Anthony Green, an artist best known for his endless depictions of his lifetime love, his wife Mary, died on St Valentine’s Day, aged 83. The other distinguishing feature of his paintings was their irregular shapes, with compositions created from his vivid imagination. Every year since 1966 he had exhibited at London’s Royal Academy Summer Exhibitions, a record that very few other current artists can match. Green twice stood unsuccessfully for president of the Royal Academy of Arts.
Green’s life and art revolved around Mary Cozens-Walker, whom he met at a jazz dance at the Slade School of Fine Art in 1957. They married four years later. Mary, Anthony always insisted, was his only inspiration. Initially he painted her using a loose expressionist technique, but in the 1960s he developed a much more finely painted style. Nearly all his more than 600 narrative paintings capture aspects of their life together.
The paintings are honest, and occasionally brutally frank. Mary and Anthony are shown passionately in bed on their honeymoon in Paris, hiding little of their bodies beneath a sheet (and with a contraceptive device ready by the bedside). Outsiders often wondered whether Mary, frequently partly naked, was being exploited as his muse, but she was always surprised at the suggestion, believing it was quite a natural role to play in her partner’s art.
Mary was herself an artist, but worked in a quite different medium, creating three-dimensional textile sculptures with embroidery. She, too, focused her subject matter on their family life, including their two daughters, Kate (now an artist) and Lucy (a scientist).
In 1971 Green was elected an Associate of the Royal Academy and made a full Academician six years later. He twice stood as a candidate for President, in 1999 (beaten by the sculptor Phillip King) and 2004 (beaten by the architect Nicholas Grimshaw). His London dealers were the Rowan Gallery (1962-90), the Piccadilly Gallery (1992-2000) and, since 2015, the Chris Beetles Gallery . His numerous exhibitions included a tour of the large painted sculpture Resurrection: An Act of Faith (1996-99). Anthony Green: Painting Life, a book and complete catalogue of his work, was published by the Royal Academy in 2017.
Although his paintings were sometimes regarded as over-romanticised works for traditional attenders of the Summer Exhibitions, Green did not shy away from the difficult aspects of family life. Often this is not always immediately apparent, with a story that lies just beneath the surface. He was a lively and engaging speaker, and unlike many taciturn artists, he was always delighted to explain what is happening in a painting.
Sadly, Mary developed Parkinson’s disease. Anthony devotedly looked after her in their Cambridgeshire cottage, but just before Covid-19 she had to move to a care home. When the pandemic struck, Anthony could no longer visit Mary, and with her condition she found it difficult to converse on the telephone. As Anthony explained in his book Lockdown Love Letters: “Mary in a nursing home, fading away, ravaged by Parkinson’s disease; me at home, mortal but so tired and alone.”
Anthony communicated with love letters, written in Valentine-style red ink and illustrated with his inimitable sketches. These were all found neatly filed with her personal effects when she died on 4 July 2020, aged 82. Anthony was devastated, but continued to work. He died a few weeks after being diagnosed with a tumour.
Among Green’s last paintings is a depiction of an incapacitated Mary in the sitting-room of their cosy cottage, her lower body encased in a rug and an arm outstretched but unable to move properly. Anthony’s legs and one arm are visible on the side of the composition, but not his body. His hand reaches out to hers, but they cannot meet and one feels the distance between them growing wider. One suspects that creating such a picture will have helped Anthony come to terms with Mary’s suffering at the end.
Lockdown Love Letters was launched, as planned, at an evening event at London’s Chris Beetles Gallery, timed for Valentine’s Day. The private view invitation for the exhibition specified it would be “in the presence of the artist”. That was not to be: Green died at home that morning.
Anthony Green, born 30 September 1939, married 1961 Mary Cozens-Walker (died 2020; two daughters), died 14 February 2023.