Magazine article The Spectator

Discovering a Master

Magazine article The Spectator

Discovering a Master

Article excerpt

David Milne Watercolours: Painting Towards the Light British Museum, until 25 September

The Canadian painter David Milne (1882-1953) is not known in this country. His name is shamefully overlooked by the Yale Dictionary of Art & Artists, and there has never before been a show of his work here. The fact that there is one now is largely due to the vision and enthusiasm of Frances Carey, who acquired three watercolours by Milne while she was deputy keeper of Prints and Drawings at the BM. However, even when there is a really superb exhibition of his work in London, the public is not beating a path to its door. (Would it be different, one wonders, if the show had been mounted elsewhere -- at the Royal Academy or the Tate, with their prestigious exhibition halls and effective publicity machines? ) Quite frankly, people don't know what they're missing. Discovering Milne has enhanced the store of beauty in my mind, and opened for me another chapter in the history of watercolour -- a chapter he occupies entirely on his own.

Milne was born in a log cabin in the wilds of Ontario, the tenth child of émigré Scots farmers. A clever child who excelled particularly at botany, he grew up to be a teacher, but wanted to be an artist and took a New York correspondence course in how to paint. In 1903 he went to New York to be an illustrator, enrolled in the Art Students League, and made a precarious living painting window signs for shops.

He was inspired by Rockwell Kent and other older contemporaries such as Robert Henri, and tried his hand at pastels and etchings. From 1912, he concentrated on watercolour and oil (he showed two oils and three watercolours in the Armory Show), gradually developing his signature style of watercolour -- a highly original treatment of the medium reliant on very little water and application with a hard bristle brush.

The exhibition begins with some of his early watercolours, which are more fluid in style than his mature work. A masterpiece of this period is 'New York Roofs' (c.1912), notable for the extensive areas of the support (in this case, illustration board) left blank. Milne was adept at letting the white of the paper work for him. He could draw a convincingly solid figure (see the roadsweeper in 'White Matrix') with a few coloured lines and an expressively contained shape. But he was equally skilled with black, in a typically anti-Impressionist way, and used it unsparingly. Although his early work is very French in spirit, the use of colour approaches the expressionist.

'Cobalt Trees', of probably the following year, is already daring in colour, while his understanding of the structure of trees shows signs of the mastery it would soon encompass. A couple of ink on Japanese paper drawings further demonstrate this structural, almost architectural, interest.

In December 1917, Milne enlisted in the Canadian army to fight rather than to paint for the cause. After some training in Toronto and rounding up deserters in Quebec, he embarked for Europe, only to be quarantined (against the Spanish flu that was devastating an already depleted populace) at Kimmel Park Camp in Wales.

He was there when the Armistice was declared. On leave in London towards Christmas 1918, he discovered the Canadian War Records programme established by Lord Beaverbrook. Through the recommendation of P.G. Konody, the Observer's art critic and the Beaver's adviser, he became a war artist. …

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