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Weird and wonderful life of a much-missed artist

A NOTICE in The Journal on Monday reported the passing, “peacefully on 13th September”, of Sheila Mackie, artist, mother of Anneliese and Jamie, grandmother to James and Andrew.

Sheila Mackie

A NOTICE in The Journal on Monday reported the passing, “peacefully on 13th September”, of Sheila Mackie, artist, mother of Anneliese and Jamie, grandmother to James and Andrew.

It was probably the briefest reference to Sheila ever published in The Journal, which had reported on her exhibitions and adventures for more than half a century.

Sheila, in journalistic parlance, was “good copy” – sharp-witted, unconventional, highly intelligent, down-to-earth and very funny.

She was also a very fine artist. Her wildlife paintings could stop you in your tracks. When she was highly commended in the Wildlife Illustrator of the Year competition, the only surprise was she didn’t win.

But she will also be remembered for her interest in the occult and in the Anglo-Saxons, on which she was highly knowledgeable.

The most oft-repeated story about Sheila is that she used Charlton Heston as her model for the ghost of an Anglo-Saxon king.

“I needed somebody with a powerful head and I asked if he’d pose for me,” she once told me. “He invited me down to Pinewood Studios.”

The pair had met before. Sheila had been commissioned to illustrate a version of the Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf, which the actor Julian Glover translated.

It was Glover who introduced Sheila to the Hollywood legend and he professed himself a fan of her work. He particularly liked the pigs which Sheila regularly painted.

“He says they are full of rue,” she chortled, mimicking his deep, resonant voice.

So it was Heston’s aquiline features she used when illustrating a second Anglo-Saxon poem, The Wanderer.

Marshall Hall, the art historian, included Sheila in his encyclopaedic The Artists of Northumbria.

Yesterday, he recalled: “Sheila was one of the most outstanding living artists in my book, but she was so unassuming that I had to persuade her to give me information on which to base my profile of her life and work.”

In the book, he records that Sheila Gertrude Mackie was born in Chester-le-Street, County Durham, in 1928, studied at King’s College (now Newcastle University) and became head of the art department at Consett Grammar School in 1950.

She taught in Derwentside for 32 years until her retirement in 1982, but she never stopped painting.

It was in 1951 that she first came to the attention of The Journal, which reported that she had had a painting selected for a Festival of Britain touring exhibition.

It had been chosen by Lawrence Gowing, professor of fine art at King’s College, and Mr JW Drinkwater, curator of the Shipley Art Gallery, Gateshead.

Sheila Mackie

Sheila was back in the papers a few years later, having had a painting accepted for the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition.

Most of the stories in our archives relate to a pair of huge murals on a Biblical theme which Sheila painted for the retreat house at the then Minsteracres Monastery, near Consett, in the early 1960s.

The first was called Agony in the Garden and the second The Conversion of Saul. Each was a labour of love measuring 12.2m (40ft) by 3.7m (12ft). They took many hours to paint.

Sheila was an Anglican but this didn’t diminish her enthusiasm for the ambitious project at the Roman Catholic monastery.

“The whole project is exciting as I have never painted anything on this scale before,” she said.

“The place where I am working is open to anyone but, a few yards away, the monastery itself is out of bounds to women,” she added. “When I am working, I have meals provided and the fathers are very hospitable indeed.”

The imposing complex is now the Minsteracres Retreat House and, yesterday, administrator Wendy Donnelly, who Sheila once taught, confirmed that the murals are still on display and in good order.

For many years, Sheila lived in the old spa house at Shotley Bridge, once a magnet for fashionable visitors (including Charles Dickens) who came to take the waters.

When I visited her there in 1988 she quipped: “We live like Victorians... Victorian peasants.”

There was a log fire in the grate, two very large dogs on the sofa and – I can now report – a shotgun close to hand.

Sheila’s home was also shared by nine cats, a tawny owl called Clack Clack and, she swore, a benign ghost.

“I love animals...love them,” she said firmly. “I really prefer them to people, if the truth were known.”

During the 1950s and 60s, inspired by the film The Greatest Show On Earth, starring Charlton Heston, she spent summer holidays travelling with the Bertram Mills Circus, painting the animals.

In 1994, she recalled meeting the manager for the first time. “He said, ‘See that horse over there? You paint it and if I like your painting you can stay’.” Sheila stayed.

Among other celebrated fans were the late author and broadcaster Magnus Magnusson, whose books she illustrated, and the actor Alun Armstrong, a one-time pupil.

A funeral service will be held at Mountsett Crematorium at 11.45am on Friday. Family flowers only. Donations in lieu to any animal charity.

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