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Shades of Bermuda’s art colony days

Pastel shades: A Bermuda Interlude displays works painted by Owen Merton on a visit to Bermuda in the 1920s (Photograph courtesy of Bermuda National Gallery)

The Bermuda National Gallery’s latest exhibition; the centennial exhibition of the Bermuda paintings of Owen Merton, is titled A Bermuda Interlude.

Before writing any further, however, it is important that I admit my role in this exhibition’s production. I am the exhibition’s curator, but more than that, I was the one that actually suggested that the BNG take it on.

Normally I would not write such a review given my close connection with the exhibition, but in this particular instance I do so because I think its back story may be of interest.

Some may wonder just how it was that I first learned about Owen Merton. As you will find out, it was through the writings of Thomas Merton that I first heard about his artist father.

Thomas Merton had, by the 1940s, become a prolific and popular American writer. He had also converted to the Catholic faith and had become a Trappist monk. At the behest of the Monastery’s abbot, Merton wrote his spiritual autobiography, The Seven Story Mountain. Upon publication in 1948, it was almost immediately a best seller. It is still in print.

About 1961 while visiting New York City, I purchased The Seven Story Mountain. I was already acquainted with and appreciated some of his other writings, thus I was attracted to buying the autobiography as well.

It was by means of his autobiography that I first learned about his father, Owen Merton and his painting trips to Bermuda between 1921 and 1923. I also read that Owen’s paintings were, by the time he arrived in Bermuda, not unlike those of the French pioneer modernist, Paul Cezanne.

I was intrigued and began a search to find out what I could about this enigmatic artist, but try as I might, my initial searches came up empty.

It took many years before I was able to glean even the smallest bit of information. It took until 2004 to finally get a Owen Merton internet hit.

I learnt that Owen Merton’s works were on exhibit at the Art Gallery of Christchurch, New Zealand. Again, thanks to the internet, I found the gallery’s e-mail address and fired off a message. They in turn, put me in touch with New Zealand art historian, Roger Collins, who was at that time writing a biography of Own Merton, as well as having been the guest curator for the Christchurch Gallery’s exhibition.

We began corresponding and on one occasion he wrote that he would be visiting his son, who was living in Boston. I e-mailed back that if he was going to be that close to Bermuda, he should also pay us a visit This he did and thus we met.

Collins, while in Bermuda was able to visit most sites associated with Merton. This enabled him to get a feel for Merton’s subjects and how he treated them. Also for the first time, I was able to see photographic reproductions of Merton’s Bermuda paintings.

But who was Owen Merton and how is he significant to us in Bermuda?

Owen Merton was born in Christchurch, New Zealand, in 1887 and it was there that he attended the Canterbury College of Art. He was primarily a landscapist and watercolourist. Initially his painting style was traditional, precisely detailed with muted, almost monochromatic colour.

By 1905 he was studying in London.Thereafter until 1916 he was living in Europe; France primarily. In1914 he married American artist Ruth Jenkins in London, but from 1914 until 1916 they lived in Prades in southern France, where their son Thomas was born in 1915.

With the start of the First World War in 1914, the Mertons’ situation in Europe became more precarious. France, as well as Britain, was involved and as a British national, it seems he was subject to UK conscription. Whatever the case, in1916, the Mertons moved to New York, his wife’s home territory.

In terms of Owen’s art, this move was of monumental importance. He began to exhibit with the New York Daniel Gallery, which had been established in the aftermath of the Lexington Avenue armoury show of 1913.

It was through the Daniel Gallery that Merton was first introduced to modernism; also through this Gallery he met and exhibited with such modernists as John Marin, Charles Demuth and Marsden Hartley.

With these contacts, Merton’s art began to change. Also, through these contacts, the idea of painting in Bermuda was probably planted. Both Demuth and Hartley had worked in Bermuda in 1917, as had the French Cubist, Albert Gleizes. It was in Bermuda that Demuth’s art also changed, becoming more Cubist.

In 1918, Ruth Jenkins gave birth to the Mertons’ second son, John Paul, but it must have been shortly thereafter that Ruth learnt of a diagnosis of stomach cancer. She died on October 21, 1921.

That same year, 1921, Owen Merton, along with his six-year-old son, Thomas, travelled to Bermuda to paint.

By the 1920s Bermuda had become something of an art colony and by1923 a large number of mostly foreign artists came together to form a short-lived art group, known as the Calabash club, with headquarters in the Arcade Building on Burnaby Street, Hamilton.

Historian Jonathan Land Evans, wrote in his essay, Was Bermuda an Art Colony? that “by the early 1920s the island had certainly entered upon a golden age of artistic attention”. As to whether Owen Merton was involved in any of this activity is unknown. He was here at the same time as all this was taking place, however he did meet and made friends with a literary couple, Evelyn Scott and Cyril-Kay Scott.

According Dr Collins, Evelyn Scott would make the plausible claim that it was she who influenced Merton’s art, having given “continuity to his intuitions and sharpened his own mental sense of art”. Whatever the case, Merton’s Bermuda paintings are arguably his best.

Collins points out that Merton’s Bermuda pictures sacrifice the three-dimensional illusion that was prevalent in his earlier work for a flat picture plane. Where previously his paintings were carefully rendered, his Bermuda brushwork is free and fluid, often with areas of unpainted paper.

Although Bermuda of the 1920s attracted scores of artists, most were plein-air painters with a bent toward impressionism. The significance of Merton’s Bermuda paintings is that while still produced en plein-air, meaning he painted the Bermuda landscape outdoors in front of his subject, he nevertheless sought to apply to his art more modernist principles.

More than all that, however, was that Bermuda inspired him, just as it had inspired his New York acquaintance Charles Demuth when he spent a month in Bermuda in 1917. Bermuda was their muse and thus the source of their best work.

In 1923, Merton returned to New York where he successfully exhibited his Bermuda paintings at the Daniel Gallery.

In 1925 Owen Merton returned to France and eventually England, where after a long illness, he died at just 43 years of age in 1931.

• A Bermuda Interlude: Paintings by Owen Merton is on display at the Bermuda National Gallery through August 2024. Curated by Charles Zuill. Exhibition made possible by a loan of artworks from the Thomas Merton Centre at Bellamine University, Louisville, Kentucky. Sponsored by Sir Christopher Ondaatje, with support from Mari Harper and Robert Steinhoff. Admission is free

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Published March 02, 2024 at 8:00 am (Updated March 04, 2024 at 8:23 am)

Shades of Bermuda’s art colony days

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