Amaz­ing Grace


The Hamilton Spectator - - FRONT PAGE - REGINA HAGGO

Lawren Har­ris and other Group of Seven mem­bers are con­sid­ered to be the first Cana­dian artists to paint the wild north shore of Lake Su­pe­rior. That was in the 1920s.

But a woman from Hamil­ton beat them to it. Edith Grace Coombs was paint­ing there by 1913, when she was liv­ing in Fort Wil­liam, now part of Thun­der Bay. None of th­ese early works have sur­vived, a not un­com­mon oc­cur­rence.

Coombs (1890-1986) was a highly pro­lific artist who ex­hib­ited in Canada and abroad. She tack­led land­scape, flow­ers, still life and the oc­ca­sional por­trait, in­clud­ing one of her hus­band, James Sharp Law­son, and their dog Sandy.

The Art Gallery of Hamil­ton owns more than 40 of her works. Two of her small oils, both from about 1933, are on show in Col­lec­tion Clas­sics, an ex­hi­bi­tion of works from the gallery’s per­ma­nent col­lec­tion.

In “Jack Lad­der House,” Coombs paints men at work at a sawmill in a loosely representational style that em­pha­sizes colour and shape.

A slightly curved area com­pris­ing pale, broad and tex­tured brush strokes fills the bot­tom of the paint­ing. This ap­pears to be a shore where two chil­dren sit with their backs to us. Coombs mod­els their bod­ies with small strokes run­ning in many di­rec­tions.

Be­hind them, the prow of a boat has been re­duced to a long tri­an­gle and a trapez­ium.

The top half of the paint­ing con­tains prom­i­nent ver­ti­cals that di­rect the eye up­ward to three men. They use poles to help logs move up the jack lad­der, a sloped trough, from the wa­ter to the sawmill.

The man on the right as­sumes a strik­ing, space-tak­ing pose with em­phatic di­ag­o­nals formed by his legs and two poles.

The same kind of de­ci­sive brush strokes and bril­liant colour­ing char­ac­ter­ize “Sawmill Yard, near Knoepfli,” an­other view of the same lo­ca­tion. In this ver­sion, three boats dom­i­nate. Logs float in the wa­ter, es­pe­cially in the up­per left.

The theme of men at work is un­usual for Coombs, but strong shapes and ar­bi­trary colours can be found in ear­lier land­scapes such as “Desert Near Salt Lake City,” dated 1924.

Coombs brings the land below the moun­tain to life through dy­namic, painterly shapes, each one show­ing the marks and move­ments of the brush.

CANADA 150 An oc­ca­sional se­ries on his­tor­i­cal Cana­dian artists in cel­e­bra­tion of Canada’s sesqui­cen­ten­nial

A rougher, more northerly view of na­ture in­forms Green Wind, first ex­hib­ited in 1931. A lean­ing birch takes cen­tre stage, its pose mak­ing the in­vis­i­ble wind vis­i­ble.

Lorne Pierce, the au­thor of a brief biography of Coombs pub­lished in 1949, said some peo­ple thought of Coombs as a flower painter. In­deed, her wa­ter­colours, in par­tic­u­lar, cel­e­brate wild­flow­ers.

Oth­ers, how­ever, said her land­scapes were her best. One critic com­mended their “mas­cu­line strength and tur­bu­lence,” a tra­di­tional form of praise re­served for the woman artist deemed to be ex­cep­tion­ally tal­ented — for a woman.

Given the loosely representational style of some of her land­scapes, the ques­tion arises whether Coombs ever ex­plored pure ab­strac­tion. The an­swer is yes.

In Mu­sic Pat­terns, a se­ries of paint­ings, Coombs lets sin­u­ous and geo­met­ric forms ex­press her re­sponse to a par­tic­u­lar piece of mu­sic.

“There is no virtue in nov­elty, but ev­ery­thing in be­ing new born ev­ery

day,” Coombs once said, a most fit­ting thought for some­one who de­voted her life to mak­ing art.

Regina Haggo, art his­to­rian, public speaker, cu­ra­tor and for­mer pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of Can­ter­bury in New Zealand, teaches at the Dun­das Val­ley School of Art. dhaggo@thes­

There is no virtue in nov­elty, but ev­ery­thing in be­ing new born ev­ery day.

Edith Grace Coombs, Jack Lad­der House, oil on card, circa 1933.

Edith Grace Coombs, Green Wind, oil on can­vas, first ex­hib­ited 1931. Lo­ca­tion un­known and not part of the AGH ex­hibit.

Edith Grace Coombs, Desert near Salt Lake City, 1924, not part of the AGH ex­hibit.

Watch a video edi­tion of this col­umn with bonus ma­te­rial at


Edith Grace Coombs, Sawmill Yard, near Knoepfli, oil on wood, circa 1933.

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