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David Milne: face to face with infinity.

Bruce County, Ontario, is one of the most beautiful parts of the world. Straddling the north end of the Niagara Escarpment, it abuts Lake Huron on its western edge and terminates in the long arm of the Bruce Peninsula, whose bizarre geological formations, rare plant forms, and spectacular views of Georgian Bay have led to its classification as a world biosphere. This place would always have a hold on one of Canada's most beloved painters, and would help to shape his spiritual and artistic temperament.


BORN IN 1882, David Milne was the youngest of ten children. For his first few years, the family lived in a log cabin near Burgoyne before moving into the nearby village of Paisley. This area was settled by Scottish immigrants like his parents. Milne was proud of his ancestors' closeness to the soil and doubtless helped his father, who worked on a farm. Milne used to walk to the top of the hill behind the cabin and look down over the hills, fields, and woods that roll away like waves toward Lake Huron. He later wrote that this view brought him "face to face with infinity where anything might be and anything might happen." (1) This natural landscape was to remain Milne's touchstone throughout life: again and again he settled in areas that recalled Bruce County, and built cabins in which he simulated a pioneer lifestyle.

He was deeply impressed by the ideas of American Transcendentalists such as Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman, and he shared their view of nature as a vehicle for spiritual transcendence. Milne maintained that "heaven is not far away and shadowy and unreal, but here, now, and very real," and he argued that "we build our own small heavens in our own small gardens or on our own thin canvas, we accept the imperfect world around us, we must, but within it we build our own perfect world." (2) He later wrote: "art is a way of life that in the very highest sense is a 'labor to the glory of God.'" (3) Selfless and unworldly, he was drawn irresistibly to a solitary and simple life close to nature, and he had a deep need to devote his time exclusively to contemplation and painting. The one book he always had with him was the Bible.

MILNE had an excellent education in Paisley and Walkerton, and access to their outstanding Mechanics Institute libraries. He would have read articles about "the new New York" in the leading American periodicals to which the Paisley library subscribed. He made the monumental decision to go to that city in 1903 to study commercial art, and was soon exposed to the historical collections of the Metropolitan Museum and to the contemporary art of commercial galleries. Milne was bowled over by Monet's Haystacks at the Durand-Ruel Gallery and always credited Monet with exercising the most important influence on his early work. Arriving in New York shortly after the death of America's most famous expatriate artist, James McNeill Whistler, Milne read Whistler's "Ten O'Clock Lecture," which became his aesthetic bible, and studied his etchings at the Lennox Library.

He soon transferred from commercial to fine art studies at the Art Students' League. He began to paint in watercolour, employing a brilliant palette, sprightly calligraphic touches, and kinetic patterns that convey the freshness, tempo, and visual excitement of the city. Works from this period combine techniques and devices used in commercial art with motifs and compositional structure learnt from Whistler and the Post-Impressionists Bonnard and Vuillard. By degrees he focused increasingly on aesthetic concerns, and his modern urban subjects were replaced by jewel-like trees and the figure of his girlfriend, Patsy Hegarty.

While living in New York, Milne had to support himself with commercial work, and was vulnerable to the stresses and strains of a hectic lifestyle. On his first return trip to Paisley in 1906 he wrote to Patsy saying how much he enjoyed being home among people who knew and cared about him, and remarked that its citizens "probably have much better ideas of life than even the better class of New York citizens." (4) However, the art scene in Canada was retardataire by comparison with that of New York, and Milne would never have had the same opportunities back home. The couple married in 1912, and Milne must have been full of high hopes when he was recognized by all the leading American watercolour societies, included in the landmark Armory Show, and found a good dealer. However, his work failed to sell. Despondent, impoverished, and tired of trying to be a commercial illustrator and a serious painter at the same time, he appears to have suffered a nervous breakdown. He detected the symptoms in his own watercolours, which he felt contained an unhealthy amount of black. He decided to leave the city and find a tranquil country place where he could live simply and cheaply and devote himself entirely to painting.

Accompanied by his friend James Clarke, Milne found the hamlet of Boston Corners in the Berkshires in upstate New York where he rented an eighteenth-century farmhouse nestled between parallel mountain ranges. As he began to find peace of mind, he painted the first of his series of reflections on Bishop's Pond, a tiny body of water that was only a ten-minute walk through the fields that abutted the house. He began to paint in a confident new style, creating powerful, pared down, symbolist landscapes employing a muted and restricted palette drawn from his surroundings.

THE OUTBREAK of World War I in 1914 was a ticking time bomb for Milne. An ethical and sensitive man, he must have wrestled with his response to the conflict. In 1917 the war began to turn against the Allies, and conscription became inevitable. He signed up with the Canadian Army, while Patsy vainly hoped he would be rejected because of his nervous condition.

Milne never saw action; arriving in Britain in September 1918 as the war was winding down, he was quarantined against Spanish flu. In December he spent several days in London where he doubtless visited the Tate Gallery as well as the leading commercial galleries. Milne managed to secure an appointment as a Canadian war artist. Although pleased to have a job and an income, the sights that confronted him on the battlefields in France and Belgium must have haunted him for the rest of his life. They included a charred body falling out of a tank and stray boots with socks and feet still in them. At Passchendaele and Ypres he would have been aware that he was walking over the bones of young men from Paisley, among them friends and former students. The war memorial installed in front of the old Paisley town hall tells the tale.


Milne was one of the first allowed onto the deathly quiet battlefields and was largely alone in the hellish landscape. Not surprisingly his images recall Piranesi's Prisons and Blake's apocalyptic visions. They also appear to contain thinly veiled metaphors: young maples with blasted limbs call to mind the huge number of Canadian amputees who were returning home. The landscape itself was portrayed as a victim--bombed and devastated, it had been rendered unrecognizable. The only hopeful signs: green grass, blue sky, and the living, going about their daily lives, are to be found in the vicinity of ruined churches.

Returning to Boston Corners, Milne tried unsuccessfully to regain his pre-war peace of mind, and continued work on his reflections series. When Patsy brought Thoreau's Walden to Boston Corners one weekend, Milne's rediscovery of this favourite book felt like "a bomb" going off in his head. After deciding to follow Thoreau's example, he built a cabin in a valley near Alander Mountain. There he lived a hermetic existence during the winter, his solitude punctuated by periodic visits from Patsy or Clarke.


In the spring, Milne came down from the mountain and began a new life with Patsy in the Adirondacks. They lived at Lake Placid in the winter, and at Dart's Lake or nearby Big Moose Lake in the summer. To make a living they worked in tourist industries, and although Milne produced some of his most beautiful watercolours at that time--such as Reflections, Glenmore Hotel--there was little time for painting. He decided to go to Ottawa in the hope of selling a body of work to the National Gallery and finding a job as a government draughtsman.

Although he sold a few works to the gallery and was recognized for his ability, he was unable to find work. Moreover, the National Gallery was preoccupied with acquiring and promoting the work of the Group of Seven. Milne was clearly at a disadvantage; his landscapes were not of the Canadian countryside, and he was not the least bit interested in the nationalist agenda of the Group. When asked whether he had ever been a member of the Group of Seven he replied that he had never wanted to be "more than 1 of 1." (5) Like Whistler, he believed in art for art's sake and eschewed belonging to any group of artists. He saw himself in an international context. After a winter in Ottawa he returned to Big Moose Lake. In 1925 he stopped making watercolours and devoted himself instead to colour drypoint and oil painting.


Milne finally returned to Canada in 1929, and spent the first summer in a tent in Temagami. Despite visits to Toronto, he moved farther and farther away from the metropolis. After his marriage finally ended in 1933, Milne built a cabin on Six Mile Lake near Georgian Bay and lived there for six years. He had begun to paint in watercolour again in 1937 when Carl Schaeffer, another Bruce County artist, encouraged him to exhibit with the Canadian Society of Painters in Watercolour. The following year he came to the aid of a young nurse, Kathleen Pavey, who was having trouble with her canoe off the point at Six Mile Lake. In 1940 the couple settled in Uxbridge. Their son David was born the following year.

The warmth of his palette and thin veils of wash that characterize his late watercolours project the image of a happy man. In addition to still life works, these include images drawn from his imagination that are naive, witty, and satirical by turns and employ a deeply personal, so far impenetrable, iconography. When Clarke heard about them he wrote to ask whether Milne was going "all surrealist." It does appear that he was aware of German Expressionist and Surrealist watercolours.

After living in Uxbridge with Kathleen and David for a few years, Milne again felt the need to go off on his own. He had Kathleen's support. In 1948 he constructed a cabin on Baptiste Lake near Bancroft, built the furniture, and equipped it with the simple items he needed: skis, a saw for cutting big trees, a kerosene lamp, a Marconi radio, and his Bible. Kathleen made him a little pouch in which to carry his sketchbook and watercolours. He wrote endearing letters to his family during the winter months, and was joined by them during the summer.

HERE HE LIVED the simple life close to nature that he loved so much, and sat on the rocky outcropping in front of the cabin, which he called his "sitting spot," and contemplated Blueberry Island, pipe in hand. It was from here that he observed the approaching storm that would inspire his wettest watercolours. And it was here that he succumbed to the cancer that led to his death in the hospital in Bancroft in 1953.



1 K.M. (Kathleen Milne) typescript of "Notes for an Autobiography," corrected by D.B.M., 13 April 1947, p. 2, Milne Family Collection.

2 "Notes for an Autobiography," p. 3.

3 David Milne, "Aesthetic Agents," unpublished essay, quoted by John O' Brian in David Milne and the Modern Tradition of Painting (Toronto: Coach House Press, 1983), p. 98.

4 Milne to Patsy Hegarty, 1 September 1906, typescript, Milne Family Collection.

5 Stockton Kimball, 9-18 September 1935, "Unpublished Notes," typescript 18, Milne Family Collection.

KATHARINE LOCHNAN is Deputy Director of Research and the R. Fraser Elliott Curator of Prints and Drawings at the Art Gallery of Ontario. She has written extensively on the work of James McNeill Whistler, and is particularly interested in artists who cross cultural boundaries.
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Author:Lochnan, Katharine
Publication:Queen's Quarterly
Article Type:Biography
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Mar 22, 2006
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