Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Canadian painter of icebergs

‘My paintings are always disasters while I am doing them. It isn’t until I see them later, and someone else likes them, that I can see their virtues.’ This is from the early teen diary of Doris Mccarthy, a Canadian artist who died a decade ago today (aged 100!). She spent her life teaching, and it was only in retirement that she began to exhibit more commercially, often of paintings inspired by travels in Canada and to the Arctic. She also wrote several autobiographical works in which she occasionally referenced her own diaries.

McCarthy was born in Calgary, Alberta, in 1910. She attended the Ontario College of Art from 1926 to 1930, where she was awarded various scholarships and prizes. She became a teacher at Central Technical School in downtown Toronto where she worked for much of her life. She travelled abroad extensively and painted the landscapes of various countries. Following her retirement in 1972, she began exhibiting commercially on a more regular basis, not just in Toronto but across the country. That year, she also made the first of a number of trips to the Arctic. Indeed, she was probably best known for her Canadian landscapes and her scenes of Arctic icebergs. In 1999, she was the subject of a major retrospective exhibition at the McMichael Canadian Collection in Kleinberg, Ontario. She was made a member of the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts, and was a recipient of the Order of Canada among other honours. She died on 25 November 2010. A little further information is available at Wikipedia, the Wynick/Tuck Gallery, and Mountain Galleries.

McCarthy seems to have been a diarist. Among the many items in her archive, the University of Toronto lists ‘over five decades of correspondence between McCarthy and her best friend, Marjorie Beer (née Wood); diaries written by McCarthy between the ages of 12 and 90; personal artifacts and keepsakes; photographs of her family, life and travels dating back to the late 19th Century; and draft manuscripts of McCarthy's autobiographical publications’. Images from two of her diaries - the first from January 1922 to October 1924 and the second from 1930-1931 - are available to view at the university’s collections website, although there is no text transcription.

The university provides a brief description of the first of these two diaries. ‘Doris McCarthy’s personal journal from ages twelve to fourteen. Doris McCarthy started writing with Marjorie for the school newspaper. Both of them developed an interest in authorship and decided they would ask for diaries on Christmas 1921. Doris started her first journal, this one, on New Year's day, 1922. Because Doris’ journal was blank, she could write whenever and however much she wanted to on the pages. Doris also developed the habit of drawing/sketching at the same time as her interest in writing. Although there are some sketches in the journals, she primarily used other exercise books for drawing.’

Although McCarthy’s diaries have never been published (as far as I know), she did, later in life, write several autobiographical works - A Fool in Paradise, The Good Wine, and Ninety Years Wise - which can be digitally borrowed (briefly) at Internet Archive. These include occasional references to, and quotes from, her diaries.

In 2006, Second Story Press published Doris McCarthy: My Life. The publisher states: ‘This memoir marries the best of McCarthy’s previous writings with exciting new material and traces a compelling woman’s life from energetic early girlhood to reflective old age.’ Some pages of this can be previewed at Googlebooks. And, like the earlier books, she makes infrequent references to her diaries. Here are several of those references (in no particular order).  

‘My diary is full of complaints about the bad sketches I was making, but it later reports a quite successful exhibition of them and the canvases based on them. My paintings are always disasters while I am doing them. It isn’t until I see them later, and someone else likes them, that I can see their virtues.’


‘Living in my own little flat had given me back the freedom of my diary, and I wrote out the emotions of those first tormented up-and-down months. I fought against falling into such a profitless love, struggling to be content with companionship, lying awake nights in anger and despair, weeping on Marjorie’s shoulder. By early November we had agreed to stop seeing each other.

“November 6: I’m glad it’s done, and I’m more terrified of going on than of stopping; but I still feel the way I did the week war was declared - as if my world had suddenly fallen apart, and I’m sick with loneliness and fear of my own weakness.” ’


‘My diary for the spring of 1974 is full of details about sales of paintings, fresh delight in the garden, and the newfound pleasures of retirement.’


‘It was wonderful that two children who were so different could grow to be so close. Marjorie was almost delicate; Doris was stocky and strong, with her mother’s emotional energy, and the confidence to take the lead in physical skills. Doris was a good student, intellectual, with high marks in everything. Marjorie was top student in the humanities but had no head for mathematics; her genius was with people. She met everyone with a warmth and interest that took her right through their reserve and into their hearts. Marjorie was a poet with a magical imagination and a delicious sense of fun. We both intended to become great authors, and each of us had in the works several short stories and at least one full-length novel. In discussing our literary ambitions, we agreed, probably on her suggestion, to ask to be given diaries for Christmas, in order to practice Improving Our Style. On New Year’s Day 1922, each of us began a journal.

A few weeks later we wrote a verse play together, a one-act drama about a fairy kingdom suffering under persecution by mischievous elves. I suspect that its plot owed much to Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare. It contained some slight variety of character, a modicum of conflict, and a happy ending. Our elders were impressed and, thanks no doubt to Mother’s influence, it was produced as part of a concert to raise money for the building of the St. Aidan’s church Memorial Hall. As the curtain closed, the rector, Dr. Cotton, called us up to the stage to be presented with flowers. My diary’s detailed description of the event concludes with the declaration, “This day is an epoch in my life.” ’

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