The tulips in Mary Ann Rogers’ garden have blossomed and gone now but you will find plenty of them on the walls of her Northumberland gallery when her annual summer exhibition opens on Monday.
Mary Ann is one of the most popular and successful artists in the region. Her animal paintings – hares, foxes and farmyard fowl – hang in homes across Britain and beyond, grace and movement deftly captured in watercolour.
She has also taken her sketchbooks to safari parks to portray animals not native to this country.
It was from Mary Ann that I learned reindeer have clicking tendons in their legs to help the herd stay together in a blizzard – or was she just pulling my leg?
Tulips are her latest thing and I learned something here, too – that not all tulips are upturned bells in primary colours. Their extraordinary variety is evident in the paintings.
Asking an artist why she paints flowers is probably pretty daft but Mary Ann must have been asked dafter questions.
“Flowers are just splashes of colour,” she says without hitting me.
“When you have a lot of them they’re a riot of colour that comes in a brief moment of glory and then goes. For an artist that’s amazing but it’s also a challenge because, as a subject, they’re not there very long.”
She can pinpoint her big tulip moment.
“I was staying with my husband in a hotel in the north of Scotland and we were blown away by all the tulips.
“The guy who owned the place had put them in every imaginable corner and I thought I’d love to do that.”
She and her husband bought a variety of tulip blubs from Peter Nyssen, planted them out in the autumn and were duly rewarded with the aforementioned colourful riot on their doorstep at West Woodburn in Nothumberland.
The exercise was repeated with an even more psychedelic display this year – and this time Mary Ann was primed to respond artistically.
“I had a table set up outside the window and as the flowers bloomed I had them lifted up there so I could paint them.
“They all started to come together so it was a bit hectic. I have 12ft drawing boards which I set up inside the glass and I just painted as much as I could.
“I buy these huge containers of watercolour paint but I kept running out. I knew I had to work fast because the flowers don’t last very long.”
As she painted, Mary Ann marvelled at “the amazing shapes and colours”.
The resulting paintings, snippets of which you see here, tell their own story but Mary Ann, keen to open my eyes to the variety of tulip types, singles out a parrot tulip called Orange Firework with its “creased and crinkly” petals.
I have to agree that it’s a beauty – and so far from the stereotype, although a stereotypical tulip isn’t at all bad.
In many a good painting you can sense the pleasure of the artist in creating it. Sometimes you can see the pain, too, although it’s often well hidden.
“Painting the tulips was great,” says Mary Ann. “I’m well known for painting wildlife but that does involve quite a lot of crawling around in muddy places or sitting in smelly sheds and sucking up to farmers or safari park owners.”
Mary Ann gets on well with farmers. She understands the countryside life, mucking out horses and mucking in with lambing.
The farmers, in turn, will cast a critical eye over her paintings, pointing out any farmyard beast that would not reflect well on them at the auction mart.
In these circumstances it is rarely any use explaining that it’s the essence of the animal rather than particularities she was looking for.
Her hens, a farmer once pointed out, were more “bloody airy-fairy” than the ones scratching around in his yard.
Mary Ann grew up in Newcastle and moved to her current home more than 20 years ago. It is a wonderful spot with the Northumberland National Park not far away and enough subject matter to keep Mary Ann busy.
As well as the flora and fauna, she also paints the landscape, capturing its changing colours.
But Mary Ann not only paints here in her studio; she also exhibits in her beautiful gallery.
“It is such a joy to exhibit my work in such wonderful surroundings,” she says. “The Northumbrian landscape provides so much inspiration and I take great care in portraying it in all my designs.”
As well as being an accomplished artist, Mary Ann is also a pretty astute businesswoman. When I first interviewed her in 1990 she had recently turned officially self-employed and was thinking about applying for a small business grant from the county council.
Those were the days!
But Mary Ann now sells her work across the country and a few years ago received an award as the best-selling published artist – a notable achievement since she publishes her own work.
Visitors to her summer exhibition will see about 20 of the new tulip paintings but plenty of other work will also be on display.
Three new prints have been released for sale: Flight, showing three hares running through a landscape; Graze, showing sheep in beautiful scenery; and Three Over, featuring foxhounds.
When we meet Mary Ann is sporting a prototype shoulder bag featuring some of the hounds.
But her designs also feature on gifts including iPhone, Kindle and iPad covers and cases, cufflinks, tableware, stationary and the 2015 calendar (nothing like getting in early!).
Her exhibition at Leam Cottage Studio, West Woodburn (look out for the AA signs) is from June 23 to July 13, 11am to 5pm daily.