THE ILLUSTRATOR OF DRUMMOND'S HABITANT BOOKS

H. A. SOMERVILLE June 1 1909

THE ILLUSTRATOR OF DRUMMOND'S HABITANT BOOKS

H. A. SOMERVILLE June 1 1909

THE ILLUSTRATOR OF DRUMMOND'S HABITANT BOOKS

H. A. SOMERVILLE

"CANADA has no artists,” so said Sarah Bernhardt. It is always painful to flatly contradict a lady, but in this instance, it must be done. Canada is yet young. Her men have been busy, blazing the trails for future progress, and developing the most obvious resources of the land. This is the inevitable history of every new country, and these tasks keep its inhabitants well occupied. The fine arts are products of a time in the history of a nation, when its people can think of something else besides the necessity of building up for absolute needs. The garret-room genius is something of a myth. "The best work; the work for which the world is better, is done under favorable conditions. A full stomach helps a lot. Wealth, culture and refinement may develop the aesthetic tendencies. This fact renders it impossible to compare a young country with an old countrv.

Despite this assertion, however, Canada has already gone far afield. In Bernhardt's own sphere, there is a galaxy of Canadian stars—Margaret Anglin, James l\.*ITackett, May Irwin and Maud Allan. An untimely death cut off Franklin McLeay from a brilliant career. At the time of his death he was playing Cassius to Tree's Antony and Waller’s Brutus

in London, in an all-star cast. He 28

unfortunately died before h e had grasped fully the fruits of his genius.

I n literature, there are many names splendidly shining, among them Barr, Drummond, Parker, Roberts, Carman and Campbell.

Have we any sculptors ? The works of Hebert and Hill answer this query, to say nothing of that master of anatomy, Dr. Tait Mackenzie. They are three superlative types of Canadian artists. Hebert's and Hill's works adorn our public squares. The old noblesse of France finds expression to us, of the present day, through the work of the former. The latter has treated, in a virile way, the achievements of later day Canadians fighting for the flag in foreign countries.

Of painters, black and white men and cartoonists, such names as Matthews, Julien, Bengough, Racey, Harris and Coburn stand out prominently. After all this, the divine Sarah must have been wrong. Her vision was dimmed, perhaps, by the glitter of her box office receipts.

Some years ago a professional man, a doctor of medicine, wrote some charming verses, concerning the hum-

ble habitants of the Province of Quebec. This volume was redolent of good will, sympathy and heart’s interest. Tt laid bare in a delightful wav the customs, habits and foibles of these people. Human nature, as only a physician can know it. was set forth in its pages.

The author was the late Dr. W. H. Drummond. Naturally he wanted an illustrator to help him in his work.

The nature of the book made a Canadian essential from a sentimental, if not from a technical, standpoint.

Into this gap stepped Frederick Simpson Coburn, and the foundations of the fame which he enjoys in Canada were laid through this connection. How this was accomplished is

“Habitant" as a possible illustrator. I spent about three months down below Quebec studying types and scenery before undertaking it. and the work 1 brought back evidently pleased the doctor, because he gave me the manuscript, and carte blanche to go ahead. This began an association

best told in Mr. Coburn’s own words. "It was while calling on the late Mr. S. C. Stevenson, in Montreal, just prior to leaving for Europe in 1896, that he happened to mention Dr. Drummond’s work, which the doctor had just then decided to publish, and he introduced me to the author of the

that has exercised an enormous influence on me and my work, not only in a personal way, but because he gave me my first real confidence in myself.”

Mr. Coburn was born at Upper Melbourne, Que., March 20, 1871,

and received his education chiefly at

St. Francis College, Richmond. His boyhood and youth were those of a normal Canadian boy. He early showed talent in an artistic direction. After leaving Richmond he came to Montreal, and commenced his art studies under the late Samuel Stevenson. I lis first serious work was undertaken in New York at the Carl Hecker School of Art, and from there he went to the Royal Academy of Berlin, Germany, subsequently studying in Munich and Paris. It was in the latter place that he was brought under the influence of the great Gerome, and he also gained the honor of a scholarship there.

Like many other great and good men, he had a good mother, and it was during this sojourn in Europe that his greatest sorrow came to him in the loss of her whom he had left scarcely a year before in apparently the best of health. After graduating

in Paris, he came home, and it was then that he undertook the illustration of Dr. Drummond's first volume of poems, "The 1 labitant."

Mr Coburn has taken up his residence in Antwerp. where he has a studio. Fie divides his time between illustrative work and painting. Needless to say. it is upon the latter that he hopes to build 'nis reputation. When asked what his best illustrations were, he said, "I consider mv best work was the illustrations made for the Eleanor edition of Edgar Allan Poe's works, and some of the later illustratons of Goldsmith, for which I spent some time in Ireland last summer."

Tu speaking of some of his earlier struggles, he mentioned a disastrous four months which he spent in Montreal. vainly endeavoring to establish an artistic connection, and remarked that the memory of them made him shudder.

Every other year he leaves his studio in Antwerp, and comes home to visit his father, sister and brothers, and an aged grandmother. He eniovs. as onlv an artist can enjoy, the natural beau-

d he succeeding vear he went to London, and Sein jol of Fine Art. From London he crossed to Antwerp, and graduated from there after winning a scholarship and first rank in the cla--. Subsequently he illustrated Dr. Drummond'other books, "Johnnie Corlean." "The Voyageur,’’ "Philorum and Bí i s Canoe,' "Madeline Yercheres.’ and editions of Edgar Allan Poe’s works : I Dickens' "Cricket on the Hearth" and "A Christmas Carol": Washington Irving’s "Rip Van Win"CDur La>t Ride Togther.”

ties of the Eastern Townships, and goes cuperated and ready for the further pursuit of his chosen profession.

At the time of publication of Dickens’ ‘‘Christmas Carol," “Literature," which was then published as a supplement by the “London Times," spoke in a very eulogistic strain of his work. “In discussing the various artists who have illustrated the “Christmas Carol it said : “The pictorial

quality is best of all shown by Air. Coburn.

Afore than that, he has read his Dickens with care, and has more than the usual literary appreciation. His drawing of the light-hearted vagrant, stooped down at Scrooge’s keyhole to regale him with a Christmas carol, is worthy of the best traditions of American (Canadian) pen work. The picture of Scrooge in “The Tank" is very real, the figure of the skinflint with his dip is a very powerful drawing. The fiddler is a very real type, and no one of tlje illustrations other than delight the most exacting art critic. If only Aír. Coburn will lose himself entirely in his subject, he is one of the most promising of modern Dickens’ illustrators. The interest that always belongs to the efforts that, from time to time, have been made to secure for a classic work of literature a tresh interpretation from an artist of individual imagination is ever present in the work we have somewhat cursorily reviewed.”

“Alore than the usual literary appreciation.” That is the secret. The fact that Dr. Drummond said to him, after the first proofs were submitted, “Fred, you and I must go together in this work,” showed how much Dr.

Drummond appreciated his ability to interpret the requirements of the book.

Not only once, but always, does he do this. It is doubtful if any one else could have seen into the habitant's heart, and translated its throbs so faithfully as this young Canadian. Not a thing that marks them with their own individuality has escaped his notice. Of Air. Coburn's latest works little can be said, as comparatively few of his paintings have been seen here.

There were, however, a few on exhibition in Montreal during the early winter. They all displayed bis delicate interpretation and treatment of his subject. Some were marines, and some portraits. Among the latter one was particularly striking. It was the portrait of a woman standing near a

window, where the strong lights and shades of such a position were most effectively shown. To the layman, who committed the cardinal sin of approaching too closely, there appeared to be a big splash of pigment

out, in an alluring way, the sheen of the rays of light falling across the folds of her skirt, and then nothing but wonder and admiration came over one for the art and the skill of the painter. Frederick Simpson Coburn

rolled up in bundles on tms woman’s skirt where the sun struck full. When too close, it looked like the spot on the wall inside a paint shop where painter mechanics try out their brushes. At an artistic distance, the seemingly meaningless stroke brought

may not be a great painter, and may never become such. One thing, however, is sure, if the ability to make cold canvass appeal, to speak, to stir something in one’s heart, then he is already a great artist, and will enjoy all the emoluments of success.

To criticize the fine arts is to tread on dangerous ground. The impressionistic cult impresses perhaps by its daring, but its influence is fleeting. There are some simple pictures, simple in treatment perhaps, simple in subject, simple in coloring, that ring true, and in an unhackneyed way maybe, tell an old story. It is more than a conjecture that, whatever fame the artist Coburn achieves in the future, he will be remembered longest in Canada by his connection with Dr. Drummond and his books. This, perhaps, is only natural, as the work of both strikes near home. To know that the artist did his part well, one has but to look at the illustrations in any one of these hooks. He went to the fountain head, to the plain people, and he has delicately delineated the characters he has met, and lived among, in French Canada. He has run the gamut of variety. Nothing has escaped him. War, scenery, portraiture, and domestic life, are faithfully depicted, and woven into the warp and woof of the doctor’s stories.

Drummond and Coburn have accom-

plished a national work, and posterity will be grateful to them. History holds many examples of men being born who dovetail into one another's lives. In this way good results are compounded.

Of the artist’s private life, and his personality, little can be said. One ol the strongest traits of his character is his aversion to anything which savors of personal advertising. He has no objection to people discussing his work, because he knows this part of him is for the public. Fie believes that honest criticism, from any source, may be valuable. He is a severe and relentless critic of his own work, and invites it from all, as all men of talent do. It is hardly necessary to say anything regarding his personality, because the keen observer will find it reflected in his work. The future is difficult to estimate, but if success depends upon the force of the old adage that “true art is the expression of man’s joy in his work,” then the future holds the greatest success for the Canadian artist—Frederick Simpson Coburn.