Inspiration

This is going to be a very difficult post. But I am not going to apologise in advance for it being rather sentimental… and I am not going to go back through and edit it endlessly, as I want this to come out naturally, in one go,

Mary de Castro was my Art teacher between the ages of 10 and 13. She took the nascent creativity within me and fanned the flames with a gentle yet firm hand. I sold my first painting (an oil on canvas of a rabbit!) at the age of 11, thanks to her. Incidentally, I have never sold anything ever since; can never bring my self to get rid of anything, apart from to friends! 

Mary took groups of us on painting holidays to the Scilly Isles every Easter. We stayed in a little cottage in Old Grimsby,on Tresco, to start with, although as the years went by, she had to rent a bigger and bigger house, such was the popularity of the trips. I learned much, much more than watercolour techniques on these weeks away; as a rather shy, weedy little boy – hard to believe now, I suspect! – being away from mum and dad with other children was a big step forward. Not always easy, but looking back, a vital time.

Over the years, Mary became a firm family friend, having also coaxed my brother through his own ups and downs at school, and become almost a second sister to my mum in the process. Mary suffered, all-too-cruelly as an artist, from terribly painful rheumatoid arthritis in both arms, having to wear splints in order to keep it at bay – but never uttering a word of complaint, instead demonstrating unstinting good cheer at all times, and simply dragging others along with her! 

I graduated as a teacher, and on a couple of occasions accompanied her on the Scilly trips as an assistant rather than a pupil. She had always been that “one teacher” who I always cited at PGCE time when asked “who would you wish to emulate”, in those early sessions when the tutors were seeking to start steering us in the direction of the teacher we were seeking to become. When times got tough, in my first teaching job, and I found myself at the mercy of intermittent bouts of depression, Mary and the Scillies once again figured large in my life. Time away, with clean air, long walks and companionship – good for the soul.

Skip ahead a few more years. It was my wife who initially spotted the advert. We were living and working in South London at the time, and Catherine was combing the TES on a weekly basis, having done various maternity covers and now looking for a more permanent post. And suddenly there it was: a job at my old school, and the opportunity to work with Mary… Of course I had to consider the pros and cons of returning to teach at my own alma mater, and the possible accusations of “playing safe”, and slipping into a cosy comfort zone, or worse. But regardless of Samuel Johnson’s well-worn phrase, Catherine and I had both started to tire of London, and yearned for the green of the New Forest. It was almost a no-brainer…

Mary was now Deputy Head, but after a couple of years retired, to develop her real love, working as an Art tutor from her refurbished studio – a converted room at her home. Ill-health had continued to plague her – cancer, now – although it was never possible to tell when she was below-par, such was her fierce determination to maintain a smile and a concern for others before herself. A never-ending flow of young people passed through her door, for superb tuition, fun, inexhaustible supplies of biscuits and hot drinks, and supportive chats.

My “black dog” lost the trail when I left London, but picked it up again before long. Signed off work, I lost the ability to do very much for myself, at one point. I can’t even remember whose idea it was at first, but I ended up at Mary’s in front of a canvas, with that gentle voice persuading me gradually into action. Sometimes we would just sit quietly, and she would know when to push and when not to. Sometimes I would just cry. But I was always safe and loved. In just the same way that the descent into depression is an insidious spiral which creeps up on you, in such a way that you don’t realise that the lights have gone out and the chilled, bony grip has taken hold until too late, I didn’t really know I was feeling better until the painting started to almost paint itself, rather than feel like a painful struggle, with just Mary’s persuasion to keep up any sort of momentum. And then the spiral took on a life of its own again, but upwards rather than downwards.

I later worked out that this painting of the Provence olive groves took a shade over 40 hours, all-in-all, over I don’t know how many days… although like I say, there was a lot of not doing anything in between brushstrokes…

Mary had been in remission from her cancer for several years, but now it returned in ovarian form. She refused to let this affect her life any more than it had to, still making trips to the Scillies, tutoring budding artists in Cornwall and visiting Istanbul, Venice and her beloved Swiss Alps for artistic inspiration of her own.

In the past weeks she had been suffering more and more, and her doctors told her that there was nothing more they could do. Last week she moved into a hospice, so that the pain could be managed as much as possible.

And now she’s gone. But her indefatigable, wonderful spirit lives on in the countless people she touched as a teacher and a friend. She never married or had children of her own… but this enabled her to contribute so much to so many peoples’ lives in her colourful, spirited way. 

I will miss you, Mary. Thanks for your inspiration. Image

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11 responses to “Inspiration

  • Anna

    Beautiful post x

  • Richard Bellarslars

    Beautiful and brave. Thank you for sharing. Mary will always be a blessing in so many lives – this is her legacy. One of a kind for sure

  • Fatima Duerden

    A very touching post! Your gratitude and admiration for a clearly wondeful and inspirational human being is humbling! Thank you for sharing.

  • Nasra

    A truly inspirational person. Thank you for sharing this.

  • James1313

    Sir, as a former pupil of both yours and Mary’s i must admit to being bought to tears by that, i also must commend you for you truly have achived your goal of wishing to emulate Mary, Thankyou

  • Mikieyla

    Mary was my auntie, this is a beautiful post thank you very much xxx

  • Who I am and what I do | N-gauge

    […] life, my late friend, mentor and Art teacher Mary de Castro. I have written about her before, here, so I won’t say more at length – suffice to say that she, perhaps as much as anyone […]

  • Who I am, what I do - @bellaale – Who I am

    […] life, my late friend, mentor and Art teacher Mary de Castro. I have written about her before, here, so I won’t say more at length – suffice to say that she, perhaps as much as anyone outside my […]

  • Mark Proctor

    I loved those trips to Tresco. I struggled at EHS, I think due to ADHD, but Mary always believed in me and nurtured me throughout my time there.

    I took my wife on a surprise visit to Tresco and proposed to her by Piper’s Hole. Wish I had told Mary about that now, and thanked her 😦

    I remember one funny story, when it was the 1st of April, a family that was visiting the island and linked to our group played a prank. One of the pupils had kicked a ball and by accident it hit a native islander. This family faked a letter of complaint to Mary and asked me to deliver it. I don’t know the contents, but probably it said how horrible all us pupils where and that we bring a black stain to the island. Mary was so aghast she penned a letter of apology and marched us all up to apologise – I wasn’t sure at what point I should tell her the letter was fake (when did the joke go to far), but I did so just before we arrived at the destination.

    • n-gauge

      wow, Mark… sounds like there was a lot of “stuff” in there that needed to come out – and I am glad you have had the opportunity to release some of that. I remember your name, but as you say I guess you were possibly a year or two below me: maybe you remember my brother Richard too, who may have been in your year?
      I think I have a tendency to “rose-tint” school years to a degree, and to repress the more negative memories either consciously or unconsciously, and so for me EHS, while it certainly had negative aspects to which my mind can return if I focus back on all that, holds a relatively benign sway over my memory. I think perhaps going back to work there – different place altogether though it is nowadays – has exorcised many of the old ghosts, and also provide me with the opportunity to work with MdeC and Paul C as a colleague and friend, which has been truly special, professionally and individually. I miss her on a pretty much daily basis, when I have occasion to be in a part of the school which triggers a memory of her – but I also have my paintings at home, done under her influence at her home studio, which will always remind me of her.
      Anyway, thanks for your comments, and I hope you can maybe find an opportunity to pop into Ballard, as it is now, and exorcise some of your own ghosts. I would gladly spend some time with you – we have an increasingly flourishing alumni body, many of whom love coming back to help out with musical or sporting areas of the school. Entirely up to you, of course. All the best to you and your wife..AB

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