Artist # 13

Page Updated: 20th May 2017

Sue Mason

Religious Artist

Sue's portrait, taken at her home - 20th April 2017

Name:  Sue Mason

Age:  68

Born in:  Croydon,  England

Ethnic heritage:  Father: Irish / English - Mother: Romanian / English

Sue Mason is both painter and sculptor and she has long been associated with the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew and especially with St Anne’s Church, on Kew Green, sometimes known as ‘the Botanists’ Church’.   Built in 1714, St Anne’s is the place where some superb examples of Sue’s work can be seen and admired.  

Born into what she describes as a comfortable, middle-class, professional family, her childhood was spent in Essex:  “I was an only child and I had a perfect childhood.   Though my own parents were not themselves especially creative, my mother’s family certainly was so it wasn’t perhaps surprising that I was holding crayons and drawing with them even before I’d learned to walk.   I went to a local convent school partly because my mother, who was not herself religious, wanted me to have religion and that dimension of my childhood experience has significantly shaped my life.”  

Under the influence of an inspirational teacher, Sue discovered her love for the arts at an early age;  in particular, she began to understand the importance of symbolism in religious art and with this burgeoning comprehension, she embarked upon her own unique creative journey.   Despite encouragement from her school to pursue training that would lead to some sort of creative profession, Sue opted instead to read Mathematics at the new University of Sussex - this was the path that her parents had preferred - and there she excelled in her understanding of geometry, symmetry and the recognition of patterns, both in nature and in Mathematics, and 'pattern recognition is the basis of both Mathematics and Art'.   By way of example, Sue comments:  “Give me a whole sheet of mathematical formulae that contains but a single error and I can see, almost immediately, where the pattern is broken.”   A rare talent indeed.  

Living so close to Kew Gardens provided Sue with the inspiration for some of her larger canvases:  she has, for example, depicted Decimus Burton’s iconic Palm House, a remarkable structure inspired by the geometrical patterns of palm leaves.   She juxtaposes quite brilliantly Burton’s architecture with the foliage of the palms that inspired him and that now flourish within the house that he designed;  it is amongst Sue’s most powerful two-dimensional work to date.

Sue is a lover of nature, especially plants and trees, and she has visited Kew Gardens so many times over the years that they almost seem like her own back garden, a continual source of inspiration and, more recently, also a treasure-trove of reference material for her religious artwork. Plants, of course, are ubiquitous in the symbolism of Christianity.   To give but a few examples:  the apple, when shown in Adam’s hand, symbolises sin, but in the hand of Christ, it represents salvation;  the red carnation stands for love whereas its pink sister bloom is a symbol of marriage;  grapes evoke the blood of Christ while the lily epitomises purity;  etc, etc.   In observing closely a fine, complex piece of religious art, one must discern and appreciate the multiple layers of symbolism that have been woven into it.    

In 2006, in memory of Libby James, Sue was commissioned to design and create a Paschal Candlestick for St Anne’s.  This piece symbolises the story of our salvation from the beginning of all things and points to the light of the world that flows from the resurrected Christ.   The lime wood is beautifully carved in a bas relief design, incorporating three trees that connect Earth to Heaven.   Around the centre, it is symmetrical, conveying an appreciation of the perennial dichotomy between Good and Evil, light and dark.

At the base of the candlestick, there is the Tree of Knowledge, placed by God in the Garden of Eden, with the serpent coiled around at the root - Et in Arcadia Ego.   In the middle stands the Tree of the Cross, encircled with the Crown of Thorns - the Cross is central to Christian salvation and provides the visual link between Earth and Heaven - the Tree of Defeat has become the Tree of Glory, for where a life was lost for mankind, there a life has been restored in Christ.   At the top is the bountiful Tree of Life, laden with fruits both plentiful and various, symbolising how Good and Life will triumph ultimately over Evil and Death.   The carvings show twelve different fruits and the leaves that are for the healing of the nations.

To celebrate the tercentenary of St Anne’s Church, in 2014, the inspirational and courageous vicar, Fr Nigel Worn, commissioned from Sue the creation of new altar fronts and liturgical vestments (priestly garments) together with a new font.   Sue duly produced a magnificent set of designs to decorate the Altar Front, the Falls, and the Bourse and Veil, together with a suite of liturgical vestments, all steeped in biblical and liturgical symbolism and making extensive use of plant references, mostly drawn from Kew Gardens - this is, after all, the ‘Botanists’ Church’.   This was indeed a monumental undertaking, with 3,000 hours required for the embroidery alone - this demanding, painstaking work was carried out by twenty volunteers, all members of the congregation, led by Daphne Jowit and supervised by Amanda Ewing, of the Royal School of Needlework at Hampton Court Palace where, in the School’s workshop, the separate pieces of work were finally assembled.   The finished result is both exquisite and magnificent.

If there is a single piece of Sue Mason’s work that will place her on the list of the most important religious artists working in England, then it will be the new Font for St Anne’s, also commissioned to mark the church’s tercentenary.   It is also perhaps one of Sue’s most daring pieces of work, based wholly as it is on the principle that ‘less is more’;  the fierce simplicity and purity of the design echo the neo-classical elegance of the church’s architecture yet stand in vibrant contrast to what is an otherwise richly decorated interior.   Sue based her design on Kempe’s distinctive East Window, the window one sees on first entering the church:  her design echoes the simple chalice shape, formed by the elegant white tracery of the window, and the Font’s pure, classical lines embody new life, new growth, shooting upwards from the ground, fountain-like.   The work is highly characteristic of Sue’s oeuvre, where the artist views the world through the eyes of the mathematician.   The Portland stone chosen for the new Font is brilliantly white and smooth, and evokes the ideas of childhood purity and innocence.   (The block was mined from the lowest layers of the quarry;  it is highly compressed and contains no large fossils;  and it was carved on the Lytox machine, using the latest computer-assisted technology.)

The floor surrounding the Font was carved by hand in the traditional way by a team of masons who incised the fish and the waves by using a straight chisel at an angle of 60 degrees.   A fine example of traditional master craftsmanship, the new floor consists of two contrasting, concentric panels of Portland stone, one is pure and unblemished, matching the font, while the other contains tiny marine fossils from 145 million years ago, thus referencing the Creation - life began in the waters.   Thus, the new floor around the font creates the effect of symbolically crossing the River Jordan as one enters the church.

For the purposes of this project, I have concentrated principally on Sue’s religious art.   She comments:  “I am inspired when I see beauty in plants and nature, and in beauty I see the hand of God;  I have always seen God as the great Creator.”   Inevitably, Sue’s work continues to change and to evolve;  indeed, on her desk lay the early designs for a new project, one that illustrates the very evolution of life itself.   Though it is in the form of a frieze, it depicts how evolution is not linear, how its progress can be presented almost like the map of the London Underground, a map that leads us on a journey through a myriad of fascinating life forms yet keeps us from getting lost on our way, to the creation of Mankind.   The work is only in its early stages but already it reveals itself as the work of someone who understands the world through Science and Mathematics but who prefers to use art to illustrate the beauty of the nature she sees.   It is a complex work of many intersecting patterns and, like Sue’s illustrative page of mathematical formulae, she will be the one to spot any imperfections and to expunge them from the work.   Being an artist-mathematician, or a mathematician-artist, is very demanding, for nothing less than perfect forms will do.   But Sue has shown how, with her truly indefatigable attention to detail, be it in her research or in the execution of a design, she will always strive to achieve the perfection that she discerns in the natural world.   She is an artist of unique talent.

Text edited:  20th May 2017

Look 1  'Hyper-cherry headband' -- 'Sex on the Brain' Spring/Summer 2010 Collection (Photo: Brett Lloyd)

Sue in her studio - 20th April 2017

One of several large paintings of the Palmouse at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, with the palms growing inside it - a perfect juxtaposition of Decimus Burton's architecture and the foliage of the palms.

The Paschal Candlestick, in memory of Libby James, at St Anne's Church on Kew Green.   Both designed and carved by Sue Mason, in 2006, the work depicts the Tree of Knowledge, the Tree of the Cross, and the Tree of Life.

For the celabration of the tercentenary of St Anne's Church, Sue Mason produced all the designs for a suite of Liturgical Vestments, together with Altar Fronts, Falls, and the Bourse and Veil.   Sue makes extensive use of plant references, together with biblical and liturgical symbolism.

The new font, installed at St Anne's Church in 2014, was also designed by Sue Mason.   Its fierce simplicity and purity of design echo the neo-clasical elegance of the church. (Photo:  Fr. Nigel Worn, Vicar of St Anne's)

Of course, Sue Mason is more than a religious artist but her paintings, designs and three-deminsional work are almost always inspired by plants.   She says:  "I see beauty in plants and nature, and in beauty I see the hand of God."