Gagen, The Painter of the Sea
This is the third article of Mr. Staley’s series. The first was a general review of Canadian Painting, the second a sketch of the* career of Frederick M. Bell-Smith, and the third, presented herewith, treats of the work of Robert Ford Gagen, the Painter of the Sea. These articles, covering the lives of prominent artists and presenting illustrations of their finest paintings, constitute a most valuable series on Canadian Art.
John E. Staley
“LOVE of the sea and the river has alwas held first place in my affections. Scarcely a year has passed, since I was a boy, but it has seen me paddling, swimming, playing, dreaming, chatting, and sketching in and out of the briny. Shipmen and fisherfolk have been my companions, and I am thoroughly familiar with everything that floats, and with every mood of the watery elements. Sunshine and mist, wild storm and gentle breeze, noon and night are all full of fascination for me. Their innumerable effects are like the play of the features upon the human face; they are quite as fickle in expression. The songs of sea sirens, and the whisperings of river naiads ever lead me on unresisting in my yearly pilgrimages. The open Court of my Goddess of the Foam—their Queen—wide as sea and sky extends, is my Elysium. Her altars are rugged rocks and frowning precipices, but she herselt is, in sooth, a coquette—for she eludes my grasp, leaving me however, with inspirations and impressions which influence my life and my work all through.”
Thus musing Robert Ford Gagen sails serenely upon an even keel—the strivings of his heart restrained, like the lapping billows upon the gunwales, by the skilful helmsman’s hands. He yarns of others, and has his own, and quite unaffectedly, manifests the instincts of the man—were he not a painter he would be a sailor. In this he displays the eternal fitness of things—his
infatuation is inherited. Born in London, his parents were George John Gagen and Caroline Holland. She was a daughter of William Holland, Captain in the old East India Company’s service, and Mr. Gagen was an architect. Mrs. Gagen first detected her little son’s artistic bent and corrected his crude sketches. One such Robert Ford Gagen remembers well—a study in pencil of three oak trees. “This was,” he says, “my first effective study direct from Nature, and my mother kept it among her treasures for many a year.”
His father succeeded to the business of Ford and Patterson, architects, of Mark Lane, London, and many visits, made by him to the office, enlarged his predilections for the Fine Arts. Mr. Ford married a sister of Mr. J. G. Howard, the munificent donor of Howard, or High Park—who immigrated in 1832, and settled at York (Toronto). When Mr. Ford retired from business it was carried on by Mr. Gagen, senior, for many years. Failing health, however, compelled him to seek another clime, and, acting on the advice of Mr. Howard, he and his family came to Canada in 1862. They made their home at Harpurhey, now Seaforth, in Huron County, Ontario.
That westward voyage, in the old “United Kingdom,” occupied twentyeight long days—not a day of it did the young art student regret, for it opened his vision and enlarged his heart. Enthralled he watched and felt the great rollers of the deep with their crests of spongy foam, and their gulfs of turgid color ; each pitch and toss was a game of gain to him. He laughed and he sang as the great green water burst over ship and crew—the deluges of spray whetted but his appetite—his love of the “Restless Sea”—the title, in quite recent times, of one of his most striking canvases,—an all-inspiring theme.
One of Robert F. Gagen’s earliest friends in Canada was William N.
Cresswell, an artist who lived quite near Seaforth; many were the sketching expeditions they made together; spurning the flat and uninteresting country around their.dwellings, they sought the pisturesque shores of Lake Huron, in the neighborhood of Goderich and Bayfield. Cresswell was just the sort of teacher-companion Gagen needed: he had been a pupil of E. W. Cook, R.A., a marine painter of distinction. Under Cresswell’s guidance the young English youth learned how to draw and paint,
not merely what he saw of Nature’s moods, but what lay underneath them and around them—breath and pulse and atmosphere. Foliage and flowers earliest attracted his eye and his hand, and for many years their study and portrayal formed the bulk of his travail. Many were the prizes he won at Provincial Exhibitions, for such subjects, as well as for more ambitious landscapes in oils and water colors.
Another helping hand was now ex-
tended to the prize-winner—no less a powerful hand than that of one of the Makers of Canadian Art—John A. Frazer. In 1872, having noted the excellence of young Gagen’s work, Mr. Frazer asked him to enter his employ as a painter of water color portraits and miniatures. This was a new departure and on unfamiliar ground, but his success was very soon apparent. This close association with the famous landscape painter greatly influenced Gagen’s subsequent career. Mr. Fraser was one of the founders of the Ontario Society of Artists—the parent of all other art associations in the Dominion, and the name of Robert Ford Gagen was one of
the first inscribed on its honor roll of members. At the first exhibition of pictures held by the society in 1873, two very excellent compositions from Gag-
en’s studio were hung—“Falls of the Genesee, N.Y.,” and “Stream in the Wood.”
Gagen went on working diligently—
it was his nature so to do—but as he toiled in his studio, another, and a still more vital interest, entered into his life —matrimony of course. In 1876 Miss Jane Palmer, daughter of John Palmer, of Scarborough, Ontario, gave him her heart and hand. It was a happy marriage; she became the mother of a son and two daughters, the ruler of a peaceful hearth, her husband’s help and guide. At this time the Earl of Dufferin was Governor-General of Canada, and took a great interest in artistic matters. He was followed by the Marquis of Lome, whose Royal consort, Princess Louise, proposed the formation of a Royal Academy of Arts in Canada; this was founded in 1880, and of it R. P. Gagen was elected an Associate. Soon after this the call of sea sounded loudly in Gagen’s ears, and to the Maritime Provinces he bent his steps, taking en route what held him of the great Dominion river,—-the St. Lawrence. He called his pictures by such names as these—“Grand Manan, N.B.,” Dark Harbor,” “Dulce Gatherers,” “Herring Fishers.”
At the Grand Manan he stayed at Captain Pettie’s, a fine specimen of $n old salt, full of poetry and romance— and the following yarn he tells:—“The Marathon House was situated half-way up the bight of land overlooking the North Harbor, and Pettie’s note paper was headed;
‘TheMountains look on Marathon,
And Marathon looks on the Sea.’
I was invited by a traveler for a firm in Pittsburg, who was staying at the hotel, to accompany him to Dark Harbor, some seven miles on the other side of the Island, to visit the dulce gatherers, as he wished to purchase this edible seaweed for his firm. I was rewarded by an unexpected encounter with a treasure-hunter. Just as at many other places the famous Captain Kidd was supposed to have buried his loot, so did he somewhere on this lonely shore— there is a small inlet not far from Dark Harbor called Treasure Cove. Whilst ray commercial friend was negotiating with a group of natives I wandered about sketch-book in hand; but, presently one of their number—a thin, sandy man, I should say of Celtic extraction—followed me, and asked me what I was doing. I did not reply directly, but asked him if Captain Kidd had ever visited this spot. His answer was, ‘Yes, and no one knows more than me about it. Besides I am just on discovering his treasure as I have found marks cut on rocks and stumps of trees which only want to be spelled out to show the very spot. If you, Mister, are after the same business you’d better "know it belongs to me.’ I saw the man was enthused with determination to yield to none the pride and profit of discovery so I made no reply. The ‘Celt’ followed me and asked what I wanted with my books and pencils. I replied that I had recently read an illustrated article in a magazine and I was greatly interested in the matter. ‘Well,’ he said, ‘if you know
anything about it different, then we’d better strike a bargain on the spot. What say ye? But I warn ye you’ve a tough customer to reckon with in me!’ The other men now drew near, and, noting the man’s excitement, they drew me aside and warned me not to pursue the subject then, or I might imperil my life. Nothing more was said, we returned to our boats and to Pettie’s. I have never found that treasure, nor has the ‘Celt’ so far as I know!” “Another episode, I remember, which arose whilst I was on the New Brunswick coast. One day an ancient mariner, who stood by watching me at work near the “Seven Days’ Work,” Whale Cove, exclaimed: — ‘You wouldn’t think a man could climb that Head, would ye, now?’ The Seven Days’ Work, I may say, is a long cliff, about 150 feet high, showing seven distinct strata of rock in courses, similar to a stone wall. ‘Well, a man did,’ he went on, ‘and in the teeth of a winter storm. It was this way. Many years ago, I don’t mind how many, there was a wild snow gale raging, such as is very seldom seen, even in these parts. It was I think in January, and early in the morning a man went to
the point to have a look at things. He found in an exhausted state a sailor, who, when he had come round, told him there had been a wreck, and that he had climbed up that Head. Sure there had been a wreck, for within the
basin floated dead bodies and wreckage. The bodies were terribly mutilated: many of their throats were cut, as if by knives, but it was done by the sharp rocks in the basin. People did
not believe the man ever climbed that rock, but a fisherman, that was, himself, something of a climber, went down and found a sailor’s heavy glove about half-way up, and the man said he had lost it there.’ The shipwrecked sailor, now an old man, is yet alive and lives over by Pettie’s Cove. He repairs boots and shoes—for to this prosaic end had come the only survivor of the wreck of the ‘Ashburton.’ ”
Gagen’s sketching trip was abruptly ended by the receipt of bad news from home and he hurried back. Death was at the door and took away the one whom he could least well spare—it is ever so when the “Black Buffaloes” are out upon their “Triumph”—a sad widower, he buried his dear wife. Pencil and brush were laid aside for he could only work intermittently, and then, after a while, he went off for change of scene and thought to Nassau, in the Bahamas. The genial climate cheered the mourner amazingly, but the dulcet tones of Nature there failed to appeal to the lover of the staccato music of the tossing waves and echoing headlands. Some sketches certainly he made of people and things West Indian, and then back he turned his steps to Canada. The wild seas and jagged shores of Maine attracted him— they hold him still. Off Gloucester, Mass., he has found much in his own way—flotsam and jetsam both. Thence came in pigment in 1904, “Deep Sea Fishers”—purchased by the Ontario Government, “A Chance to Exchange News,” and “Late Return” in 1905, and “The Fqg Bell” in 1906—this near Manana, Maine.
The year, 1890, had seen Gagen’s eyes fixed upon the Rockies and the Selkirks. Mightily impressed was he by the wonderful phenomena of mass and space and atmosphere in that sublime scenery. At first his brush refused to color what his pencil had tentatively outlined, but gradually he was able to pick up precious “bits” here and there, like the fevered prospector in a gold quartz canyon. To work in (he open was impossible—the experience of all mountain scenic-painters— but sketch books and pads soon became a pile of treasure-trove for elaboration in his studio. Titles of his canvases came out as, “Rain and Storm on Mount Sir Donald,” “Evening in the
Valley of the Grand Glacier,”—purchased, by the way, for the City Fathers of Toronto — “Morning in the Selkirks,” and such like. They were indeed no mere titles, for he had captured something tangible out of the grandeur. Certainly the topographical value of his work is subordinate to its artistic effect—this is where it makes his appeal.
Mountain scenery, indeed, for quite a considerable period, took first place in Gagen’s painting categories. Scotland, in 1906, and Switzerland—where he roamed at will—gave the Canadian artist generously of their fascinations. In the Bernese Oberland he was forever comparing, peak, glacier, lake and forest, and the clouded horizon with the wonders of his great adopted country. Ilis conclusions were as follows :—“Like the country, which contains them, they have greater beauty of form, whilst the human interest, imparted by the picturesque chalets and quaint old towns, gives a civilized effect quite beyond anything in less populous and less historic Canada.”
The Highlands of Scotland, in 1906, moved the pilgrim of the palette greatly. The delicacy of that misty sunshine—the beauty veil of earth—was a delicious vision; and Gagen unhesitatingly declares that—“the land of Bruce and Burns is an ideal painter’s pitch, for, if one country only might be allowed for the study of mountain and water, it was Scotland, and none other.” His sketching was done chiefly around Oban and in the Grampians. When he returned to Toronto he stretched a series of Scottish canvases, which he called by such names as “A Soft Day in the Grampians,” “A Highland Trout Stream,” and, the chief of all, “In the Grapmians.”
But what of the mighty St. Lawrence? Ah, that is Gagen’s tenderest pageant scene, where the sweet pathos of the river arrests the stern drama of the ocean. Quebec to Chicoutimi is the finest river-trip in Canada; this waterway is history too—the storied shores and floods of the precusors. For thirty miles the Laurentians climb sheer out to the river breast. Most picturesque villages gem the banks—Tadousac, the quaintest of the quaint, and full of memories sad and gay. From Cape Eternity to .Tadousac the river winds incessantly round great heads of rock streaked and marked grey, tan, and yellow, white, blue and black. One of the loveliest scenes ever painted by man, Gagen has made his own, and„ in his “Late Afternoon at Tadousac,” 1910, he has given us an ideal canvas, bedight with all the colors of the rainbow. Away across the stream stand up the mystic blue Laurentian Mountains, fronted by stupendous indigo-purple precipices, sheer sixteen hundred feet or more — crowned with emerald-green and grey-yellow pastures, and fringed with russet pines; the turquoise-tinted stream—streaked with carmine; rocks in the foreground -— glacier-streaked and lichen-painted—rising out of red gold aqueous sand—where once the river ran—“desert” they call it; the glorious sunshine illuminating everything; and above all the cobalt cerulean span of sky—the sky of Canada! It is a bit of Fairyland seen through the thinnest veil of Nature’s spinning—the shimmer of the westering sun. This is the superlative degree of Gagen’s pigment comparison—the comparison of the panorama of the St. Lawrence. His suite of river studies are jewels like the enamelled leaves of autumn, which he regards with fond affection.
Gagen’s love of flowers has been a pleasant feature in his life’s history, for he is a skilful botanist and gardener. In person he is of medium stature, but of sturdy build, a well-preserved ,man, with hair but slightly touched with grey. Llis dark eye has a keen thrust which betokens humor—few men more enjoy a joke—his laughter is hearty and good-natured. Strange, perhaps, to say, he loves to go alone when he paints from the face of Nature. Companionship would distract his attention which he rivets upon his outlook. He looks, and looks again, at rock and sea and sky until he has quite taken in all their
expressions, and captured the slyness and mystery of them all.
In Gagen’s studio are many excellent studies in water colors of sea and land, made under every possible condition of light and shade upon the spot. They are fully rendered, so far as colors and values are concerned, together with the suggestions of wave-curl, surf-flight and shadow-flicker. From these—and, this is his method—he rapidly makes copies in oils, to which he imparts the atmospheric effects he has registered in the open. In less serious mood he shows you a sketch of a lone stone-pine, rooted precariously upon a wind-swept rock by the wild sea’s splash. It bears a title of femininity, and has been many a painter’s sweetheart. Bereft of almost all her clothing and weirdly distorted, she wears upon her head a huge green umbrella hat—and there she dances to and fro in the frolics of the elements—“the Merry Widow” of Creihaven.
Always keenly interested in the doings of the R.C.A. and O.S.A. none of their exhibitions have been without his pictures. For more than fifteen years he has been the secretary of the O.S.A. and due in a great measure to his enterprise has been the success of the society. In 1893 Gagen was appointed one of the Canadian Fine Arts Commissioners to the World’s Columbian Exposition, Chicago. He acted in the same capacity at the Universal Exposition, St. Louis, 1904, and at the Pan-American Exposition, Buffalo, 1901, where he was awarded honorable mention. As a member of the Board of the Central Ontario School of Art and Design, Gagen has given of his best to foster the art education of the province. He has lately been appointed a member of the council of the new Ontario College of Art. His efforts in connection with the Canadian National Exhibition are widely known and appreciated.
The portrait in this article has been taken specially—it shows the worthy secretary hard at work in his studio, 28 College Street, painting his picture “Rollers”—in this season’s Royal Academy at Ottawa.