GO 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. firstname.lastname@example.org
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.
Edith Grace Coombs, Sawmill Yard, near Knoepfli, oil on wood, circa 1933.