Mabel Lockerby retrospective

Work of forgotten artist resurfaces in exhibition

ANN DUNCAN
THE GAZETTE, MONTREAL
Wednesday, September 13, 1989

Every year for almost two decades, Galerie Walter Klinkhoff has organized an exhibition that earns its owners no money and costs thousands of dollars to mount.

The tradition was began to develop interest in a Quebec painter who many otherwise have been overlooked.  This year’s exhibition, which continues until Sept. 23, features a painter who has all but vanished through the cracks of history.

Mabel Irene Lockerby was born in 1882 and lived in Montreal until her death in 1976.  While not a brilliant artist, she was a competent and dedicated painter.

He work was shown in nearly all the major Canadian exhibitions of her time, and such famous colleagues as A.Y. Jackson bought her paintings.

She was also shown in major exhibitions in England, Paris, Washington, New York and Sao Paulo, and her paintings were once exhibited in Toronto side by side with those of the Group of Seven.

Yet Lockerby’s name appears only as a footnote in most Canadian art history textbooks, if it’s mentioned at all.

“She’s totally forgotten,” said Eric Klinkhoff, who organized the Lockerby retrospective at the gallery.  “There weren’t two art dealers in town who knew about her before we started rummaging around to prepare for this exhibition.”

After months of sleuthing, the Klinkhoffs – Eric and his father, Walter – were able to track down 32 paintings for the show.

Some of the paintings were found in the storage rooms of such major museums as the Art Gallery of Ontario and the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.  The latter was given a Lockerby about 12 years ago but had never put it on display, Klinkhoff said.  Most of the other paintings in the show are in private hands.

Lockerby has at least one highly placed fan, though.  The National Gallery’s Lockerby was found hanging in the official residence of Gov. Gen. Jeanne Sauvé, who apparently selected the painting personally, Klinkhoff said.

Lockerby had a high-profile career during her lifetime, but she has been all but forgotten.  Klinkhoff believes part of the reason for this is that she suffered the same fate as many other competent women artists of her day.

Taught by such top-flight artists as William Brymner and Maurice Cullen, Lockerby eventually joined the Beaver Hall Group of painters, who met regularly during the 1920s for mutual instruction and support.

Relatively wealthy

Jackson, also a member of the Group of Seven, was president of the Beaver Hall Group.  The group was marked by its unusually high number of woman members, including Prudence Heward, Emily Coonan, Anne Savage, Sarah Robertson, Kathleen Morris and Ethel Seath.

Most of these women were relatively wealthy, and they were not allowed to pursue art as a career, Klinkhoff said.

“Maybe because they were women, they didn’t try as hard or they didn’t push their art as much as the men did.

“It would have been considered a very indelicate thing to have sold work.  They just didn’t do it except to friends and family.”

Lockerby was hard hit by such social conventions.  She never married, and her father’s legacy, although substantial, dwindled quickly during the Depression.

Low output

Sometimes Lockerby didn’t have enough money for art supplies, Klinkhoff said.  A number of paintings in the show have other works on the back of the canvas.  At times, Lockerby just had to give up, he said.

As a result, her lifelong output was fairly low, which is perhaps another reason she isn’t that well known, Klinkhoff speculated.  “She just didn’t have the money to paint.”

Yet she managed to evolve during her painting career.  Lockerby began by painting rather sweet scenes of young children with animals, vases of flowers, city streets and landscapes.  These paintings are typical of the Beaver Hall Group – the brushstrokes are strong and rhythmic, and the colours tend to be muted, even sombre.

By mid-career, she was painting off-the-wall scenes of gnarled weeds, and her last painting the show is a full-blown abstract in vibrant colours.

“She was an old gal at this point and look at what she was doing,” Klinkhoff said.

In putting this show together, the Klinkhoffs have resurrected a fascinating chunk of Montreal art – and feminist – history.

The Klinkhoffs won’t say exactly how much such shows cost to mount, but Eric Klinkhoff said he wished other private galleries would follow suit in staging exhibitions that have an educational rather than commercial purpose.

The Lockerby paintings are not for sale, but the show does serve a public-relations function.

“Often this is the only time of year that we see some people come into the gallery,” Klinkhoff said.  “sometimes it’s the first time people have ever come into a commercial gallery.”

Galerie Walter Klinkhoff is at 1200 Sherbrooke St. W.

Copyright © The Gazette

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