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How a Trappist monk kicked off a 40-year hunt for art

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Owen Merton and his wife, Ruth Jenkins, in France

A little-known story about Bermuda in the early 20th century is that it was home to Owen Merton, an artist who flew under the radar for years.

Charles Zuill is bringing his work to local attention with A Bermuda Interlude, an exhibit he curated at the Bermuda National Gallery.

Bermuda, by Owen Merton (Photograph supplied)

On show are about 12 pieces that Dr Zuill believes “should be viewed through the same lens” as Charles Demuth and Marsden Hartley, “significant” artists who also painted here.

Dr Zuill, who will give a talk about Merton at the BNG tomorrow, on what would have been the artist’s 137th birthday, became fascinated after reading The Seven Storey Mountain, “a spiritual autobiography” written by Merton’s son Thomas, a Trappist monk.

“Very quickly” the author made mention of his travels to Bermuda in 1921 at the age of 6 with his father, who had decided that the island would be a good place to paint.

“I thought, ‘I’ve never heard of this guy. Who is he?’ And so I started searching for him,” Dr Zuill said. “For about 40 years I couldn't find anything about him.”

The arrival of the internet helped.

“About 2004 … by this time I was able to do searches on a computer and I learnt that Owen was long deceased but there was an exhibit of his work in his home town of Christchurch, New Zealand.”

Thomas Merton’s biography led Charles Zuill on a decades-long search for the author’s father’s art

Christchurch Art Gallery put Dr Zuill in touch with the exhibit’s curator, Roger Collins, an art historian who was writing a biography of Merton.

“We began corresponding and he told me a little about Owen Merton and what his life was like,” Dr Zuill said, adding that Mr Collins eventually found his way to Bermuda, where they discussed Merton in depth.

“Merton came from a musical family, primarily, but also a cultured family and so he studied arts — to begin with in New Zealand and then England and in Paris. But he gravitated to small places.”

The artist stayed in France until 1916. With the First World War raging, he was likely worried that as a British national he would be conscripted, Dr Zuill said.

He believes it could be why Merton and his American wife, Ruth Jenkins, made their way to New York.

Once there, he exhibited with the Daniel Gallery, where he was introduced to modernism and to Charles Demuth and Marsden Hartley, both of whom had painted here and whose works are part of the Masterworks Museum of Bermuda Art’s collection.

“It changed his work,” Dr Zuill said.

Merton’s wife died of stomach cancer in 1921. Months later, he travelled to Bermuda with Thomas. John Paul, the artist’s younger son, stayed in New York with his maternal grandparents.

“His art before Bermuda was largely traditional, monochromatic. His art changed from there and it became rather more fluid, colourful,” Dr Zuill said.

“I think, and I don’t have any documentary proof of it, but I think Owen Merton came to Bermuda probably at the suggestion of Charles Demuth and probably saw some of his paintings [he created here]. In both cases, their art changed in Bermuda and in both cases I think they did their best work in Bermuda because it was their muse. That's why we have this exhibition.”

Merton’s watercolours on display at the BNG are all landscapes that show a different Bermuda than exists today. Dr Zuill says they are remarkable “for their compressed space and incandescent colour”.

Bermuda, by Owen Merton (Photograph supplied)

“They're quite small but quite colourful. And they’re scenes [that people] can identify. For example, Ely’s Harbour, Wreck Hill, the backside of St George’s — Fort St Catherine and so on.”

Most are landscapes of the eastern end of the island and the western end, where Merton lived.

“He lived out in Somerset, and he must have taken whatever transport there was between 1921 and 1923 to get to St George's,” Dr Zuill said.

“At that time Bermuda had become something of an arts college and there were a lot of foreign artists here working. As to whether Merton met any of them, I have no clue but they had a club in Hamilton on Burnaby Street called the Calabash Club.”

Although short-lived, it had as many as 90 members in its heyday, “most of them foreign”, he added.

Dr Zuill believes Merton’s work was heavily influenced by his American neighbours, Evelyn and Cyril-Kay Scott.

“They were a literary couple out in Somerset and he became very good friends with them. They probably reinforced his modernism and probably encouraged him to do what he was doing here. Particularly the woman had quite an influence over him,” he said

“The population of Bermuda back then was probably somewhere around 20, 25,000. Even when I was a kid, back in the 1930s, the population here was 30 to 35,000 — half of what it is now. Lots of open space. We didn’t have cars, [we had] bicycles, carriages, that sort of thing. We didn’t have paved roads, we didn’t have street lights.”

He added: “Thomas Merton, in his autobiography, describes walking along the dusty roads and how, even though they were total strangers to the West End, people were incredibly friendly. And if they were walking, they’d meet people and stop and talk to them.”

Owen Merton

For years Dr Zuill pondered over how he might share Merton’s Bermuda work with the island.

“I read that a gallery in Boston was selling a collection of Owen Merton’s Bermuda paintings and I thought, ‘That should come here.’ So I got hold of Tom Butterfield at Masterworks and I said, ‘Look Tom, this is something for you. You need to buy this collection.’ And he didn’t.”

The paintings went instead to the Thomas Merton Centre at Bellarmine University in Louisville, Kentucky.

“Maybe a couple years ago now I was at the National Gallery with Eve Thomas and Peter Lapsley and I told them about Owen Merton and I suggested we might try to get it and have an exhibition.

“One thing led to another and they asked me to be the curator, which I suppose was appropriate. And so that's why we have this exhibition right now.”

• A Bermuda Interlude is on exhibit at the Bermuda National Gallery through August. Join Charles Zuill tomorrow for a reception at 5.30pm and a curator’s talk at 6pm. Tickets are $20 for BNG members and $30 for non-members, and can be purchased atbng.bm/curators-talk-charles-zuill or at the door

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Published May 13, 2024 at 8:00 am (Updated May 14, 2024 at 7:58 am)

How a Trappist monk kicked off a 40-year hunt for art

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