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Sparkle and shine: Funds needed to restore art treasures

The mid-20th century was something of a golden age for the visual arts in Bermuda, nevertheless, today this is largely overlooked and unrecognised. Bit by bit, however, the reputations of some of the best artists from that period, are being resurrected through exhibitions at the Bermuda National Gallery or at the Masterworks Museum. I am thinking, for example, of the BNG's 2008 Byllee Lang Exhibition or Donald Kirkpartick's etchings that have been shown from time to time, at Masterworks.

Others from that time, that need to be reconsidered are Emil Antoine Verpilleux, Dr Gabriele (Humbert) Parker, Emerson Bainbridge and possibly others. Although none of these mentioned, were Bermuda born, they settled here and were highly involved in the local art community, especially the establishment of the Bermuda Society of Arts.

For this article, I will focus on Emil Antoine Verpilleux, first by writing a brief overview of his life, then, more particularly, I will centre on a set of large panoramic landscapes of Bermuda that he painted sometime in the 1930s. Currently they are housed in the St George's Town Hall, but are in desperate need of conservation.

Emil Antoine Verpilleux was born in London on March 3, 1888. His parents were Belgian and probably for that reason, his artistic studies took place in France and at the Académie des Beaux Arts in Antwerp, Belgium.

From very early in his artistic career, Verpilleux made a name for himself as a printmaker, especially with coloured woodcuts. Indeed, he was the first artist to have a coloured woodcut hang in the Royal Academy. Today, he is considered one of the finest coloured woodcut printmakers in Britain in the first half of the 20th century.

Verpilleux served in the First World War as an army officer, attaining the rank of captain. His military service lasted from 1914 to 1922, but during his war experience, he also managed to paint numerous war subjects, especially that of the Royal Flying Corp. Today, many of these paintings are in the collection of the Royal Air Force Museum.

For reason unknown to me, Verpilleux moved to Bermuda sometime, either in 1927 or early 1930s (I have seen both dates mentioned), where he continued to be active as an artist, mostly as a portrait painter. He also painted landscapes and from what I have recently learned, he continued to be active as a woodcut printmaker. These prints, I understand, included woodcut depictions of Bermuda. Although I know of Verpilleux the painter, I have never seen any of his Bermuda woodcuts. If anyone knows anything about them, I would be interested in hearing about it.

According to the Encyclopedia of Bermuda Artists, during 1949/50, artist Verpilleux collaborated with ceramicist, Andre Bohemelec, to produce a series of dioramas, depicting scenes of early Bermuda history. These were, for many years, on exhibit in a special gallery in Fort St Catherine. Many will remember seeing these, from visits to this fort.

During the early 1950s Verpilleux was active in establishing the Bermuda Society of Arts and served as president of the society from 1952 to 1956. One source has it that the Society was actually founded by Mr Verpilleux. Although I doubt that this was a single-handed undertaking, it does demonstrate something of his involvement in the local art community.

Now back to the panoramic landscapes I mentioned at the beginning of this article. Although they were painted back in the 1930s, they were given to the Town of St George's in 1966 by the Anderson family of Bellview, Paget and Grosse Point, Michigan, who gave them in memory of Charles (War Baby) Fox, who was a notable St David’s island entrepreneur (owner of the Black Horse Tavern and Restaurant and an early owner of a taxi fleet etc), a memorable cricketer and for a period, the personal valet to Wendell Anderson. I must have seen the paintings shortly after they were given to St George's. They were then on exhibition in the upstairs of the St George's Town Hall. They depict a Bermuda that now exists only as a memory in the minds of our senior citizens. They are therefore, not only valuable as works of art, they are of considerable historic interest as well.

The paintings have continued to be housed in the upstairs of the St George's Town Hall, however, during Hurricane Fabian they were considerably damaged and are thus in need of restoration. The work of conservation has actually begun and recently I saw the one painting that has been restored. It was on show, on the ground floor, in the mayor's office, during the recent National Trust Christmas walkabout. The restoration of these paintings is no inexpensive undertaking, but in order to preserve these important paintings, their conservation needs to continue. The goal, right now, is to raise $10,000, so that the next two paintings can be restored. Keep in mind; these paintings are on the large size, indeed, before they were gifted to St George's, they served as a mural in the Anderson's Grosse Point, Michigan home.

Contributions to the restoration of these paintings would not only be welcomed, they are needed. The restoration is being coordinated by the St. George's Historical Society and should you wish to contribute, please contact either Jeannie Olander of the St George's Historical Society, e-mail: albatross@ibl.bm or Michael Whittall, also of the St George's Historical Society, e-mail; whitsec@aol.com.

Although I never really knew Mr Verpilleux, I do recall the one time I met him, It was at his house in Spanish Point. I was there with a gathering of artists, most likely from the Bermuda Society of Arts. I remember him, on that occasion being dapperly dressed, which included the wearing a colourful cravat. I also recall seeing him surrounded by fellow artists and if my memory is reliable, my impression is that he was an affable and a somewhat animated individual. This meeting must have taken place either in the latter 1950s or the early 1060s. He died here in Bermuda on September 10, 1964.

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Published January 07, 2013 at 8:00 am (Updated January 06, 2013 at 4:12 pm)

Sparkle and shine: Funds needed to restore art treasures

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