By Barbara Meadowcroft
On November 3, 1951, the Sarah Robertson Memorial Exhibition opened at the National Gallery of Canada. As Sarah's friends admired the paintings, fifty-four oils and one watercolour, they must have rejoiced that the artist had finally received the recognition she deserved. Unlike the spectators who saw the exhibition on its cross-Canada tour, these friends understood the many obstacles, professional and personal, Sarah had overcome in her short career.
Sarah Margaret Armour Robertson was born in Montreal on June 16, 1891. Her father, John Armour Robertson (1841-1926) emigrated from Scotland as a young man and established himself in the wholesale dry goods business before marrying Jessie Ann Christie (1860-1948). Sarah was the eldest of four children, the others being John Louis Armour (1892-1915), Jessie Marion (1894-1978), and Elizabeth Mary (1897-1978). During Sarah's childhood the family appears to have been comfortably off. A photo album shows the children riding their pony in front of their country house, which was once the Commissary's Quarters of Fort Chambly.
One of Sarah's cousins told me that John Robertson experienced financial difficulties. The sale of the Chambly house in 1922 may have been connected with these difficulties. To Sarah, who loved the country, the loss of Chambly must have been painful. Her adult life was spent in genteel poverty. Even a trip to Toronto to see an art exhibition was a major expense for her.
In 1915, Louis Robertson was killed at Ypres. Jessie Robertson's reaction to her son's death cast a permanent shadow over her daughter's lives. None of the Robertson girls married, although opportunities occurred. A relative suggested that Jessie forced Sarah to give up her suitor, a soldier, because he survived the war and Louis did not. Naomi Jackson Groves, who knew Sarah well, confirms that Sarah was in love with a young man whom she was obliged to give up.
What is the biographer to make of this bizarre story? In Writing a Woman's Life, Carolyn Heilbrun points out that for a woman to live a life of achievement in a society that considered marriage the only career for women, something had to happen - apparently accidentally, even unconsciously - to transform what Heilburn calls the conventional story into an eccentric one. She advises biographers writing about women who died before 1850 to examine their subjects lives closely for such an event, which would usually occur in a woman's late twenties or thirties.
Sarah Robertson was at least twenty-four when she was forced to give up her suitor. By all reports, she was a woman of strong character. Why then did she bow to her parents wishes? Could it be that she suspected that marriage was not for her? She had been studying art seriously since she was seventeen and she had begun to exhibit her work. Did she allow herself to be persuaded because she recognized that marriage would be the end of her serious ambitions as a painter? Paula Blanchard, in her excellent biography of Emily Carr, shows that Emily came to just such a conclusion in 1900, rejecting her suitor because "marriage would have meant the slow, sure stifling of her art." Unlike Emily, Sarah did not leave any autobiographies; so we can never know to what extent she colluded - consciously or subconsciously - in the dismissal of her suitor.
Sarah continued to live at home. After her father's death in 1926, she moved with her mother and sisters to an apartment at 1470 Fort Street. A cousin who visited Fort Street as a child remembers the dark apartment presided over by her mother in her long, black dress and black choker. Some thirty years after her son's death, Jessie Robertson was still in mourning.
Painting in such an atmosphere cannot have been easy. Sarah's letter to A.Y. Jackson (February 10, 1948) hints at the difficulty of catering to a strong-willed invalid and reports that Elizabeth, a trained nurse, was taking time off to help with their mother. The same cousin, who visited Fort Street as a boy, describes the changes that came over Marion and Elizabeth once they were free from their mother's controlling influence. Unfortunately, Sarah did not live to enjoy that freedom. She died on December 6, 1948 - just two months after her mother.
The personal obstacles that Sarah had to overcome included poverty, the destructive influence of a dominating mother, and in later years, ill health. In a rare reference to her illness, Sarah told A.Y. Jackson, "I have a bit of a game hip and am in bed myself for a few days, but feel better and expect to be up soon." Sarah had cancer, which had invaded her hips, producing a limp and forcing her to give up the outdoor sketching which she loved.
In addition to her personal problems, Sarah faced the difficulties that any woman of her generation confronted when she resolved to be an artist: how to convince a doubting world that women can paint; how to continue to believe in herself as a painter.
In the years when Sarah Robertson was growing up there were few models for an aspiring female painter. She may have heard of Mary Cassatt and Berthe Morisot from her teacher, William Brymner, but as she did not visit Europe she is unlikely to have encountered earlier European female painters.
In the 1920s, when Sarah was struggling for recognition, the dominant force in Canadian painting was the Group of Seven. As Farr and Luckyj pointed out in From Women's Eyes, the influence of the Group was so strong that many female painters "abandoned their own inclination of muscle-bound Group-of-Sevenism." The problem for Sarah, as a landscape painter, was how to develop her own more humane vision in a period that admired vast empty landscapes.
Most artists probably have periods of self-doubt; for women, as Paula Blanchard has shown, these periods can be agonizing. Even after years of study in California and England, Emily Carr was haunted by a sense of failure. Sarah's letters to A.Y. Jackson show that her faith in her talent often wavered. In the midst of preparing for a four-woman exhibition at Hart House, she wrote to Jackson (February 3, 1934) saying that she had somehow lost her nerve over the exhibition and worried that she would not have "enough good canvases" for it. Two pages later, she says: "I really truly do not think that I would exist as an artist without you, Alex. No buddy [sic] else seems to see what you see."
Although Sarah welcomed constructive criticism from fellow artists, her self-doubts made her particularly vulnerable to insensitive reviewers. Kenneth Wells, reviewing an exhibition of the Canadian Group of Painters for the Evening Telegram (November 25, 1933), caricatured Sarah's paintings of lilies: "Decoration, as a pair of frilly panties." According to Naomi Jackson Groves, Sarah was so hurt that she later ripped the painting out of its frame and threw it on the floor.
What gave Sarah Robertson the courage to continue painting despite the difficulties in her private life, her own self-doubts and the indifference or hostility of reviewers?
From the age of seventeen, if not earlier, Sarah studied at the Art Association of Montreal (AAM). It is impossible to say exactly when she began, as the records of the AAM school have disappeared, but in May 1910, she won the scholarship for the Senior Elementary Drawing Class. The scholarship provided one year's free tuition, but Sarah probably continued at the school for several years.
William Brymner, Director of the school from 1886 to 1921, was an extraordinary teacher who influenced the lives of a whole generation of Montreal painters. Anne Savage, one of Brymner's students, speaks of the feeling that he gave them of the "terrific importance" of being involved in art.
From Brymner's classes Sarah acquired not only the principles of drawing and painting but a powerful sense of vocation. Equally important were the sketching classes with Maurice Cullen. Sarah, who shared Cullen's love of nature, must have revelled in the outdoor classes and the annual sketching trips to the Eastern Townships. Anne Savage claimed that Cullen showed them more about painting than Brymner did because Brymner never touched a student's work, while Cullen would just grab the brush and do it. "You would be niggling away at some stupid little place of composition or some silly little factual thing and he would just crash through… He gave you the feeling of the big contour, there it was, finished."
In 1920 a group of Brymner's students, past and present, banded together to form the Beaver Hall Hill Group. Undoubtedly, the example of the Toronto-based Group of Seven, which held its first exhibition in May 1920, provided a powerful incentive to the Montreal artists. Encouraged by A.Y. Jackson, whom they elected president, the Beaver Hall artists held their first annual exhibition at their studios on Beaver Hall Hill. Both The Gazette and La Presse gave generous coverage to the vernissage, which took place January 17, 1921. In his opening speech, Jackson emphasized the right of the artist to paint what he feels. "Schools and 'isms' do not trouble us," Jackson maintained, "individual expression is our chief concern."
One of the striking features of the new group was that, unlike the Group of Seven, it included women. Eight of the nineteen members, as cited in The Gazette and La Presse, were women. Although Sarah Robertson's name is usually mentioned as one of the founding members of the Beaver Hall Group, the name that appears in both newspapers is that of Sybil Robertson, a portrait painter, who contributed to the AAM Spring Exhibitions (1920-23 and 1945-47). Were the newspapers mistaken? Possibly not. In a taped interview with Charles Hill (September 11, 1973), Lilias Torrance Newton, a founding member of the Beaver Hall Group, states specifically that Sarah Robertson was not one of the original members. It therefore seems likely that Sarah joined a few months later, possibly at the same time as her friend, Prudence Heward.
Before the end of 1921, the Beaver Hall Group ran into serious financial difficulties, which necessitated relinquishing the studios. The men went their own ways but most of the women remained in close contact with each other.
In 1966 when Norah McCullough organized an exhibition at the National Gallery called, The Beaver Hall Hill Group, she included the women. The ten she selected were Mabel May, Lilias Torrance Newton, Mabel Lockerby, Anne Savage, Sarah Robertson, Prudence Heward, Kathleen Morris, Ethel Seath, Nora Collyer and Emily Coonan. Although only the first four were founding members of the Beaver Hall Group, McCullough was undoubtedly right in placing these painters together. In Sarah's letters to A.Y. Jackson, these women's names keep cropping up - with the exception of Emily Coonan. Although Emily Coonan had a studio in the Beaver Hall house, she kept to herself, according to Lilias Torrance Newton, and by 1930 had become completely isolated. The other nine painters remained in touch for over thirty years. They formed what we would today refer to as a network. They supported each other in times of trouble, shared news of the art world, and encouraged each other to exhibit. As Anne Savage recalls in an interview, "there was a remarkable spirit. We telephoned one another. "Have you got anything? What are you doing? Can I come up and see it? Could you come down?'"
Sarah Robertson was at the hub of the group. She was, in Anne Savage's words, "a bureau of information for her friends - who would come to her for help and discussion... concerning their work." Prudence Heward, in particular, relied on Sarah's criticism and always showed her paintings to Sarah before anyone else. Whenever possible, Sarah promoted her friends' work. In December 1944, for example, she wrote to H.O. McCurry at the National Gallery of Canada, recommending an exhibition of Prudence Heward, Lilias Torrance Newton, Anne Savage and Ethel Seath, in the hope that McCurry could arrange further bookings.
A.Y. Jackson, who served on the juries of many international exhibitions during the 1920s and 1930s, had such a high regard for Sarah's critical ability that he frequently consulted her about her friends' work. Anxious to include the Montreal Group in the traveling Exhibition of Paintings by Contemporary Canadian Artists (Washington, 1930), Jackson asked Sarah to pick out a Kathleen Morris, to try and locate a missing canvas by Prudence Heward and to take charge of Anne Savage's selections. "You take control of her Sarah, she underestimates all her work."
Outdoor sketching provided many opportunities for the women to get together. When transportation was available, they would pack a picnic and go to the country, if not they would paint at spots around the city. Sarah's circuit was limited. She stayed with the Hewards at Fernbank near Brockville, visited Nora Collyer in the Eastern Townships, or family friends in Stowe, Vermont.
When possible, members of the Group would exhibit together. In 1940, for example, Sarah shared an exhibition with Prudence Heward, Anne Savage and Ethel Seath. Commenting on the show, which was hung in the Print Room of the Art Gallery of Toronto, Jackson said: "It is the best balanced show of the series so far. All very individual, but a feeling of unity, a common outlook."
For nearly thirty years Sarah enjoyed the friendship and support of Prudence Heward. The two were described as inseparable. Prue's death, in March 1947, was a terrible loss for Sarah. Typically, she put other people's feelings before her own. Writing to Jackson about the funeral, Sarah said, "(Prue's) suffering had been so great that for her I could only feel it was a release." She added, "her painting friends meant a lot to her. Prue was one of those people who, if you were her friend, you were her friend."
Sarah's devotion to Prue led her to expend much time and energy during the next year on arranging the Prudence Heward Memorial Exhibition at the National Gallery. She revised Jackson's catalogue essay, prepared lists of paintings and spent hours conferring with members of the Heward family. When the Exhibition opened, March 4, 1948, Sarah wrote to Jackson and to H.O. McCurry, Director of the National Gallery, to say how happy the Hewards were with the Exhibition. Sarah herself was too ill to attend the opening. She outlived her friend by only twenty-one months.
Much as Sarah owed to the example of William Brymner and to the support of the Group, her triumph as an artist was due to her own talent and indomitable spirit. A keen sense of humour helped her cope with the constraints of her everyday life. Anne Savage compared Sarah, who was small and blond, to a Botticelli angel, "playing and constantly singing hymns of praise [...] apparently delicate and frail - but she could hit the bull's eye every time with a resounding crack." Naomi Jackson Groves, who once took painting lessons from Sarah, admired the humour that Sarah showed in her work, an "effervescence" that didn't seem in keeping with her appearance. "We always said that Sarah was the size of a mouse and had the courage of a lion."
During the 1950's, the success of Abstract Expressionism resulted in a temporary eclipse of figurative painters, including the Beaver Hall Group. Admirers of these painters owe a debt of gratitude to Norah McCullough for organizing the Beaver Hall Hill Exhibition in 1966, which gave the group its name and identity. It is time, however, to correct a myth that McCullough helped to perpetuate. In her catalogue note she claims that these painters were "by no means careerists but rather talented 'gentlefolk.'" The phrase "gentlefolk" lingers over the Group suggesting a world of servants and self-indulgence at odds with reality. If by "careerists," Norah McCullough meant professional painters, then Sarah Robertson and her friends qualify. No one suggests that Lawren Harris was an amateur because he had private means. Professionalism in art, unlike sport, is determined, not by whether the practitioner can live off the proceeds, but by her attitude to her work. Natalie Luckyj, Dorothy Farr, Frances Smith, Charles Hill and the Walter Klinkhoff Gallery, among others, have shown that Prudence Heward, Lilias Torrance Newton, and Kathleen Morris were painters who made art the central purpose of their lives. Sarah Robertson showed the same commitment. Her work was of cardinal importance to her. Exhibitions were important - first, because they could provide funds with which to buy supplies, and second, because they justified the hours she spent struggling with problems of design and composition.
Although Sarah is known primarily as a landscape painter, her work includes portraits, still-life compositions and combinations of figures and landscapes. She painted what she saw from her window or discovered on her daily walks. The Sulpician Seminary at the top of her street was a subject to which she often returned, painting it from different angles and in different seasons. Her landscapes are not the rugged mountains and lonely lakes of Jackson or Harris, but the inhabited landscapes of the Eastern Townships, dotted with friendly houses and barns.
Sarah took a long time to develop her own style. In Le Repos (1926) a painting that catches the feeling of a hot Sunday afternoon, with the family seated under the trees, the colours are subdued and the composition tightly controlled. Other works painted in the late twenties show a similar stiffness, as Sarah's friend A.Y. Jackson noted. Writing to Sarah on December 2, 1928, Jackson reported Lismer's comment that Sarah was trying to do something not quite natural to her, influenced, perhaps, by Lawren Harris and Edwin Holgate. Jackson added, "you are a finer colourist that either of them, and yet you abandon colour in seeking for form and design."
Sarah's later work is freer in composition and bolder in colour. Joseph and Marie Louise, 1930, is remarkable for the subtle variations of greens, blues, and greys. The sky with its spears of white light seems to foreshadow the dramatic effect of sky and water that she later achieved in On Lake St. Louis (c. 1933). In Coronation (1937), which captures the exuberance of the occasion in a swirl of flags and branches, Sarah uses scintillating oranges and reds.
Sarah's paintings reflect her capacity to charge "every tiny experience with an intense emotional ecstasy." She loved nature and that love is expressed in her work. But she was no slavish imitator. As Lismer remarked of Sarah's work in 1934, "she has the courage to create landscapes, and not copy them literally."
Since Sarah's death, her work has been shown at many group shows, in Canada and abroad. Her only solo show, however, was her Memorial Exhibition in 1951. By bringing together rarely seen paintings from private collections, as well as the gems from the public galleries, Walter Klinkhoff Gallery offers us a rare chance to appreciate the work of this underestimated artist.
Source: Sarah Robertson Retrospective Exhibition Catalogue, Galerie Walter Klinkhoff (1991).
© Barbara Meadowcroft and Galerie Walter Klinkhoff Inc.
Sarah Robertson Exhibitions at Klinkhoff
18th Annual Retrospective Exhibition
September 7 - 21, 1991
BEAVER HALL HILL GROUP
26th Annual Retrospective Exhibition, 1999
BEAVER HALL GROUP
Exhibition for the Auxiliary of the Montreal Chest Institute
April 25 - 28, 2007