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On the trail of American artist Hanna Rion

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Artist Hanna Rion who lived in Bermuda and who once described the island as a garden of Eden (Photograph supplied)

American artist, author and plant enthusiast Hanna Rion once called Bermuda a garden of Eden.

While living here, on and off, for 15 years, Ms Rion churned out many landscapes and portraits of the island, and held numerous exhibitions.

One hundred years after her death, some of her work can be found in private collections or museums, but American landscape researcher and writer Ann Uppington believes there is more out there.

She is asking locals to scour their attics and storage rooms for Ms Rion’s creations.

“She signed all of her work with a distinctive signature,” Ms Uppington said.

Researchers Ann Uppington, left, and Linda Abend at the grave of Hanna Rion Hervey at Christ Church in Warwick (Photograph by Jessie Moniz Hardy)

Ms Uppington has seen the price of Ms Rion’s work vary wildly, from a few pounds in England to more than $20,000 in Bermuda.

“I have two of her paintings,” Ms Uppington said. “A young man found one at a yard sale in Cornwall. A historian there contacted me about it.”

She intends to write a book about Ms Rion, and is getting research help from Linda Abend, who has worked on several Bermuda National Trust parish books.

Ms Uppington became interested in the artist after meeting Edward Harris on a visit to the island years ago, with her husband, Henry Weil. Dr Harris told her about Ms Rion.

“He had heard that she brought ornamental gardens to Bermuda,” Ms Uppington told The Royal Gazette.

In April 1909, Ms Rion was living in the United States and had just published her first book, Garden in the Wilderness. After breaking up with her second husband, she had started a new relationship with another artist, Frank Verbeck.

To celebrate, the pair took a Caribbean cruise. First stop Bermuda.

They arrived here after a stormy passage, and loved the island so much that Ms Rion dubbed it the “blessed isle”.

In postcards to her friends, she described Bermuda as “white coral houses, white coral roofs, and white coral roads”.

“She felt safe on the island,” Ms Uppington said.

Ms Rion and Mr Verbeck returned to Bermuda the next spring and rented a house in Warwick called Locust Hall, immediately rechristening it The Cocoon.

It was directly across from Christ Church in Warwick on Middle Road, on what is now the Newstead Belmont Hills Golf Resort & Spa property.

A Bermuda painting by American artist Hanna Rion, who lived in Bermuda during the early years of the 20th century (Photograph supplied)

Ms Rion would later write that this was a place where she could make a creative life beyond the “clank of business chains, the sight of skyscrapers and the whirr of elevated trains”.

During the First World War, the couple settled in St Ives, Cornwall.

“I don’t think they ever married,” Ms Uppington said. “I can’t find the marriage certificate.”

When the war ended, so did their relationship. Ms Rion left Mr Verbeck after she caught him cheating. He wrote letters to Ms Rion, begging her to take him back, but it was over. She moved back to the United States and married again in 1921 to Alpheus Hervey, from Bath, Maine.

“He was a Unitarian minister who worked on an early sea flora of Bermuda book with a colleague from Boston,” Ms Uppington said.

The book was about algae.

They moved to Bermuda, and back into The Cocoon in Warwick.

In 1924, Ms Rion’s health began to decline. In April, she applied for an American passport so that she could travel to Europe to seek treatment for impending blindness. She was scheduled to leave for England on May 9, but died five days before her ship departed.

“She died from nephritis,” Mrs Uppington said.

The artist was 49. News of her death was widely covered in local papers, but a record of her death at the Registry Office has not yet been found.

“I think they just forgot to record it,” local researcher Ms Abend said.

Clearing anticipating her demise, shortly before it happened, Ms Rion left detailed instructions on how to divide her paintings among her friends and family when she was gone.

“Her doctor in Bermuda, Henry Wilkinson, got a painting,” Ms Uppington said. “Her good friend Nina Abbott, who wrote for The Royal Gazette, also got a painting. Nina was the reason Hanna was mentioned in The Royal Gazette frequently at the time.”

Ms Rion’s friend and travelling companion, Frances Hodgson Burnett, author of The Secret Garden, also received a painting.

“The Masterworks Museum and the Bermuda National Gallery have paintings she did of paths of rocks and glimpses of sea and skylines,” Ms Uppington said. “It was a theme of hers. I do not think she necessarily named the pictures.”

Ms Uppington, from Byfield, Massachusetts, became involved in researching Ms Rion through a friendship her husband, Mr Weil, had with the National Museum of Bermuda founder and archaeologist Edward Harris. Mr Weil is a retired Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor.

Knowing that Ms Uppington was a landscape researcher, Dr Harris asked her to look into Ms Rion’s relationship with Bermuda.

“He had heard that she brought ornamental gardens to Bermuda,” Ms Uppington said. “He wanted someone to write a book about it.”

On one of her last visits to Bermuda, Ms Uppington and Ms Abend found Ms Rion’s grave at Christ Church in Warwick, on the far east side of the church yard, right next to the hedge.

“Her gravestone seems to be backwards,” Ms Uppington said.

Long after Ms Rion’s death, the house she rented, The Cocoon, caught fire, and became a ruin. Fearing the place was a danger to golfers, the hotel owners eventually knocked down the remaining walls.

To contact Ms Uppington e-mail annuppington13@gmail.com

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Published April 09, 2024 at 8:00 am (Updated April 10, 2024 at 8:16 am)

On the trail of American artist Hanna Rion

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