Tall tale


Few exhibitions can have had their origins in quite so squalid a legal imbroglio as that by the outsider artist Mary Tall, which has just opened at the St Brannocks Gallery, at Mundesley, on the north coast of Norfolk. The curator, Jonathan Plumb, was obliged to collect her stunning, other-worldly works from a police compound in Norwich, where they had been stored during an unholy row - first in the magistrates' court, then the county court - over who, precisely, owns them.

Tall, who is 74, has suffered mental health problems nearly all her life, mainly intermittent bouts of schizophrenia. In the late 1950s and throughout the 1960s she was a key member of the Norwich Twenty Group, composed mostly of rather more mainstream artists, which still thrives today. She exhibited regularly and seemed on the verge of real national recognition. The painter Jeffrey Camp, a personal friend, thought her leering, manic facescapes so good that it was ridiculous she had never had a solo London show. So he took a selection of her work to the Beaux Arts Gallery in the West End - now the Timothy Taylor Gallery - to try to persuade the proprietors to give Tall her own exhibition.

That is where the seeds were sown for the recent obscene courtroom fiasco. The gallery's owners were impressed, but not quite enough. Tall seems never to have recovered from the rejection. While she continued to paint, she carefully stored away the 70 or so works that she and Camp had hoped might form the basis of a London show at the family home, which she shared with her sister. She then seems simply to have forgotten all about them and got on with other work.

The years rolled by, and eventually Tall's sister decided that running the house was becoming too much for her, so she moved into sheltered accommodation. Not long afterwards, Tall did likewise. She now lives and continues to paint in new accommodation at Brundall, the Broadland halt midway between Norwich and Great Yarmouth. She speaks freely of her mental health problems; she will tell you that art is her catharsis.

The Talls' house in Norwich was put up for sale; and then the real trouble began. It was bought by a property developer who wished to renovate it and sell it on for a profit. He could barely believe his luck when he discovered over 70 of Tall's mesmeric, often nightmarish works exactly where she had left them, in the outhouse. Many people, aware of the upheaval involved in leaving a family home of decades and also of Tall's state of mind, might simply have returned them to her, accepting that they had been forgotten. Not the developer, however, who chose to declare treasure trove. Understandably, Mary Tall was less than impressed by this. She told the police that the developer was trying to steal her work. He was arrested but then freed without charge. The question of ownership was referred to the city magistrates. When Tall proved ineligible for legal aid, the magistrates concluded that they were unable to decide who owned the artworks and passed the matter to the county court. There, astonishingly, the recorder decided, after much horse- trading out of court, to award Tall and the developer joint ownership of the paintings.

So, as the paintings start to sell at St Brannocks, the developer will take half the profits. Those who desire singularly original outsider art at a reasonable price should nevertheless head to Mundesley. Like most art of this type, Tall's outlandish oeuvre speaks more than eloquently for itself. Outsider art has no need for artsy-fartsy peroration and bafflegab. Even if, sentimentalist as you may be, you feel that Mary Tall has been short-changed just a little here, remember one thing: she will still be permitted to keep half the proceeds from her own, magically inspired labours.

Mary Tall is at the St Brannocks Gallery, Mundesley, until 30 October. Gallery hours: Sunday and Monday, 11am-8pm, or by appointment. Tel: 01263 722622

This article first appeared in the 02 August 1999 issue of the New Statesman, America says: never again!