Andrew Lambirth

Discovering a master

The Canadian painter David Milne (1882–1953) is not known in this country. His name is shamefully overlooked by the Yale Dictionary of Art & Artists, and there has never before been a show of his work here. The fact that there is one now is largely due to the vision and enthusiasm of Frances Carey, who acquired three watercolours by Milne while she was deputy keeper of Prints and Drawings at the BM. However, even when there is a really superb exhibition of his work in London, the public is not beating a path to its door. (Would it be different, one wonders, if the show had been mounted elsewhere — at the Royal Academy or the Tate, with their prestigious exhibition halls and effective publicity machines?) Quite frankly, people don’t know what they’re missing. Discovering Milne has enhanced the store of beauty in my mind, and opened for me another chapter in the history of watercolour — a chapter he occupies entirely on his own.

Milne was born in a log cabin in the wilds of Ontario, the tenth child of émigré Scots farmers. A clever child who excelled particularly at botany, he grew up to be a teacher, but wanted to be an artist and took a New York correspondence course in how to paint. In 1903 he went to New York to be an illustrator, enrolled in the Art Students League, and made a precarious living painting window signs for shops. He was inspired by Rockwell Kent and other older contemporaries such as Robert Henri, and tried his hand at pastels and etchings. From 1912, he concentrated on watercolour and oil (he showed two oils and three watercolours in the Armory Show), gradually developing his signature style of watercolour — a highly original treatment of the medium reliant on very little water and application with a hard bristle brush.

The exhibition begins with some of his early watercolours, which are more fluid in style than his mature work.

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