Genius in hiding: DAVID MILNE
He was one of a handful of Canadian artists whose paintings have achieved real fame, but he fought shy of people and publicity so successfully that his wife could not even discover his grave. Here, from, private papers and interviews with the. few people who knew him well, is the first full account of David Milne's long exile in the wilderness he refused to leave
DAVID BROWN MILNE, who died in the village of Bancroft, Ontario, just over seven years ago, was one of the most impressive artists Canada has ever produced. “You would call him a genius,” said A. Y. Jackson recently. Milne painted in poverty and obscurity, but the few knowledgeable people who stumbled upon his work during his lifetime spotted its quality at once. Two Toronto art dealers with access to the pictures, Blair Laing and Douglas Duncan, both made large private collections; so did such canny and discriminating art patrons as the Right Hon. Vincent Massey and the late J. S. McLean. The organizers of the historic Armory Exhibition of 1913, which sprang modern French art on North America, thought Milne’s work important enough to include in the small American section of the show. And at the time of his death, Canadian water-colorists acknowledged him their master, and every major Canadian gallery had representative work.
Today a series of retrospective exhibitions has awakened the public at large to Milne’s importance. An art book and a film about him arc in preparation this year. Oils that he couldn’t unload at twenty dollars in the Twenties arc worth up to $5,000; small water colors may fetch $200 or more—and only two or three hundred pictures of any description are left in his estate from the thousands he painted. But Milne himself remains the least known and most enigmatic figure in the history of Canadian art.
For fifteen years of his life no one but his lawyer and his business agent even knew where he was: his mail went to an accommodation address in Toronto. Most of his friends now say they knew little about him personally and the scanty published accounts arc studded with evasion, inconsistency and error. He was married after leaving art school in New York, but two years after his death at seventyone a Canadian Press dispatch described him as a bachelor. Even today May Hegarty (Patsy) Milne, who was his wife and his constant support for more than twenty years, cannot find out where he is buried.
Anything that cost him painting time was out
Part of the obscurity was of Milne’s own making. He married Patsy Milne in the U. S. and spent the first half of his painting life there. But he came to count as too expensive anything — clothes, comforts, food, a house, a friendship, a marriage — that cost him painting time, or his poise. So he returned to Canada and spent most of the rest of his life hiding in case Patsy ever tried to see him again. “1 think he was afraid she’d burst in and explode what he’d built up here,” says Douglas Duncan, Milne’s friend and business agent in Canada. Even now Duncan, and others, remain obstinately secretive on Milne’s behalf.
Some of the obscurity is posthumous. Correspondence, memoirs and records of the two parts of his life exist, but they are in different hands and even now, more than seven years after his death, neither the partisans of the first part nor the partisans of the second part have published their holdings or agreed to trade or collate them.
But, while people are alive who knew him. it is still possible to piece together some account of this strange and fascinating man who
FOR TWO OF MILNE’S PAINTINGS, SEE OVERLEAF
DAVID MILNE continued
looked like a tanned squirrel in steel-rimmed glasses, who talked like a courtier, who lived with the thoughtless tyranny of a milord and to whom, quite simply, painting was the only thing that mattered.
When he was a young man in New York he warned Patsy Hegarty, his fiancée, "1 would rather be dead than not paint.” He meant it. They faced utter destitution one winter after they were married and a friend ottered to get Milne a part-time job teaching art in New York City. Milne said coldly. “1 paint all the time or not at all.”
He painted winter and* summer, indoors and out. James Clarke, a U. S. advertising artist and the only close friend of Milne’s life, recalls accompanying him on one expedition when Milne painted nearly three hours standing at his easel in a foot of snow in freezing temperature. Clarke himself quit after an hour, too numbed to hold a brush or think.
On another occasion Milne, who was working in water colors,
loaded his brush with water and stroked it across part of the painting to get a blurred effect; it was so cold that the water froze instantly, depositing its burden of pigment in frost patterns. (Milne accepted the collaboration and called the painting Mist and Frost Pattern.)
He painted whatever caught his eye: a patchwork quilt, a piebald pattern of mountain and cloud, (lowers thrust into a mixing bowl, an empty village house, a yellow sugarbag, lightning. He made economical freehand patterns of them, using black daringly but leaving whole areas blank to herd the eye toward the heart of the picture. He might set his palette with only three or four colors, but he combined them in strange and sophisticated harmonies. The result on canvas or paper was a thousand private moments of stunning visual lucidity. Critics described his work as “chamber music for the eye.” Others claimed for his still-lifes “the bitter tang, the quick dry vitality of French vermouth,” or praised “the powdery elegance” of his landscapes.
Toward the end of his life, working on wet paper, he achieved water colors so sheer and exquisite that a fellow artist, Paraskeva Clark, remarked at a gallery show, “The Milnes look as if they weren’t done by human hands.”
Milne would have been well pleased if everything else in his life could have been as refined and easy as the pictures. He liked music, books, stylish correspondence, salon discourse. He polished his own letters carefully before copying them on the best bond writing paper and sending them off. (“I expect he had an eye on posterity, of course,” comments a friend.) He had a taste for sweets, fine suitings, good cigars and imported delicacies. Artist Carl Schaefer, who calls him “a real aristocrat,” recalls a shopping spree at Eaton’s when Milne, with a little money in his pocket, headed straight for the epicure shop. He had been living on bacon and beans in the wilderness but now he bought tinned lobster, smoked oysters, cheese. Kippers? “Oh yes, I should have kippers,” said Milne briskly. “I’ll take eight pairs.”
He got on well with connoisseurs, a few artists and most rustics, for they neither bored nor offended him. “He wasn’t a fellow that you’d question,” says Alvin Bible, a farmer from Palgrave, Ont.,
where Milne painted. “He’d tell you what he wanted you to know.”
As for most other company, Milne suffered it in silence—or not at all. In Boston Corner, a village in upstate New York where he lived for several years, the Milnes were known, doubtfully, as “nice people—but they don't stay long.” Some years later, when the management of a Lake Placid ski resort offered to show his paintings in the lounge, Milne turned the offer down. He’d had little chance to exhibit for more than a decade but: “They're not really interested in art,” he said curtly.
He could not stand gaucherie or upset. Patsy Milne recalls committing some conversational gaffe at a gathering in Boston Corner. Milne hurried their departure and as soon as they got outside said cuttingly, “I do not like to be embarrassed in front of people.” At Lake Placid, where they spent several winters running a way-station for skiers, Milne particularly disliked the confusion of the periodic jumping meets: he would toast whole loaves of bread ahead of time and make gallons of cocoa so there’d be no need to call him later to help deal with the crowds. “He’d do anything to avoid any kind of scene,” adds Mrs. Milne.
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Genius in hiding: David Milne
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What he usually did was lapse into chilly silence. “Don't get yourself worked lip,” he once advised Carl Schaefer, an artist of considerable vehemence. “It’s too hard on you.”
In fact one of his most conspicuous traits was conserving himself. He kept his temper because losing it was hard on the painting; he avoided worry or feelings of guilt for the same reason. If he had hard words to say he said them by mail as when, out of the blue, he broke up his marriage with a five-line note. If explanations were embarrassing he didn't make them as when, having gone into hiding from Patsy Milne, he stopped writing their closest friend, James Clarke. Clarke, who had been his confidante, painting companion, correspondent and financial benefactor for nearly thirty years, never heard from Milne again.
It seems probable that Milne’s strong instinct of withdrawal from human upset began in his childhood. He was an Ontario farm boy, born in a log cabin in Burgoyne and reared in the village of Paisley, Bruce County. But it was not precisely an average farm home.
His father, in the words of one brother, “was not a good supporter of the home, and talked of going away where things would be better.” Meanwhile he spent most of his time splitting kindling or pottering around their market garden. Milne’s mother was a tall, God-fearing woman with a strong Scots accent and a righteous anger. She had to take in laundry and peddle cabbages to keep the family going, so she banished her husband to the milkhouse and didn’t speak to him for years, though if visitors came she allowed him into the house for dinner.
Milne was the last, late child of this couple, a full generation younger than his four grown-up brothers and his sister. He was so responsive to animals that the discovery of a drowned shrew was enough to ruin an entire painting day. But considering the charged and wretched atmosphere of his home it is scarcely surprising that, in later life, he almost never painted people, except as mere figures in a landscape.
He had begun sketching almost before he was school-aged, but after he finished high school he became a country teacher. It was one of his brothers, Jim, who in 1904 lent him $2,000 to get away and go to New York and enroll in the Art Students’ League.
Though he put in only six months at the League as a full-time student, he stayed in New York until 1915. During those years he learned that everything in the city costs money, and that money costs an artist what he values most, painting time.
For a while he continued studying part-time, hut he also began to canvass shops for orders to make signs, often walking half the length of Manhattan Island in a day, going into stores all along the way. At night he stood on a chair to cook an egg over the gas jet for his dinner. (He afterward blamed this diet for his early baldness.) For a while, too, he had a job as a window-dresser and
One winter, Milne lived in a hillside hut of saplings, tarpaper and moss
sign - painter for an uptown drugstore.
He had begun exhibiting, but couldn’t afford to have his pictures framed. The pictures from this period are of all shapes and sizes for, to solve the problem. he ransacked shops for old chromes, removed the frames and painted his pictures to fit. When he left the city, two years after his success at the 1913 Armory show, he stopped bothering about frames. In fact he stopped bothering to exhibit, and he sold so few pictures in those years that he also stopped bothering to sign them. Many years later, in 1938, he had to sign hundreds of pictures at one session to remedy the lapse.
It was near the end of his New York period, in 1912, that he met James Clarke, a young advertising artist who became his closest friend. Clarke and some fellow artists came across six Milne canvases in a gallery and went looking for the painter. "We found him,” Clarke recalls, “in a loft over a restaurant on East 42nd Street, where he and his partner friend, Amos Engle, painted signs and showcards, worked, slept illicitly, cooked meals over a gas jet, also illicitly, and talked painting, painters and ART.”
In the next twenty-odd years Clarke repeatedly lent Milne money or accommodation, visited him with food, acted
as confidante, exhibited the paintings in his own offices and. every time Milne’s situation was really desperate, bought another one himself. Milne seems to have accepted the help without demur.
It was in this period, too, that Milne met Patsy Hegarty, a painfully timid, very pretty Irish girl with blue eyes and rich auburn hair. She was a bookkeeper in the drugstore where he dressed windows. He was so poor that they had to wait six years to get married; they were so poor after they were married that sometimes, when Patsy was cooking dinner, the gas would go oil and she'd have to wait until Milne came home to get twenty-five cents for the meter.
In the next twenty-odd years Patsy learned that, when they needed money. Milne would say. “Well, Patsy, you’re on your own now,” and she would have to go and find a job.
Eor after they left the city in 1915 Milne stopped looking for ways to make an income; he lived of! what was on hand and, when it was gone, he seemed content to live off the land or borrow from Clarke or let Patsy find him caretaking posts that included his keep. After all. that was why they had left the city — so he could paint full-time with no responsibilities.
It was an eccentric and rootless existence. They started in Boston Corner, a tiny village at the edge of the Taconic Range, where New York meets Massachusetts and Connecticut. Then there was an interlude during which Milne enlisted in the Canadian army, got an eleventhhour appointment as a war artist, and spent the year following the Armistice painting the aftermath of war in France. (The results, more than a hundred water colors, are with the War Memorials col-
lection in the National Gallery.) A year after his return, their money ran out and they had to get a loan from Clarke. Patsy went in to New York to work in an office for a winter while Milne squatted on the side of a mountain near Boston Corner in a sort of Nissen hut he built of saplings, tarpaper and moss. Then Patsy got a job. which included a living for Milne, at a summer resort called Big
Moose, in the Adirondacks north of Utica: Milne built a shack for them there from an abandoned carpenter's locker. Then Clarke bought a cottage and let them stay in it for two winters in return for some carpentry to the interior. For two summers running they rented a cottage and Patsy ran it as a tearoom.
In the fall of 1923 they had forty dollars. Milne told Patsy he thought he could
get a painting class started if he went to Ottawa and suggested that Montreal would be a good place for her to try to get a job. She found one as a housekeeper-companion and in her spare time tried to interest the Montreal galleries in giving Milne a one-man show1. One of them, the Art Association of Montreal, agreed but not a painting was sold.
Milne, in Ottawa, sold six water colors
to the National Gallery but could find no art pupils. He painted the interior of the House of Commons three times and spent a good deal of time in the public library: both places were warm and he had no underwear and no overcoat.
They returned to the States. Milne borrowed $2.000 from Clarke, bought a lot at Big Moose and started building a house on il. For weeks he sat on the side of a hill with a hammer and chisel cutting three great slabs of pink-streaked black stone out of a boulder to make a fireplace, and later he put in wiring, and carved reflectors in the shape of trilliums for the indoor lights. Patsy was enchanted at the idea of their first real home.
The house look several summers to finish, but as soon as the living room was completed Patsy opened a tearoom in it. The enterprise, eked out by a three-month job running a ski canteen every winter, was to provide their living. It lost money instead.
One night in 1929 Milne went to Clarke and said he had decided to leave Patsy because he felt he couldn't make enough money to keep her. He had long since told Clarke he thought an artist
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should never marry. Apparently he funked the necessary, painful interview for he didn’t mention his decision to Patsy. He only sold the house and told her they were going to move to Canada.
They left everything behind except the paintings — almost two thousand of them by now — and when they settled in Palgrave. a village northwest of Toronto in the Caledon Hills, the crates were their only furniture for a year and a half.
At first the locals thought Milne was a German spy: “Well, he just started moping around the country, asking a few questions and making sketches." says one of them defensively. But they soon warmed to him. particularly after he taught a number of them how to ski. But by now it was the midst of the Depression and though the Milnes had sold the Big Moose house for $6,500 they owed a third of it to Clarke, and the purchaser was not meeting his payments. They lived on oatmeal, milk and tea. then dropped tea from the menu.
Milne scarcely noticed. He painted all day and every night he disappeared down to the hotel on the main street to sit in the lobby and listen to the radio. Patsy knew better than to follow him: one time before they’d left Big Moose she'd followed him to a neighbor’s where he was relaxing after a day’s painting; as soon as she'd come in he'd got up and left.
One late summer day in 1934 he wrote to Vincent Massey, already known as a patron of the arts, to put forward a longincubated scheme. Basically his idea was that some patron should build a gallery to house the entire Milne output, keeping groups together in chronological order to show his development as a painter. The proposal to Massey, which he ac-
companied with some two hundred and fifty paintings, an autobiographical sketch and an outline of his ideas on art, was that the output should be. in effect, mortgaged in return for a regular, continuing subsidy.
Massey apparently was unprepared to carry out the larger scheme, but he selected the cream of Milne's submissions and bought them outright. In December of that year he also arranged a show and sale of some of them at Mellors Gallery in Toronto and a small coterie of Milne fans instantly sprang up.
Milne took the cash from Massey and removed himself from Palgrave to Sixmile Lake, at the western edge of the Muskoka Lakes district, where he built himself a tarpaper shack, planted a vegetable garden, painted all day and wrote his witty, exhaustive letters at night. Patsy went in to Sixmile Lake a number of times to see him and they wrote each other. But in 1939 she got a curt note suggesting that they get a divorce and requesting that she arrange it through his business agent. The letter had no return address and she never saw him again.
Actually Milne came down from Sixmile Lake, spent more than a year in Toronto, moved to Uxbridge, a nearby town, and eventually fetched up in the Haliburton Highlands, where he built yet another cabin for himself. He shared it with Kathleen Pavey Milne, who had been a registered nurse, and their son David, nowa university undergraduate.
He spent the last fifteen years of his life using the only perfect defense against intrusion that he ever found — perfect secrecy.
His work had become freer, more pointed, more elegant. At Sixmile Lake he had returned to water colors after a gap of twelve years. He had also, during visits to a country schoolhouse. become interested in children’s art and then fascinated with the idea of how a child might imagine various religious themes if he knew none of the traditions of religious art. He began a series of fantasies— under such titles as Noah and the Ark and Mount Ararat, The Saint, Ascension and Snow in Bethlehem — that were as witty, as light as soap bubbles. Angels wore derby hats: Noah's animals were nursery toys; Bethlehem included the village church from Palgrave.
By now his work was becoming well known. Douglas Duncan, proprietor of the Picture Loan Society in Toronto and angel to a number of hand-picked artists, had seen the first Milne show in 1934. In 1935 he found his way into Milne's camp at Sixmile Lake, "gingerly offering a little incense," as he recalls. In 1938 he became Milne's agent and the nearest thing to a Clarke in Milne's later life. From then on the Milne output was exhibited annually at the Picture Loan and elsewhere: and from 1940 on Duncan assured Milne a fixed income by making a series of personal purchases to augment the regular sales.
Milne painted in privacy and freedom until 1952. In November of that year he suffered the first of two minor strokes that left his painting hand paralyzed. He was convalescing and full of plans to learn painting with his left hand when he suffered a major stroke. He lingered for four months, unconscious, and died on December 26. 1953.
Whatever other mysteries surround Milne as an artist and a man. at least one can now be settled: the office of the Registrar-General of Ontario says David Brown Milne is buried in Mount Pleasant Cemetery, Toronto. The grave is unmarked. ★