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Albert H. Robinson, R.C.A. (1881-1956)

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The Painter’s Painter



Albert Henry Robinson was born in Hamilton in 1881.  He was the baby in a family of five sons and a daughter.  There was nothing in the rest of the family that pointed toward a career in the arts for Robinson, although, he chuckles, both his mother and father each claimed that any talent he had came from them.


Robinson had the usual public school and high school education.  He can’t recall precisely how or when he started to draw.  Nobody told him to try it; nobody showed him how.  He simply suddenly found himself being admonished in class for spending more time defacing his schoolbooks and less and less time on his studies.


Upon leaving high school, Robinson didn’t know what to do.  He was getting pretty fair with pencil and pen and ink and with watercolour, and had also learned to play the piano well enough to be invited out – at a fee, of course – to play at dances.  Then one day, a summer-cottage neighbour remarked that the Times was losing its chief illustrator and would Ab like to try for the job.  Robinson took a batch of his drawings down and he got the job – at $5 a week.


Photographs weren’t used then to the extent that they are by newspapers today, and it was Robinson’s job to illustrate accident scenes, murders and other big events of the day.  After two years, during which he had been studying in John S. Gordon’s life class at the Hamilton Art School, young Robinson rose to $9 a week, and marvelous to relate, was able to save enough money to do something he had been dreaming of for some time; in 1903 he went to Paris to study drawing.  Albert had saved enough money to stay a year and his brothers chipped in to enable him to spend a second year.  All the French Robinson knew was what he had got at high school, although his mother and father were married in St. Jean, Quebec, and lived in Montreal, where the two eldest were born.


The first year he studied at Académie Julien.  The quality of his work there gave him an entrée to the École des Beaux Arts, under Gabriel Ferrier.  The classes were for drawing but in his own time Robinson began to dabble in oils and develop his watercolours.  His doctor brother, E.H., studying in Austria at the time, introduced him to the English painter, Thomas William Marshall, who took an interest in the young artist.  Robinson spent two summers with the Marshalls, traveling on bicycle through Normandy and painting.


Among the highlights of the Paris stay were occasional dinners with Sir John Lavery and Blair Bruce.  Again, he was introduced by his brother.  Bruce, also a native of Hamilton, was the first Canadian painter Robinson ever met.  Robinson’s stay in Paris ended when he drank too much water and not enough wine and came down with typhoid.


Back in Hamilton, Robinson had to consider the serious business of earning a living.  The same John S. Gordon, A.R.C.A., under whom Robinson had studied, gave him a job in his studio, “mostly to be kind”.  The Harry Neyland, an American imported to direct the Hamilton Art School, was injured in an accident, and Gordon was asked to take charge.  Robinson went along to instruct the life class.


While there, in 1906, Robinson had his first exhibition.  It was a joint affair, along with Mr. Neyland and Mr. Gordon.  It was then he made his very first sale and Robinson remembers that big occasion very well.  The picture was a snow scene and included a church attended by the Lieutenant-Governor of Ontario, the Hon. J.M. Gibson.  The purchaser – Mr. Gibson.


It was Robinson’s ability as a pianist, not as a painter, that led to the meeting that was to prove the turning point of his career and entire life.  The Truesdales, friends of the elder Robinsons, had friends from Montreal, Mr. and Mrs. William L. Davis, visiting them.  They asked Ab, the pianist, over to help entertain them.  He did.  The Davises were impressed b the young man, even more so when they say some of his artwork.  Mr. Davis promptly bought Robinson’s first three oils.


A man who knew his painting, Mr. Davis took Mr. and Mrs. Robinson aside and asserted that Albert was wasting his exceptional talents where he was.  Mr. Davis suggested that Albert return with them to Montreal.  They would find him a studio, guarantee his rent and introduce him to the leading spirits in Canadian painting and also art lovers who would appreciate his work.  Childless, Mr. and Mrs. Davis said they would care for Albert like a son.  And they did.


Robinson was ready to go that moment.  In Montreal, he moved in as a member of the family.  The Davises found him a studio on Phillips Place, which he shared with Robert Findlay, an architect.  Mr. Davis introduced him to William Brymner, President of the  Royal Canadian Academy, Edmund Dyonnet, R.C.A. Secretary, and Maurice Cullen, and they took the young man under their collective wing.  Mr. Davis showed the three Robinson oils to Brymner, who suggested that they be submitted for the next Royal Canadian Academy show, at the old gallery on Phillips Square.  All were accepted (he exhibited with the R.C.A. from 1909 to 1933).  Not so long after, in 1911, Robinson, at 30, was elected an associate of the Academy, one of the youngest in Academy history.  He became a full member in 1920.  He also was a founder member of the Canadian Group of Painters (1933), which grew out of the Group of Seven.


Robinson was virtually surrounded by big names in Canadian art.  Horne Russell, Cullen, Maxwell, the architect, and the three Des Clayes girls had studios nearby.  Suzor-Côté was in the next room, which had its benefits but, Robinson chuckles, its drawbacks too.  Suzor-Côté had a first-rate voice, so good that he had originally studied singing before turning to sculpture and painting.  Robinson enjoyed Suzor-Côté’s singing – except when he (Robinson) was having a show.  But the two artists were good friends and Robinson’s first real show was a joint affair with Suzor-Côté.


In winter Robinson painted around Montreal; in summer he haunted the harbour, the docks, the grain elevators and the boats.  A cousin, Robert Aiken, was harbour paymaster so Robinson pretty well had the run of the place.  The first sale he made after coming to Montreal was a harbour-front scene, “Boat Loading at a Grain Elevator”, which was purchased by Cleveland Morgan.  Robinson became a familiar figure around the docks and no one bothered him -  no one, that is, except the rats.  There were thousands and apparently all art-lovers.  The great number of rats on occasion forced him to pick up his easel and run.


In 1912 the National Gallery purchased its first Robinson – “Evening Lights”, a snow scene.  When war broke out in 1914, Robinson went to Dominion Copper Products in Longue Pointe – not to paint but to inspect munitions.  He never lifted a brush during the war but instead checked thousands upon thousands of 4.5 howitzer and 6” shells.


His first canvas after the war was also purchased by the National Gallery, Eric Brown, the director, remarking that if Robinson could paint as well as that after a four-year lay-off they had better start another war for him.  His second canvas, “Old Church, Longue Pointe”, was bought by the Quebec Government.  Then, under Ottawa’s Canadian War Memorials scheme, along with Cullen, J.W. Morrice, C.W. Simpson, F.H. Varley and Jackson, Robinson helped to paint the story of the war, putting the tale of wartime shipbuilding at Vickers on canvas.


Robinson’s studio was now over the Davis garage on Vendome Avenue.  The Davises were to Robinson what Dr. J.M. MacCallum was to the Group of Seven.  His patron saint, so to speak, but even more – Mother and Father.  They encouraged him by praise, by purchase, by spreading the work of his work everywhere.  Robinson was in a tough league those days.  He was competing against such giants as Morrice, Cullen, Suzor-Côté, Gagnon and F.S. Coburn – all good friends, but at the same time among the best painters Canada ever produced.


By now Robinson was also a member of the Arts club again through the sponsorship of Brymner, Cullen and Dyonnet.  He was also an annual exhibitor in Art Association of Montreal shows, his last being 1937.  In 1938 he was on the selection jury.


Robinson and A.Y. Jackson met shortly before World War I.  Jackson was just getting started and Horne Russell asked Mr. Davies to give him a boost.  Mr. Davis bought a sketch, Jackson began visiting the Davis home and Robinson and Jackson began going out on painting trips together.  Over a billiard table one day they even decided to go to Europe, with Robinson’s main objects being the ships and environment of St. Malo.  From the ship, on their return, villages on the south shore of Quebec seemed to offer painting possibilities, and they decided to pay them a visit.


Cacouna was the first of a series of interesting and productive trips made by Robinson with Jackson, Gagnon, Randolph S. Hewton and Edwin Holgate to such colourful spots as La Malbaie, St. Tite des Caps, Baie St. Paul, Les Eboulements and to Quebec City.  From the first trip to Cacouna came Robinson’s most famous painting – “Returning from Easter Mass” – now owned by the Art Gallery of Toronto.  And out of these trips have come the rich, colourful portrayals of Quebec life and scenes for which Robinson has become renowned.  And from his whole career had come Robinson’s view – “to paint well, you must be all fired up – you must be hungry – you can’t turn good painting out day after day like on a production line”.


Robinson, whose painting is described as “purely Canadian – with no trace of European influence”, had no commercial instinct at all; he painting for the love of painting.  In fact, “Returning from Easter Mass”, first exhibited at an Art Association of Montreal show in 1923, was originally Robinson’s gift to a neighbour in return for many kindnesses.


Commenting on “Returning from Easter Mass” in his booklet Canadian Picture Study, Arthur Lismer said:  “Albert Robinson is a colorist of the first order.  There is a wealth of graceful harmony in this simple picture that only comes into a work of art when the painter is sensitively aware of more subtle delicacies and qualities unknown – because unseen – to painters of less discernment”.


In 1921 Robinson painted with Jackson in Cacouna and in 1922 at Bienville, near Levis.  In 1923 they painted with Gagnon and Randolph Hewton at Baie St. Paul and St. Tire des Caps.  On another occasion they paianted with Edwin Holgate at La Malbaie.


Robinson is one of only three Canadians represented in the Luxembourg, in Paris.  (Morrice and Percy Woodcock are said to be the only others.)  The particular canvas, “The Open Stream”, was painted in 1923 and shown at the British Empire Exhibition, Wembley, in 1925.  It was one of six Canadian paintings selected for showing in Paris, where it was bought in 1932 by the French Government for 5000 francs.


Exhibitions of his work were held at Watson’s Art Gallery, Stevens’ Art Gallery, and West End Art Gallery, all of Montreal, and his canvases were always among representative Canadian collections selected for showing in the U.S. and abroad.  He is included in such permanent collections as the National Gallery, Art Gallery of Toronto, Quebec Museum of Art, the Art Association of Montreal, and in Canada House, London, England, two paintings – “The Little Bridge, Baie St. Paul” and “Soft Snow, Baie St. Paul” – being only recently purchased by the Department of External Affairs.  He is represented in the collection of the Governor General, Rt. Hon. Vincent Massey, and when A.J. Casson resigned as president of the R.C.A. a Robinson sketch was the academy’s gift to him.


But then, roughly 20 years ago, disaster struck, and Robinson has been unable to lift a brush since.  He had a heart attack, with ensuing complications, including arthritis.  Since then he as been living in a retirement so complete that the Canadian Group of Painters, of which he is a foundation member, in 1954 listed him as deceased.  When ordered to take up golf, he went to the Marlborough Golf Club, of which the Davises were charter members, and there met Marion Ethelwynne Russell.  They were married in 1952, and live in a pleasant cottage in western Montreal.


The late A.H. Robson, one of Canadian painting’s greatest enthusiasts, and responsible for many fine books dealing with Canadian painters and painting, said in his authoritative “Canadian Landscape Painters”, in the chapter on the Group of Seven”  “Albert H. Robinson, frequently an invited exhibitor at the Group of Seven exhibitions, is a painter of marked individuality.  He has that rare ability of summarizing and simplifying a subject, and applying the paint with a subtlety and refinement of colour that at times is faintly reminiscent of Morrice.  Some of the modern Canadian painters have been accused of an excessive use of primary colour, resulting in a lack of refinement in their work.  No such accusation can be made against Robinson’s art.  There is restraint and artistry in his use of colour, poetry and feeling in his interpretation, and a distinctly Canadian note in his choice of subject matter.”


The walls of the Robinson home, upstairs and down, are covered with Robinson canvases and sketches, oils and watercolours, but the visitor is amazed to learn that not one belongs to Robinson.  At one stage during his illness, when his chances of survival didn’t seem too great, Robinson disposed of all he had.  Those in the house had been bought by the Davises.  Mr. Davis died in the 20’s, and when Mr. Davis died in 1947 she willed that they were to be Robinson’s until his death, then to be given to various galleries across the country.


Robinson and h is work are perhaps best summed up by Robert Ayer’s comments in connection with a Robinson exhibition at the West End Gallery, Montreal, in 1951:  “It seems to me that Robinson comes somewhere between the Group of Seven and Morrice.  A native of Hamilton, he left Ontario and came to Montreal before the Group was fairly launched, before Lismer and Varley arrived from England, and while he has painted with some of the members, notably Jackson and the latecomer Holgate, he was never part of the movement.  Except for what he did in Paris as a student, he has always painted the Canadian scene, but he has preferred the landscape mellowed by human influences to the violence of the wilderness.  Robinson’s painting is not simply milder Group of Seven or coarser Morrice; he is a positive painter, with a view and style of his own.  The Group did this, too, but Robinson was more reserved, he kept his refinement and instead of letting the landscape run away with him, as it sometimes did with the Group, he imposed his own discrimination sensibility upon it”.




Source: Albert H. Robinson Retrospective Exhibition Catalogue, Galerie Walter Klinkhoff (1994). Text by Thomas R. Lee, 1956.


© Copyright Mrs. Thomas R. Lee

© Copyright Galerie Walter Klinkhoff Inc.

Galerie Eric Klinkhoff, Canadian Art Dealer & Gallery in Montreal

Albert H. Robinson, R.C.A. (1881-1956)

"The St. Lawrence near Baie St. Paul", 1921

Oil on panel 8.3/8" x 10.1/2" (SOLD)

Galerie Eric Klinkhoff, Canadian Art Dealer & Gallery in Montreal

Albert H. Robinson, R.C.A. (1881-1956)

"Moonlight, St. Fidele", c. 1925

Oil on canvas 17" x 21" (SOLD)

Galerie Eric Klinkhoff, Canadian Art Dealer & Gallery in Montreal

Albert H. Robinson, R.C.A. (1881-1956)

"St. Tite", 1928

Oil on panel 11.1/8" x 12.7/8" (SOLD)

Galerie Eric Klinkhoff, Canadian Art Dealer & Gallery in Montreal

Albert H. Robinson, R.C.A. (1881-1956)

"St-Urbain, PQ, near La Malbaie", 1928

Oil on panel 11.1/2" x 13" (SOLD)

Galerie Eric Klinkhoff, Canadian Art Dealer & Gallery in Montreal

Albert H. Robinson, R.C.A. (1881-1956)

"Going to Mass, Cacouna", 1921

Oil on panel 8.1/2" x 10.1/2" (SOLD)

Galerie Eric Klinkhoff, Canadian Art Dealer & Gallery in Montreal

Albert H. Robinson, R.C.A. (1881-1956)


Oil on panel 8.1/2" x 10.3/4" (SOLD)

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