The Premier Painter of the Rockies
John E. Staley
Following the article on Canadian Painting which appeared in the November issue of MacLean’s, we are featuring a series for the next three or four months on Canadian Painters. Something of the careers of our leading artists will be given, together with illustrations of their work. The first sketch which is submitted herewith is of Mr. F. M. Bell-Smith, the Premier Painter of the Rockies.
“ONE of the dreams of my early manhood was to visit and paint the Rockies, about whose magnificence all travellers raved. I dreamed this over and over again until the vision took form in finding myself, very early one summer’s morning, at The Gap.’ Never was a mountain peep-show more appropriately named. Right across an iridescent reach of the Bow River—gold-shotted by the reflections of the mirror sky— stood out boldly the vanguard sentinels of the mountain host. Displaying the glint of their glacier accoutrements, they beckoned the enraptured pilgrim to explore their mysteries and their shrines.” In some such words Mr. F. M. Bell-Smith relates the story of the psychic moment of his career.
Born in London—the Empire’s metropolis—on September 26, 1846, with the painting instincts of his father, the child began to scribble as soon as he could toddle. Mr. Bell-Smith, senior, v as a capable painter of portraits and miniatures, with a quarter of a century reputation. No habitué of studios and streets was better known than he. The mother of his little son was the daughter of a naval flag-officer, aristocratic by birth and bearing, and possessed of fine artistic traits.
With his father, and alone, the boy soon began to visit artists and watch their work, and to study paintings ex88
hibited in the picture galleries: his name was a sufficient introduction everywhere. At first the compositions, which naturally made the strongest appeals, to him, were those which told a story ; such, for example, as the humor of Mulready, Leslie and Webster. At an early age he was able, at a glance, to distinguish a Hogarth, a Reynolds, a Turner, a Constable and so forth. This was in itself a liberal education in the Fine Arts. Entered as a pupil at the South Kensington School of Art, young Bell-Smith rapidly attained a position which rendered the elementary and conventional curriculum of that famous institution of little use.
No sooner were his drawing lessons over than the young lad was accustomed to sally forth into the busy thoroughfares, sketch-book in hand. Ensconced in some doorway, or alley, whence he could, undisturbed, observe the crowds passing to and fro, he jotted down whatever struck him in the constant movement. Sometimes he specialized in pages of noses, chins, brows, and so on, and, in certain well-known styles of people. In this way he prepared himself, perhaps unconsciously, for the first manner which subsequently marked his art. At fifteen Frederick Marlett had to buckle-to to a business avocation and he became an assistant in a shirt and collar factory in Wood Street, Cheap-
side. There he could not restrain his drawing proclivities, for every collar-box left the establishment decorated by his pencil, top and bottom. Much trouble came his way in consequence! When still in his teens, in water colors, he threw off quite a number of passable compositions — treating of social and
sportive humanities of the day. Among these were such subjects as “Wimbledon Common,” “The National Rifle Association Meeting,” “The Derby—Llermit’s Year,” “Rotten Row in the Season,” and “Skating on the Serpentine.” In these sketches the boy artist’s aim was not merely to give the local colors and topography, but he attempted, and
with much success, to reproduce the figures and the features of celebrities of the time.
The year 1866 was an important one in the history of the Bell-Smiths: it saw them landing as settlers upon the pleasant banks of the mighty St. Lawrence River. The year following, Frederick
Marlett joined his parents at Montreal, with his portfolio filled with studies, and quite a lot of finished water-color pictures. Alas, the market for such compositions was slow in Lower Canada; and, greatly discouraged, the young painter closed his sketch book arid laid aside his palette. Refusing to be a burden to his kindly father he
looked about to make a living for himself. No art-craft in the sixties was more popular and more remunerative than photography, and at Montreal lived a man eminent and successful in that profession, one James Inglis, a Scot of the Scots. To him young Bell-Smith offered himself, and, being accepted, he remained thenceforward in the service of the camera for twelve strenuous years
— working away at Montreal and Hamilton. Meanwhile the resourceful “improver” displayed the grit that was in him in quite another direction ; he patriotically enlisted as a volunteer for the Fenian campaign of 1870. By the way, it is not a little remarkable, and not a little to their honor, that almost all the older painter-men to-day in Canada have done yeoman service—their rifles in their hands.
Drudgery or no, Cupid cared not one
whit! At twenty-five Frederick Marlett Bell-Smith led a blushing bride to the hymeneal altar, and set up a modest ménage in Hamilton. The girl of his choice was Myra, a daughter of Mr. Samuel Dyde, and niece of Colonel John Dyde, A.D.C., all of Canadian birth. Their honeymoon was short and then, for eight long years, work early work late was the tenor of the young
married couple’s lives. Photography— painting: painting—photography established Bell-Smith’s consistent fame, and perseverance had its due reward. The Royal Canadian Academy was chartered in 1880, when, among the Associates, appeared the worthy name of Frederick Marlett Bell-Smith. This honor proved to be a turning point in his career.
Weary of the monotony of life and looking around in vain for inspirations —things artistic were dead as dead
could be in Canada—Mr. and Mrs. BellSmith packed their trunks, gave up their home and started off across the seas. He determined “to do something significant for art,” like—another Fred-
erick—Frederick, Lord Leighton—for the land of his adoption. After a brief sojourn in Britain they found themselves in Paris, where, whilst she made a pretty home, he joined himself to
ColorossFs Studio, and put himself under the tuition of Courtois, Dupain and Blanc. This he did, not so much for the sake of gaining for his work as a draughtsman and colorist a coating of
French polish, as to prove his worthiness of his title as a Canadian painter, He had much leeway to make up and a dear wife to maintain besides. Happy was he in the partner of his heart—a
good wife is ever a splendid investment for a rising man—and, although Mrs. Bell-Smith never expressed herself on carton or canvas, her perfect candor made her the best of critics.
That Paris sojourn showed the erstwhile sketcher of the life of London streets to be in his element upon the bustling boulevards and along the busy river quays. The mutations of color fascinated him, so that his facility in draughtsmanship was strengthened by appreciation of atmospheric variations. Impressions, such as Camille Pizzaro was wont to throw off, were added to his London suites: “Nôtre Dame by
Evening Light,” “Tour St. Jacques,” “Les Halles,” “Boats on the Seine,” were some of the names he wrote upon his canvases. In Paris Bell-Smith began first to paint seriously in oils. Love r of France and of the French became a new motive in his life, a motive still operative in the choice of conversation and reading in his Toronto home and social circle,
But, hark ! Amid the thundering diapasons of the rock-shattering western Atlantic are plaintive songs of sirens singing sweetly upon the dulcet hanks and reefs of the Canadian shore —ever bringing harmony out of discord. Echoes of Nature’s orchestration floating mid sea and sky were wafted Europewards, until they found responsive measures in the heart of the painter by the Seine. The Lady of the Snows bade her sea-maidens and her rivernymphs win back to her High Court in Canada her foster son. A cheery welcome awaited the amiable couple’s return to the Dominion, and they furnished a simple homestead with a studio attached at London in Ontario.
Bell-Smith at once began to paint Canadian subjects in oils: his first composition of the series appeared in 1880 —“In the Heart of the White Mountains.” It was a great success, and, after a battle of eager bidders, it passed into the possession of the Art Gallery of the city of Sherbrooke, Quebec. Recog-
nizing the artist’s talent and his perseverance his brothers of the brush rallied round him encouragingly. Once started upon this new campaign he took abundant toll of peak and glacier, of lake and forest; and, in more restful humor, sought inspirations from wide Britannia’s realm. Landscapes and marine subjects danced in couples off his palette. His figure, alert and manly, was as familiar up in the highlands of Ontario as on the beaches of Maine and Fundy Bay. During his seven years’ residence in London (1881-88) he occupied double chairs in the Faculty of Alma College, St. Thomas, as Director of Fine Arts and Professor of Elocution, and he also taught chalk drawing in the public schools.
Lack of paying patronage is the ruin of many a brilliant disciple of the Fine Arts, and this came within Bell-Smith’s experience too. Casting about for sympathy and oof, in 1887, he was thrown into contact with a famous maker of men and roads—William Van Horne, of Canadian Pacific Railway fame. Pleading with him the cause of his art the magnate recognized the advantage
to all concerned of good pictorial displays of the scenery of that remarkable line, and, noting Bell-Smith’s ability and renown — he had been made a Royal Academician in 1886—he caused a pass over the whole railway system to be granted to him —other Canadian, painters also sharing the privilege. The happy man lost no time in packing his valise and painting kit and off he started buoyantly to the land of majestic beauty—the Rockies—where his fancy had already found a pitch.
What pen, what brush, can adequately delineate that magical panorama of towering, forest, glacier peaks—the Canadian Dolomites!—that sky,so lofty and limitless, so ethereally blue as scarcely to seem to touch the topmost snow fields of them all!—those aiguilles of gold and silver and vermilion, piercing the green-blue-purple vaulted heaven !— those dark mysterious canyons, wrenching apart with savage aspect Nature’s beauty spots!—those exquisite lakes of translucent enamel in settings of coral and malachite—or fringed with emerald verdure !—those sublime wild-weird effects of land and sky, when the ele-
mente are at war, or when peacefully slumbering in shimmering mist and rain ! The human eye may indeed take in much of this pageantry, and the heart may feel its ravishment, but man’s wit cannot fashion words to tell the impressions of his brain.
Staggered at the immensity of it all Bell-Smith sought counsel with the coronation deities, and they gently led the^ neophyte within the threshold of their domain, and unfolded to his dazzled gaze, bit by bit, its beauties and its charms. In 1888 the inspired painter put up his easel in Toronto and set to work to illustrate as best he could the ritual he had learned. Breaking with delusions of the past a new horizon filled his soul and fresh inspiration carried him on. His last link with the past, “The Ottertail Mountains,” he exhibited at the London Royal Academy the same year, and then he went ahead. The illustrations of this article are representative of the treasures BellSmith extracted from the Canadian country of the gods.
Now for a word or two about the
method he adopts in his oil-painting cult. First, the subject he wishes to transfer to canvas he fixes in his brain, he dwells upon it with the utmost intensity, until it becomes a stable property of his imagination. Next, he sets down, tentatively, what he has created mentally, in any handy medium, and elaborates his sketch in color-wash to form the .ground work of his painting scheine. Lastly, he stretches his canvas, marks out his values, paints in the body colors—making use of accessories and details—and carefully finishes his work.
Rarely Bell-Smith paints direct from Nature: his “Rockies” are too tremendous, but, at the same time, absolutely inspiring. The fleeting effects of atmosphere cannot be fastened down there and then. A glimpse is sufficient for the execution of his scheme: he paints best with closed eyes—so to speak —in the dark room of his studio, for he paints there what he feels. Variations in effects of atmosphere are like zephyrs which move capriciously the foliage of the trees. The contours and colors of Nature’s shrines are ever
changing — sometimes dissolving like iridescent bubbles: at others floating hither and thither incontinently like lightest feather-down. All this is surely true of the delicious poetry of painting! Bell-Smith’s canvases express together the epic and lyric measures he has learned so well in the glorious mountain sanctuaries.
Those painting expeditions—the latest was in 1910—have not, of course, been without episodes and incidents. “I very well remember,” the painter relates, “once, when I was sketching a glacier in the Selkirks, with Mount Sir Dontild right in front of me, I had placed my easel on a spot whence ran a glorious vista of pine trees. I bent peacefully to my task, but I soon became conscious of a movement in the underwood, and I had an apprehension of something uncanny about to happen. A curious sound struck my ear, one which I had only once heard before in my life, and that a few days before at Calgary. The inn-keeper there said he would show me something out of the
ordinary. A sound between a grunt and a growl greeted our approach, and presently I was face to face with a grizzly—in captivity. Now, again, I heard that grunting-growl and it was quite near to me. I had no weapon of any kind, I was defenceless, but sure enough a bear was stalking me ! I considered what I had better do; to run meant the race was to the fleetest, and that was not me—to climb a tree was for the most agile, and that also was not me. My only course was to sit still and go on painting. I remember I felt no special fear, but I was surprised by the rapid throbbing of my heart. Bruin emerged from the greenery right in front of me, snuffed up and down only a few paces away, surveying me and my easel for a moment, and then —quietly trotted off, and soon I lost him in the forest. I need not add, perhaps, my half-mile time to the hotel was a record !”
Bell-Smith takes relaxation in moderation. What he likes best is stagemanagement of amateur theatricals.
His specialty is the rendition of Dickensian a characters. Almost every thrilling, pleasant scene and episode, in that wide range of literature, has had, in him, a whole-hearted impresario. His
object, however, is not merely recreation, for the proceeds of his “plays” are devoted to charitable objects. “Yes,” he says, “I greatly enjoy a good play and, above all, I love music—nothing is more soothing and helpful to me in
my painting visions—whilst the best of it is, that my dear wife shares my tastes.” Mr. and Mrs. Bell-Smith are now peaceful and contented sharers of an honorable retrospect. Ever sympa-
thetic, though of most retiring disposition, she has, perhaps without knowing it, been the mainspring of their life’s success. Her quiet manner, her simplicity of purpose, her homeliness, have all been comforting factors in the vicis-
situdes of his career. Unruffled by the freaks of fashion she has patiently and tactfully disentangled him in many of life’s difficulties.
Honors have come abundantly to the modest painter, but, that which crowned them all, was bestowed upon him by Her Gracious Majesty, Queen Victoria. Princess Louise, Duchess of Argyll, when she was in Canada, wife of the Governor-General, saw and admired Bell-Smith’s work, desired that he might be introduced to her, and purchased one of his pictures. When told
that he greatly wished a commission from the Queen, the Princess sent for him and personally presented him to Her Majesty. Very graciously she gave the Canadian artist sittings: the beautiful little portrait, he painted at Windsor, now hangs in Mrs. Bell-Smith’s drawing-room. This was by way of being a study for the historical picture Bell-Smith painted in 1905 of “The Funeral of Sir John Thompson, late Premier of the Dominion.” He died suddenly at Windsor Castle, and, in the painting, Her Majesty is seen in the
act of placing a wreath upon the coffin of the deceased statesman.
With respect to the permanence of his art two things must be stated. First of all, his oil paintings demonstrate richness rather than lavishness in the use of colors. The good tone, which is overspreading his brushwork — like bloom upon ripe fruit—is indicative of the employment of none but the best materials. Secondly, Bell-Smith’s style has improved with advancing years, and this most markedly. An art connoisseur of note, in Toronto, who knows
him well and his work, says: “There is no living painter in Canada who has made anything like the advance he has made in the quality of his painting.” “A Bell-Smith” has become a necessary adjunct in every collection of importance in the Dominion. His delicacy of touch, his refinement of treatment, his conscientiousness of rendition, the ability of his technique, and the clareobscure-poetic charm of every one of his compositions have well earned for Mr. Bell-Smith his title — “The Premier Painter of the Rockies.”