At Lake of the Woods (Part Two)
In 1919, after World War I, the Phillips family first summered at Gull Harbour on Lake Winnipeg, while Walter taught at the University of Wisconsin for his second summer. The family was back at the Lake of the Woods for the summer of 1920, when they rented a cottage on Keewatin Beach belonging to a Mr. Bains. This was to be their summer dwelling every year until 1924 and from 1926 to 1929, the year the Great Depression began. That year Phillips’ eldest son John was apprenticed to Brigden’s of Winnipeg, an art, photography and engraving firm.
The Phillps family loved the Lake of the Woods, and the artist left many written comments about ‘the lake.’ He also described his approach to its unique landscape in a number of texts, which are primary documents for his work at this time in both the watercolour and the colour woodcut medium. Many of Walter J. Phillips own observations are quoted extensively here.
On the prairies, the entire professional class summers at ‘the lake’, which is one of the most beautiful of God’s creations. It is no lake in particular. Every man is prepared to assert the superior beauty of his own. They build houses of sufficient comfort close to the water’s edge, with wide verandahs to diminish the effects of the heat, and open fireplaces within to augment it. A boathouse is the complement of each dwelling–an imposing structure, maybe, with bedrooms and baclony above, or the term may be rhetorical, and applies only to a crazy contraption of planks that serves as a landing, a diving platform, or a refuge for the lone canoe.
Our cottage at Lake of the Woods is built upon a rock, a round mass of granite jutting out into the lake, and bare of vegetation save for a grove of young jack-pines and a wild cherry tree or two. The verandah faces the sunrise, the sunset, and the northern sky, and the back-door opens on the forest. There is a miniature cove with a sandy bottom, and a ramshackle boat-house beside it. We spent the summer months here, and each night were lulled to sleep by the soothing night-cadences of the waters and the woods.
The village is two miles away over the water, but there are other cottages within call, and numerous islands in the bay. Every day brings new adventures, whether we set out in the canoe on a short excursion, or in the launch for a long one. The map pinned on the wall is a tantalizing document, as most maps are, and if there is any sense of nomenclature. The adjacent lakes and the streams spread out upon it are all alluring to the last degreee. One canoe route leads from Clearwater Bay through Granite Lake, the Lake of the Two Mountains, Moss, Bear Mountain, Crow, Duck and Rush Lakes, back to the starting point. Desirable places; who would not wish to see them? (5)
One wonders why relatively few artists have worked at the Lake of the Woods. Paul Kane camped there in 1846 and Frederick Verner in 1873. Much later, Frank Johnston worked there too starting in 1921, when he took on the Directorship of the art school in Winnipeg, the year of his break with the Group of Seven. He sketched there with Phillips.
But like the prairies, many artists have found the terrain a bit monotonous.
Many who have traveled regard the Lake of the woods as a scenic trifle. The monotony of outlook, where every island, every headland and every bay seem the same, deceives only the casual or the dyspeptic observer. I am always glad to be back there and, wherever I may have been, feel tempted to record some of the beauty that is everywhere apparent beside those peaceful waters. This lake is dependent for interest on such decorative trivialities as tree-traceries, sunlight and shadow, lichen-covered rocks and translucent water.
If the lake wants in magnificence, if its waters lack the rhythmic movements of the sea, if its islands have not been pushed up very far, it still appeals with an intimacy that makes every rock and every tree a possible shrine of beauty. Here, the pictorial interest, more often than not, centres in the foreground, in an arabesque of branches, a pattern of foliage, or rocks, and frequently boathouses, docks and boats and perhaps their reflections. (6)
More than one landscape painter has confessed that the lake is uninteresting. It is true that the country around is distressingly flat, almost as flat as the water, though on a higher plane. Yet beauty is everywhere apparent.
There are the trees– the jack-pine, though a shapeless thing, disposing its drooping branches in grotesque but graceful curves, the birch, whose opalescent bole reflects the colours of surrounding things; the poplar, with twisted branching, delightfully capricious, and dancing leaves, – a medley of dark green discs, spinning golden guineas, oval mirrors the colour of the sky, and, when the light shines through, instead of upon or athwart them, golden green; the pines, with wheel-shaped bunches of dark-green needles, making a splendid foil for the rest.
There is the water – rivers and rapids, modest falls, gently rippling water whose elusive forms are difficult to follow. I know a dream river, created for canoes and landscape painters. Trees overshadow it, and water-lilies bloom below its banks. It is clear and deep and narrow. No wind disturbs its serenity. All the way up one hears the rising music of its falls, and eventually one’s eyes are blessed with the sight of them.
There are the islands, and there is the open sky, which is more beautiful than the dweller in the mountains imagines.
The monotony of outlook at the lake where very island seems the same deceives only the casual observer. It palls on the painter of unusual, dramatic, or cataclysmic effects; it even wearies the average sketcher, until he has adjusted his perception to its restrictions. He grows tired of portraying trees, rocks and rippling water, in perpetual sunshine; he is limited sadly in the possible variations of his themes. Moreover, he is mostly forced to remain at water-level. In spite of their variety in detail, his pictures bear a family resemblance. He hesitates to bring too numerous a progeny.
On first acquaintance with the lake the artist starts with a conventional landscape, with his horizon a third of the way up or down the panel, a tree in full stature about a third of the way across, reflected in the water, and a foreground of rock and vegetation. His next sketch differs to the extent of two trees instead of one. Bye and bye he moves his horizon, later he leaves it out altogether.
He learns to amputate the trees, showing perhaps only their crowns, with flying clouds behind, or only the roots sprawling grotesquely in a litter of brown pine needles.
[Narcisse] Diaz first had the courage to paint truncated trees. His first effort was regarded as quite a joke. He would ask visitors if they had seen his latest stem.
Going one better than Diaz in the matter of trees, the artist in desperation, inverts them, that is, he paints reflections in the lake, with only a strip of the shore showing in the composition. Meanwhile he has done them from above and below.
Then he yearns for something new. The water attracts him, not as a vehicle for suicide, but as a spectacle with decided pictorial possibilities, never still, never the same, reflecting something in every state, and moving rhythmically.”
On open water the reflections of the sky on the nearer ripples are a fascinating study. Sometimes clouds appear upon it, as a multitude of small ovals, enveloping others of different colour or tone, in form resembling the concentricities of a cut agate. They appear and vanish in a flash, and dance with an abandon that inspires all beholders. There is the sheen of the sun on the ripples – countless images of the sun that dazzle and glitter – with a blinding brilliance impossible to reproduce in pigments.
Phillips was always entranced by the light of Canada. And while he did paint a number of nocturnes, as any landscape painter must, it was the bright light that held his attention.
At the lake the sun is nearly always shining, creating sharp shadows, sparkling lights, and a definite divergence between cool and warm colours. The atmosphere also tends to define the whole landscape with a clarity and a strength unknown in damper climates. Distances that would be blue elsewhere, here retain their local colours, and the blues are driven to a more distant horizon. There is little or no haze to suggest mystery and breadth… (7)
And he never failed to be interested in beautiful sunsets either, always spectacular at the Lake of the Woods.
The evening sky over the end of the bay is laced with the wisps of golden cloud that Turner loved to paint. The moon is low on the horizon. We are between the sun and the moon, and this is the golden hour. The suffusion of golden light creates soft harmonies and in a measure mitigates the chromatic crimes our neighbours have committed on their boat-houses. The shadows are cool and enhance the brilliance of the light.
The wispy clouds deepen to crimson as we sit. A fine sunset. It is often remarked that sunsets are rarely painted, although artists must be aware that such are the only phenomena observed by the common man, save the earthquake and the blizzard. A crimson sky is hard to ignore. It is lovely, considered in relation with the whole vault of the heavens, and the visible earth, but crude and strident in itself, without context. Generally the eastern sky discloses a subtler beauty which one often is too preoccupied to see. The perception and the enjoyment of colour in nature is not for the man with an untutored vision, however keen it may be. Only the sunset was made for him. And for the painter with pride, an immense replica of his own perverted fancies is set up in the sky. “No arrogant man,” said Constable, “is allowed to see nature in all her beauty.” Turner painted many sunsets, the most famous in pictorial art. He employed invariably a very wide angle of vision as an aid in the expression of grandeur. His reds were concentrated in small areas, and they shone with deceiving intensity. But time and the London air have played havoc with his work. His reds are now black. Few others have been entirely successful in depicting crimson clouds at sunset. No pigment is sufficiently brilliant and transparent to reproduce the tremendously high light that the sun throws upon these clouds. Vermilion is the nearest red, but it is an opaque heavy colour. By reducing the tones of all surrounding things, – that is, by painting them darker than they really are, an approximation of truth may be realized.
Here at the Lake of the Woods majestic cumulus clouds often rise in the eastern skies in the evening. Tinted by the sun, they reflect its last rays – gold, orange, red, and at the last a ghostly grey in the night. The limpid shadows that reveal its contours – the clean edges of its upper parts – the mystery of its vanishment at the horizon – the thought that its magnificence inspires – why, with this object of splendour in the heavens, who would look at a sunset? (8)
The Pendulous Branch
One characteristic device to be found in a number of Phillips’ work is that of the pendulous branch. He himself noted:
Many people have remarked that my paintings display a fondness for the tangled foregrounds, seasons of foliage, and particularly for pendulous branches. They say, it looks Japanese. Experience at the lake, however, might teach them that such are typical of the wild Canadian woods; that vegetation obscures the view nearly everywhere, and that the tangle of growth is so thick that often an exe is needed to cut a way through. If they have kept to the beaten path, then they probably respect convention in art as well as in life.
It does not follow, of course, that because this interwoven growth is there it must be painted, but it is often of great beauty in pattern. Who has seen and has not admired Tom Thomson’s Northern River? There are occasional open views, but more often than not the beholder sits under an umbrageous tree to see and digest them. From that position the same thing occurs all over again – a branch cutting obtrusively across the field of vision.
It is justly stated that God abhorred exact reproductions in his scheme of creation. It is true that no two leaves are alike. The element of deviation from absolute perfection endows every object and every living thing with an individuality that claims attention. If the deviation is slight, we have beauty, if considerable, deformity. “There is no excellent beauty that hath not some strangeness in the proportion” said Bacon.
5 W. J. Phillips, “Wet Paint”, unpublished manuscript, c. 1930, p. 86.
6 W.J. Phillips, “The Canadian Scene” (Toronto: Thomas Nelson and Sons Ltd.) 1928, p. 17.
7 W. J. Phillips, “Wet Paint”, unpublished manuscript, c. 1930, p. 49.
8 W. J. Phillips, “Wet Paint”, unpublished manuscript, c. 1930, p. 86-92.