“Before you go to Fogo again” 

A portion of Mary's painting of she and Christopher's daughter, "Barby in the Dress She Made Herself," 1986
A portion of Mary's painting of she and Christopher's daughter, "Barby in the Dress She Made Herself," 1986

Both times I’ve been to Fogo Island, the odds of what happened precipitated a trip to The Rooms in St. John’s to find the paintings of two of Canada’s finest artists. While there with Ruth Ann, we were on a mission to see the paintings of Mary Pratt. With Magellan, it was to find the work of Mary’s husband, Christopher Pratt.

The Rooms is one of Canada’s best cultural facilities. A collection of oceanfront “fishing rooms,” it houses an art gallery, provincial museum, archives, gathering spaces, the natural and human history of Newfoundland and Labrador, and a café. 

Although Christopher’s art was the first to receive acclaim, Mary’s work was always my favourite of the two. 

Her photorealistic paintings of everywoman’s kitchen are sensuous yet quietly unsettling: jars of red currant jelly sunning on the windowsill, eviscerated chickens exposed on the cutting board, a lifeless salmon on crimson foil. A frisson of the dark embodied in domestic life.

In the mid-90s Mary gave a talk and slide show of her work at Sandpiper Books in Calgary after The Art of Mary Pratt The Substance of Light by Tom Smart was published. “Is this a gift or for yourself?” she asked before signing my copy of the book. Look at her delightful response.

I liked that Mary was good friends with Alice Munro, my favourite Canadian author, and that Mary’s art was featured on two covers of Alice’s books, including our feature image of Mary’s painting of their daughter, Barby, and Wedding Dress, 1986. (Barby herself has become an accomplished artist.)

Mary and Christopher both studied art at Mount Allison University in the 1950s under Lawren P. Harris, the son of the Group of Seven’s Lawren Harris. After the Pratt’s had married and become parents, Lawren #2 infamously told Mary, “Now you have to understand, in a family of painters, there can only be one painter, and in your family, it’s Christopher.” 

“I went home and I cried,” Mary said in an interview. “I had two children at that point. I thought: ‘I have just enough time. I intend to have children and to have food on the table, and I intend to do the ironing, but I will have time to paint.’” Hard to do when in the space of a decade or so you give birth to four babies, move five times and live in rustic outport cottages.

Christopher though, unencumbered by domestic duty, was free to spend his time in the studio. He achieved early fame. The National Gallery of Canada (NGC) bought Boat in Sand and included this serigraph in the 1961 Biennial Exhibition. By 1965 when he was just 30 years old, Christopher had been made an associate of the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts. By 1980 his oils-on-masonite were commanding $70,000.

In 1968 the Pratts hired a local girl, sixteen-year old Donna Meaney, to work as a nanny and housekeeper, presumedly to allow Mary more time to paint. Most of you probably know that Donna became Christopher’s model and lover, a story Carol Bishop-Gwyn tells well in her book Art and Rivalry: The Marriage of Mary and Christopher Pratt. Donna also modeled for Mary, the difference between Mary’s (impassioned) and Christopher’s (impassive) paintings of her a potential thesis for art students and psychoanalysts. Was Mary working out what was happening at home in the dark undercurrent of her domestic paintings? Mary and Christopher separated in the 1990s and divorced in 2004 but reconnected as friends in later years. 

Mary’s artistic breakthrough shone brightly in 1975, International Women’s Year, when the NGC included many of her paintings and drawings in an exhibition. (Her work was accidentally discovered when a curator from the NGC was visiting Christopher and saw Mary’s art in a side bedroom.) In the following decades her reputation grew with three surveys of her painting career, the Molson Prize, multiple honorary degrees, the Order of Canada and a solo exhibition at the NGC. She was an important catalyst in convincing governments of all levels to establish The Rooms, a “velvet force that was careful to hide being a hammer, except when necessary,” the NGC wrote.

So, when Ruth Ann and I were on Fogo Island and heard the news of Mary’s death on August 14, 2018, we knew we had to visit The Rooms, primarily to pay homage to Mary and see her work.

And here I was, four years later back at The Rooms. This time with Magellan, primarily to see Christopher’s work. 

Mary had died while Ruth Ann and I were on Fogo Island.

Christopher died on June 5, 2022, while Magellan and I and Clare and Keenan were on Fogo Island. I emailed Ruth Ann to see if she’d heard the news.

Given the odds of this happening, Ruth Ann, sharp as a filleting knife, was quick to give advice.

“Before you go to Fogo again, you better warn Barby you’re coming.”

Navigation 

UPDATE: “The Pratt Family A Canadian Art Dynasty.” Art Canada Institute. February 16, 2024.

Austen, Ian. “Mary Pratt, Realist Painter of Household Scenes, Dies at 83.” New York Times. Aug 23, 2018. Christopher’s death was not covered in this newspaper. 

Berg, Lindsay. “Christopher Pratt, legendary Canadian painter, dead at 86.” CBC. June 5, 2022.

Conin, Ray. Mary Pratt: Life & Work. Art Canada Institute.

Demont, John. “Making the mundane sublime.” Maclean’s. October 9, 1995. I found this article between the pages of the book of Mary’s art I’d bought at Sandpiper’s. 

Eagan, Mirielle. “Painter Christopher Pratt captured the rugged nature of his beloved Newfoundland.” The Globe and Mail. June 6, 2022.

Emma Butler Gallery A great private gallery in St. John’s where you can see the works of major Newfoundland artists, including Mary, Christopher and Barbara (Barby) Pratt. 

Johnson, Ann. “A brooding vision.” Maclean’s. September 21, 1981. 

Sandals, Leah. “East Coast painter Mary Pratt found ‘little truths’ in everyday objects.” The Globe and Mail. August 15, 2018.

Smart, Tom. The Art of Mary Pratt, The Substance of Light. Canada: Goose Lane Editions and The Beaverbrook Art Gallery, 1995. Photos of Mary’s art without a source have been taken by us from my copy of this book.

4 Responses

  1. Nice tribute. Thanks
    As Program Chair of the National Art Teachers Conference in the 80’s ,I invited both Mary and Christoper Pratt to Calgary be speakers at our conference. They both came much to our delight. One night four of us took them both out to the Palliser Hotel for dinner. Interesting couple. Each, very much like their respective paintings.
    Heard her speak many times. Brilliant,inspiring speaker.
    Mary had been Christopher’s student at art college. After breakfast every morning with the family, he would go to work in his studio. Busy with kids etc. and having no time to paint, Mary started snapping photos of the breakfast table full of jelly jars etc. These slides, she stashed away for future potential references —-for a time when she would have time to paint.
    And did she ever paint.

    1. Lucky you Pat to get to know them both over dinner. Love to hear more from you about that. To his credit, Christopher, or so I read, suggested to Mary that she photograph scenes that caught her eye when the light was to her liking and use them for reference later. Were they still in love when you met them?

    1. Grand indeed, with its island scenery, cod fishing history, artists’ studios, good hiking, varied accommodation and most of all, its warm-hearted fun-loving people.

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