Angelic Presences

Sister Wendy Beckett introduces the work of Margaret Neve

This article originally appeared in Issue 13 of Beshara Magazine, published in print in 1992


IN THE POPULAR mind, the mystic and the misty seem to have more than a casual connection. Speak of the mystical, and one apparently conjures up images of the vague and indistinct, the ethereal and even, perhaps, (unkindly) the pretentious. Yet a spirituality that is not solidly earthed is as unconvincing as an art that rejects, in whatever form, the Real.

Margaret Neve does neither. Her works astound by their perfection of technique, pointillist in the most rigorous of manners, where a countless host of infinitesimal dots are applied with infinite subtlety to wood panels with the most delicate watercolour brushes.

Watercolour brushes used so skilfully for oil paint is an experiential pointer to the strange rightness of Neve’s unique art. She paints what on one level are huge machines, intensely massive, somehow, even when the actual size is not large . Every detail coheres,

presenting a vision that imposes its own truth with compelling power. Yet that truth is overwhelmingly one of vulnerability, of longing, of search for the innocence we have lost somewhere in our distant past.

Neve was brought up a midst the Welsh hills, and sheep are her most usual surrogate for that tranquil innocence we no longer have as our common heritage. There are animals in all her works, stylised animals, complete within themselves and acceptant of a bliss that we may not even know is potentially available. In ‘Trees of Gold’ she shows her file of stately sheep moving steadily forward between giant symbolic trees, trees of gold, in which every leaf is contained within the swell of the high crown, and every inch of bark glimmers with light-catching golden dots. But above the gently rounded plaits of the distant trees, soars an angel, a being as frequent in Neve’s world as are sheep. ( Angels belong as by right to these tender visionary landscapes.) The angel raises on high the praying arms of a Roman ornate, those images of the human need of God that mark the burial stones in the early Christian catacombs. This angel does not yearn so much as bless. From the praying arms there rains down a golden shower, delicately repeating the shower of the starry sky behind, and both the trees and the sheep are visibly, before our very eyes, made blessed.

But – and the secret force of Neve’s vision consists in this sad realisation – they do not know they are blessed. They are wholly enveloped by the divine goodness, in the sense of “Truly God was in this place and I knew it not.

No artist has less of an admonitory finger than Neve: it is obviously herself she questions and warns. We share in her unexpressed grief, her longing.

Yet she can, simultaneously and paradoxically, suggest that we are already there where we long to be. ‘The Garden of Eden’, which is the title of one of her most moving works, shows a world rising in steps from the bliss of the grazing sheep at the bottom, up to the setting sun and the bare bleak hills at the top. In the centre, a tiny scarlet angel drives out of the sacred space a tiny mourning Adam and Eve . But when we look more closely, (Neve demands very attentive looking), we notice that they are not being driven, in fact, up towards the bleakness but down towards the radiance. The angel is herding them into Eden, though this is not what they seem to understand. Have we ever truly left our Paradise, says Neve’s art, or would we still be living there, are still living there, with the happy sheep, if we only understood our condition?

Her world is immensely organised (I used the word ‘machine’). Everything in it coheres, makes sense, obeys a rational and yet poetic order. There is always ‘ A Path through the Wood’, as in another work, in which an unseen angelic presence leads the sheep at sunset: unseen by the sheep, and may it not be so too for us?

Making us ponder these mystical questions, in the bright clear light of her uncertainties, and see that certainty and uncertainty are two complementary qualities, is perhaps Neve’s greatest achievement. Kafka thought of Paradise that “possibly, we are continuously there in actual fact, no matter whether we know it here or not)). Margaret Neve makes visible that same astonishing possibility.

Wendy Beckett is a Sister at the Carmelite Monastery at Quidenham, Norfolk. She is a well-known critic of modern art, having written regularly for national newspapers and for the magazine ‘Modern Painters’.

Margaret Neve’s last exhibition was in November 1990 at the Montpelier Studio, 4 Montpelier Street, London SW7 1 EZ