Greene)

At first 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 of 34, 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."

When Mary's recently widowed sister Florence moved to Harston and took charge of Harston House, Mary had greater freedom to follow her artistic interests. It must have been around 1895 that a Dr Lumby of Grantchester asked her to give art lessons to his children. From these beginnings Mary's circle of pupils grew steadily. Lady Horace Darwin, invited her to the Orchard in Grantchester to teach her children and some of their young cousins and friends; among her pupils was Gwen Darwin, who - under her married name of Raverat - would become an important figure in the revival of English wood-engraving, and a future President of the Cambridge Drawing Society. Little Gwen clearly enjoyed her Wednesday classes with Miss Greene. In her memoir Period Piece she recalled that the lessons "were the centre of my youthful existence. I lived from Wednesday to Wednesday; for not only was drawing an ecstasy, but that Miss Greene's warm, generous, appreciative nature was a great release and encouragement to me." Mary was clearly a lively and, in some ways, unconventional soul. In her unpublished memoir, The Joy of Remembering, she wrote: "For the good of one's soul it is necessary to venture occasionally to do something that is rash or even forbidden." In this was as good as her word, and her adventures include getting lost with her pupils in the labyrinthine cellars of the Cast Museum (for which she was rebuked by the city authorities) and finding herself locked at night inside the Round Church with her young students - and a lunatic!

Shortly before the turn of the century, Mary built a corrugated-iron studio behind lawyers' offices on St Andrew's Street in the centre of Cambridge. This became the venue for her art classes, for exhibitions of her work and for meetings of the Cambridge Drawing Society. [Mary had joined the Society in 1894 and was its President from 1926 until 1929. Though several sources claim that her membership of the Society ended with her Presidency in 1929, it is clear from CDS records that she remained a member until her death.] Later, however, Emmanuel College wanted the land for new buildings and gave Mary notice to quit. Though she dismantled her iron studio and rebuilt it in the garden at Harston House, she still needed facilities in town and eventually re-established herself in a cottage on Brookside. The property included a coach-house, stables and other outbuildings which, over time, she improved and adapted to meet her needs as an artist and teacher.

It was at her brother Edward's suggestion that Mary set about making an artistic record Cambridge's ancient inn-yards, courts, and byways. She wrote: "I drew the old galleried Falcon Yard before it was pulled down and the Bell Yard before it burned down. I showedthese drawings to my brother Edward and he said: 'Go on. Make a collection of the yards for me.'" Mary says that she made more than forty such pictures, at a time when the yards and courts "were in the same state as in the old days when undergraduates rode or drove into Cambridge." When Edward died the pictures were left to the city and were hung for many years in the reading room at the Guildhall.

MCGViewofCam (Greene)

Coe Fen and Lammas Land were among Mary's favourite Cambridge subjects.  When Mary heard of plans to develop the fen into a landscaped park, she leapt into action and went to see George Kett, the mastermind behind the plans.  A city Alderman and three times Mayor of Cambridge, Kett owned and ran Rattee and Kett the most important building firm in the city and had been instrumental in transforming Christ's Pieces into the municipal-style park we know today.  Mary claims that after she explained to him the importance of preserving the fen in its natural condition, Kett was persuaded to abandon his scheme and even agreed to plant new willow and poplar trees by the river.

In 1912, Mary set up a weaving school in Botolph Lane, in a building which she named The Pelican and Lilies, after the armorial bearings of nearby Corpus Christi College.  The school was run by a Swedish weaver called Nina Lindell and her assistant Britta Johannison, and seems to have enjoyed considerable success. A newspaper report from March 1912 records that a Miss Forsell was to be the instructress at the school, though Mary does not mention this lady in her memoir.

Inevitably the war deprived Mary of her younger female students who left to work on the land or in factories and workshops.  She continued to teach younger children, of course, and made up class numbers by offering tuition to older people and shell-shocked soldiers.  But when her sister Florence left Harston to run a small-holding, Mary had to take over the running of Harston House.  Feeling herself overstretched and unwell, she decided to give up her Cambridge studio and passed responsibility for the weaving school to a committee of ladies.

Though Mary's work focused mainly on Cambridge and the surrounding country, for much of her career she spent one day a week painting in London, a habit which she continued into her eighties and throughout the 1939-45 war; she even claimed that peace-time London was a little dull after the risks and uncertainties of war!  She worked en plein air and ventured into areas which at the time might have been considered risky for a middle-class lady.  She had a particular liking for Wapping, in the heart of the Port of London, and made many paintings of its shipping, its canals and wharves, and the daily toil of the men who worked among them.  At first the dockers and stevedores regarded her with amused suspicion but they quickly got used to having a genteel lady artist among them and Mary describes many acts of good-humoured kindness which she received from them.  In 1936 her London pictures came to the attention of a West-End art-dealer and she was invited to put on a one-woman exhibition at the Renaissance Gallery in Regent Street.   Transporting her pictures from Harston to London caused Mary considerable trouble and she describes riding on the picture-laden lorry as it trundled slowly towards the capital.  Her efforts were rewarded, however, for the show, entitled, London Then and Now, was a considerable success and was reviewed in The Times and the Evening News.  Mary recalled that, at one point, sales became a little too brisk, when a picture of Eros - which the owner had lent to her for the show and had been duly marked 'Not for Sale' - was inadvertently sold.  The buyer insisted on his rights, however, and - after what she describes as "some hot talk" on the matter - Mary was obliged to paint a replica.  Plans for a second show were abandoned when the gallery owner, depressed by rumours of war, decided to retire.

EmmanuelStreet (Greene)

At some point in later life, Mary lost the sight in one eye but in spite of this
she continued to paint into great old-age; some of her oil paintings of Cambridge, now stored in the Local Collection of the public library and the Folk Museum, date from 1950, when she would have been ninety years old. After Mary died in 1951 six of her paintings were displayed In Memoriam at the Cambridge Drawing Society's annual exhibition the following summer.

Emmanuel (Greene)

In his boyhood, Mary's nephew, the author Graham Greene (1904-1991), spent summer holidays at Harston House, 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." Whether or not we agree with Greene's assessment of her work, examples of her paintings currently available to view on-line at the ArtUK website reveal that - whatever their artistic merit - they form a poignant record of areas of our city which have changed greatly or have been lost forever under the developer's wrecking-ball.

(i) Period Piece by Gwen Raverat, 1952, Faber and Faber;
(ii) The Joy of Remembering by Mary C. Greene. Unpublished memoir in the Local Collection, Cambridge Central Library;
(iii) CDS records;
(iv) The Harston History webpage;
(v) A Picture of the Cambridge Drawing Society by Anne C. Clay, 1969; Local Collection, Cambridge Central Library;
(vi) One Will in the House, a Memoir of Sir Graham Greene and Miss Mary Charlotte Greene, E.L. Gaetyens, 1974, Cambridge Library Local Collection;
(vii) Cambridge Evening News, Cambridge Weekly News and Cambridge Independent News
(viii) The photograph of Mary C. Greene in her studio is courtesy of Mr John Roadley of the Harston History website;
(ix) The painting of Coe Fen is courtesy of Oriel Fine Arts.