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by Ali King

Above: Untitled

Mary Filer’s enduring fascination with the human form and character is evidenced in the many portraits she produced throughout her career. Underscored by extensive nude and other figure studies, she was skilled at quick sketches, details and sustained studies. Capturing the human character in its numerous forms and moods, Filer’s portraits offer tender moments, from pensive to powerful, with figures appearing both posed and at ease.

Subjects were equally as diverse. Her intimate scenes portray the comfort and intimacy of friendship, with sitters appearing thoughtful, or animated in conversation. Individuals are often seated in comfortable chairs for their sitting, in busy interiors cocooned amidst domestic furniture and patterns. Subjects frequently occupy the majority of space within the frame, suggesting the artist’s captivation and desire to reveal the person behind the image. Interesting and notable figures reveal the circles in which Mary Filer moved. Former Director of the Arts Council, Philip James CBE (1902-1974), reads a book, while art dealer and collector James Keggie (1901-1985) is pictured in the midst of his extensive antique collection, preparing tea. For her portrait, BBC producer/ director, Patricia Foy (1922-2006) sits in front of a fireplace, and artist Michael Rothenstein RA (1908-1993) works at a printing press. The elegance of late 1950’s women’s fashion is also highlighted in enchanting portraits of Omer and Necla Humbaraci, and others.

Filer often observed people at work. Fellow artists, busy in the studio, are surrounded by the tools of their trade. Subjects work in kitchens, or proudly display their wares in shops. Sister Morgan, a nurse, is captured at St. Mary Abbott’s Hospital, and a domestic servant named Mrs Long was also sketched at Filer’s own UK residence, Goldenhurst. Much like a street photographer, colourful characters are recorded from Filer’s day-to-day activities. Subjects relax in cafes, a mother and son eat hotdogs, a Pearly King and Queen pose in resplendent regalia, and Ugandan students are pictured in London. Animals, including her beloved poodle Tasha and puppies, birds, and even a gorilla, can be found in the collection.

Naturally, Filer also produced a number of assured self-portraits. Amongst these works she can be variously found peeking from behind a mask, and even reimagined in magnificent Tudor dress for a recreation of Queen Elizabeth I’s portrait of 1592 by Marcus Gheeraerts. In true Filer style, she includes Tasha to her right. Her interest in historical portraiture is found in her portraits after the Old Masters, with recreations of Rembrandt, van der Weyden, Velázquez and Bronzino revealing another source of inspiration.