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Robert Ayre

A Sheaf of Summer Sketches [1956]
on Fritz Brantner, Arthur Lismer, Bruno and Molly Bobak, Will Ogilvie, Louis Muhlstock, and Jack Humphrey

Canadian Art, Vol. XIII #2, Winter 1956.
[ 1,262 words ]


In the following pages we present a selection of sketches made during the past summer by seven Canadian painters, chosen as representative of different parts of the country and of diverse points of view.

Canadians think nothing of travelling long distances and so we have Fritz Brandtner of Montréal driving down along the lower St. Lawrence and around the Gaspé peninsula and Arthur Lismer, of the same city, going way out west to Vancouver Island, while Bruno and Molly Bobak of Vancouver travel across the continent in the other direction, as far as New York. On the other hand, Will Ogilvie of Toronto, who hadn't long been back from a year in his native Africa, spent the summer close to home in Ontario, mostly at Georgian Bay, where part of the time he shared a boat with A. Y. Jackson, back in one of the old haunts of the Group of Seven, and part of the time on solitary canoe trips looking for secluded pools. Louis Muhlstock lived on his brother's farm near Val David in the Laurentians, making drawing after drawing of the barnyard creatures, the ducks and geese, calves and goats, and the wild flowers and, when he happened to go into the city, sketching on the slopes of Mount Royal. Jack Humphrey didn't go far from Saint John and his place at Perry Point on the Kennebecasis River.

It was Fritz Brandtner's third trip down the St. Lawrence. He feels it is a tremendous country, which hasn't been exploited enough, and which he was only beginning to see in his third year. The steep roads, the drop of hundreds of feet to the water level, the villages perched perilously on the edge of the cliffs or tucked into the valleys or stretched along the beaches, the mountains, the traffic of boats on the river, the exciting harbours with narrow openings on the Bay of Chaleur, with their weatherworn buildings and boats, the fishermen and their gear, these gave him in great bounty the stuff he likes to look at and draw and re-arrange into new organizations of forms.

'Weird stuff' is the way Arthur Lismer describes the beach and forest at Wickanninish, near Uclulet, on Vancouver Island, where he spent five weeks, living in one of Joe Webb's cottages. There is no railway within fifty miles. You go from Port Alberni to Uclulet by boat and then by Joe's jeep ten miles along the old Air Force tote road to Tofino. From there, you strike down to the shore, two miles of trail through the bush. There are twelve miles of beach and, behind it, the virgin forest, where nothing happens, no lumbering. Lismer swims and catches crabs, paints and helps Joe cut trails through the jungle, choked with salal, ground sumac and skunk cabbage. You could get lost in the dense tropical growth of the cedar swamps, he says, if it wasn't for the roar of the sea to guide you. The Lismers have been going there every year since 1950, except 1954, and there is now a Lismer Bay somewhere along the shore.

'I'm always expecting Emily Carr to appear from behind a tree', says Lismer.

The Bobaks are explorers of British Columbia. Molly Bobak has done a great deal of drawing in Kamloops, which she speaks of as 'a bustling small city with a wonderfully clear atmosphere.' In contrast to the lively bustle is Barkerville, a decaying gold rush town. She was so overwhelmed by the sadness of its graveyard that, as she says, 'I allowed myself to use the sentimental title End of an Era for the painting she made of it.

On the trip to New York, the Bobaks travelled about eight thousand miles in an English station wagon, camping almost all the way, except on the prairies. They slept in the back of the car and cooked on a Coleman stove. 'Bruno,' says his wife, 'found the Bad Lands of North Dakota the most paintable place for him, while I could cheerfully have stayed in New York, despite the humidity and 97° temperature.' His painting of wildflowers at Oak Lake, Manitoba, was made while he sat on a bed in a country hotel, the sort of place the travellers hardly expected to find still existing, with an old-fashioned jug and basin, a brass bedstead, and 'pictures of Italian-looking girls selling roses — and a box of Tuckett cigars casually lying on the ground near their feet!'

For about eight years, Jack Humphrey used as the base for his summer painting a place he called 'The Camp' at the edge of a little lake in the woods about ten miles from Saint John. From there, in several generations of used cars, he explored and painted the surrounding countryside, going into the city only to pick up the mail at his studio on Prince William Street, when he might stay long enough to make another waterfront sketch. At first, he could see nothing to paint near the Camp itself, but he has since done more than fifty paintings from the window of his small house. 'These,' he says, 'ranged from the objective impressions which seem to be generally expected of me, to the semi-abstract paraphrases which at present mean to me a true enlargement of experience.'

It was a pleasant life, with good swimming in the clear water over the sandy bottom, and trout to be caught in the lake and in the brooks not far away. One of these brooks, running through a rocky woodland, supplied him with subjects for about thirty watercolours, gouaches and oils, two of which were painted in Paris.

When he was overseas on his Canadian Government Fellowship, 'someone built a substantial, matter-of-fact cottage seventy feet away from the Camp, on land which we had been told we would have first chance to buy.'

This, Humphrey says, spoiled the Camp's special peace and charm. So, in 1954, answering a newspaper advertisement, he bought 25 acres and an unfinished one-room cabin on the Kennebecasis River at Perry Point, some 17 miles from Saint John. Reaching there demands an eight-minute trip by cable ferry. It has 'one of the best views in southern New Brunswick, beautiful hillside woods and fields and a lengthy shoreline frontage. It was completely different in scale and character from the smaller, wooded charm of the Camp, but I think it was what I needed. It seemed an important and satisfying positive step. It fell in with the wish for expansiveness I had been fighting for in my work without much help from the ambience of New Brunswick.'

Last summer, Humphrey rented the Camp and, as the Perry Point place was not habitable, used as his base the century-old house on Spruce Street he had just bought. In spite of the housing projects and a family reunion — 'which moved with picnics from one summer place to another for over a month' — and many visitors, he managed to get more than fifty paintings done. At Perry Point, in July, he would often do a watercolour and then join his wife Jean in painting the cabin until dusk. Next summer, the Humphreys hope to install a stove, and maybe a sink, and put the cabin into such shape that they will be able to live in it for a few days at a time.


Canadian Art, Vol. XIII #2, Winter 1956.


Text: © Robert Ayre. All rights reserved.

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