From Owen Merton to Frances Hodgkins, 12 April 1911, Ealing W.
‘I only want to say that I am so very delighted with those two water colours in the International. I think they are without any doubt the best work of yours I have seen. The lanterns especially. You are more of a marvell than ever - and I am so very proud of New Zealand and everything ... I am pretty certain to come to Concarneau again later on in the summer. I am only here a week or two and go back to Paris till July’.
Owen Heathcote Grierson Merton (1887-1931) was born in Christchurch and educated at Christ’s College, where he had his first formal art lesson. In 1903 he enrolled at the age of sixteen in the Canterbury College School of Art. After a false start as a bank clerk in 1904, he went to London to live with his aunt and uncle. Though it is unclear what further training he had there, when he returned to New Zealand in 1907 his art had matured markedly. He held solo exhibitions in Wellington where he met and was greatly inspired by Dorothy Kate Richmond.
Returning to Europe in 1909, Merton travelled to various artistic centres, falling in with Frances Hodgkins in Concarneau in 1910, where he enrolled in her sketching class. Based for an extended period in Paris from 1910 to 1913, Merton studied first at the Académie Colarossi, then in the studio of Percyval Tudor-Hart along with fellow New Zealander Maud Sherwood. Merton was a close friend of Hodgkins during this period and helped her prepare her new teaching studio, School for Water Colour, at 21 impasse du Maine in December 1911. He was put to work white-washing walls and later accompanied her to a Christmas Eve party. Hodgkins wrote of the party to her mother Rachel Hodgkins;
‘At 9 o’clock I went off to a party at the Phillips Foxes with Mrs Molesworth, Miss Henderson & Owen Merton in a taxi - & made merry till I couldn’t lift an eyelid to see the time o’day ... Owen M. played an accompaniment which marked him as a musician. He tells me he has a piano now & is keeping up his music. He really is the best of boys. What do you think he did today – whitewashed my big Studio in a most stunning & splendid way & saved me no end of money & trouble’.
Whilst studying in Paris, Merton met Ruth Calvert Jenkins, an American art student whom he married in London in 1914. The couple took refuge from the War in the USA in 1916. From 1917 to 1925 his chief exhibiting outlet was New York. Merton became known as an audacious painter working within the world of New York modernism.
Women were a key influence in Merton’s life and career. From Annie Abbott (later Kelly) who taught him art as a teenager, through to his aunt Maud who housed him as a young man in London; to his American wife Ruth. Perhaps the two greatest influences on his career were Dorothy Kate Richmond and Frances Hodgkins, whose encouragement sent him to Cornwall and later Paris, where his predominantly watercolour art (the favoured medium of the two aforementioned) prospered.
Sailing off Bermuda, dates from Merton’s American period. Perhaps unsurprisingly then, this work has benefited not only from Richmond’s and Hodgkins’ influence, but also from an awareness of the works of John Marin, the foremost modern watercolourist in New York at that time. The painting dates from the winter of 1921-22 which Merton spent in Bermuda. The cursory, almost cheeky abbreviations of form that are so effective here in conveying the breezy conditions (so good for sailing) belie the anxiety under which this drawing must have been made – only a few months earlier Ruth had died of cancer, he had two young sons to rear, and his personal future was profoundly uncertain.
Written by Jonathan Gooderham & Grace Alty
We are grateful to Dr Pamela Gerrish Nunn for her assistance in compiling the catalogue entries.