J.B. Taylor (1917-1970)
Jack Taylor was a landscape painter. One might be more specific and call him a mountain painter, for although he frequently depicted foothills, the ‘badlands’ of Drumheller and the prairies, he always returned to mountain themes. His last works were a series of sketches based largely on a study of ice fields and glaciers in British Columbia and Alberta which he completed during the last summer of his life.
As a talented schoolboy in Charlottetown in the '30s, Taylor painted subjects which were related to the sea. From these early years we have paintings of clipper ships and boathouses as well as scenes of rural Prince Edward Island. Had Taylor remained in the Atlantic provinces no doubt he would have found a means of expression related to the topography and climate there, but it is difficult for those who watched his art develop in Western Canada to imagine that Taylor could have been ‘Taylor’ anywhere else.
His first teacher was Mrs. Mabel Gass, an artist in Charlottetown, who quickly recognized and encouraged his talents. But it was when he attended a summer school in painting in Cape Breton at the age of eighteen and met Frank DuMond that he found his teacher who was to exert the strongest influence on his style and his way of looking at the world. On DuMond’s advice, Taylor registered at the Art Students League in New York in the fall of 1937 where he studied for two years.
DuMond, who taught at the League for forty-nine years, was one of the most popular and progressive teachers in America and numbered among his students John Marin, Marsden Hartly and Georgia O’Keefe. Taylor himself, writing on the development of his work said: “I was fortunate to have had Frank V. DuMond of New York City to instruct me in the fundamentals of art and thinking. It was this kind of analysis of nature, the use of mind and eye, that gave me the grounding to plan and develop.” Although Taylor’s style was far removed from that of his teacher, DuMond’s discussion of light almost defines the essence of his pupil’s style: “What makes a painting great is the convincing quality of its total effect. That effect is one of light which manifests form. Without light there would be no form. Permeating light is the motif of the painting.”
On his return to Prince Edward Island in 1939 Taylor began teaching art in Charlottetown and had a one-man show at the old Harris Memorial Gallery. The subjects of the paintings in this show were for the most part typical ‘Island’ themes, but prophetically included mountain climbing and skiing subjects. One work from this exhibition, Morning Shadows, was later sold to International Business Machines Corporation and exhibited widely across North America. These works are conventional compositions. The colour is pleasant and light plays a minor role. The edges are blurred and atmospheric and lack the hardness and clarity of his western landscapes.
World War II played an important role in fostering an appreciation of Canada as a nation. The generation that came of age in those years was subject to an involuntary mingling that seemed to most servicemen to have no basis in reason. The ultimate result of this mingling, whatever its original military purpose, was a vast shifting of peoples from familiar to unfamiliar environments. When Taylor first joined the Air Force he was posted to Moncton and Scoudouc in New Brunswick but later came to North West Air Command in Edmonton. Here he painted panoramas in aircraft recognition rooms where aircrew were trained to recognize and identify aircraft. Taylor had taken flying lessons as a youth and the Air Force permitted him to continue his interest. The details so necessary in aircraft recognition came easily to the artist.
His posting to Edmonton enabled him to see the foothills and mountains and the vast northland (which was to be a continuing interest throughout his life) for the first time. His paintings at this time, many of them murals on the walls of recreation rooms and officers’ messes, and many of them long since destroyed, combined his interest in aircraft and his excitement with the spacious landscape of the Canadian North West.
When the war was over he had enough optimism in his future as a painter to enroll as a veteran at the Ontario College of Art from which he graduated with honours in 1947. He was now married to the former Audrey Anderson of Elgin, Manitoba, and began to think of ways to combine his interests in teaching and painting.
An opportunity came in the summer of 1947 when he was appointed Lecturer in Painting in the Department of Fine Arts at the University of Alberta. The Painting Division had begun in 1945 with the appointment of Professor H.G. Glyde. In those years the obligations of the university to the community at large were recognized by a vigorous and comprehensive extension program. The Fine Arts Department worked closely with the Extension Department to provide rural Albertans with a variety of programs in the arts. The work done by Glyde, Taylor and others during this time was over and above their normal commitments to university teaching, and placed great demands on their time and energies. However, through these duties Taylor came to know Alberta intimately and through his summer teaching at the Banff School of Fine Arts he had his first prolonged opportunity to study the mountain landscape.
After his appointment to the University of Alberta, Taylor continued for a time to paint Eastern Canadian subject matter. The style of these works reflects the techniques of an illustrator who employs tone to the almost complete exclusion of colour. The lighting is romantic and dramatic (Wagon and Barn; Little Village, Cape Breton). He used pen and wash, and frequently employed a sepia ink to add details to his broader washes. These works are very detailed but they are successful because of the ability of the artist to group his pen strokes into structural forms which augment rather than destroy the wash areas.
In the early '50s the oil medium became more predominant in his works, and with it the mountain themes began to appear. He was now venturing into the big elemental motifs of Canadian painting. For any Canadian painter raised between the wars the overwhelming force of the Group of Seven was something with which one had to come to terms. Many young painters have foundered on the rocks of Georgian Bay without ever having been near them. Jack Taylor’s early landscapes, if they have Canadian roots, go back to the generation before the Group of Seven when European styles were still influential, to the works of Homer Watson and even to his fellow ‘Islander,’ Robert Harris.
Perhaps Taylor’s study with DuMond gave him a different orientation, or perhaps it gave him confidence in his own way of seeing, for he never really seemed tempted by the established Canadian landscape style. DuMond’s heroes in American art were Innes, Eakins and Homer: Fauve colour and Art Nouveau line were not part of his artistic vocabulary. He may have given Taylor a love of the interplay of light and dark of the 17th century landscapists such as Ruysdael. At any rate, in his early years Taylor developed his own version of this style which made light the subject matter of almost every painting.
Later, as we shall see, he was to move through a cubist phase and into his late works in which, while light still played an important role, it did not emanate from a single source, but rather seemed inherent in the forms themselves.
His mountain landscapes of the '50s move away from the earlier monochromatic studies into a greater use of colour even though the colour is still somewhat subdued. He never tried for easy victories of blue mountains and fall colours so favoured by the many commercial landscapists who haunt the Alberta Rockies. He avoided the conventional landscape composition with the mountains as a backdrop to a foreground of lakes, rivers or trees. The glaciers and rock at higher altitudes had a strong appeal (Above Lake O’Hara, 1952). Taylor’s visual knowledge of glaciers, moraines, rock faces and alpine meadows was given scientific support through the many discussions he had with members of the Geology and other departments at the University.
Jack Taylor’s sympathetic attitude toward nature is demonstrated by the harmonious unification of forms by means of ambient light. Unlike the Swiss mountain painters of the 19th century, he never dwells on catastrophe or the threat of catastrophe so prevalent in their works, where landslides are common and trees are uprooted by seemingly supernatural forces. If there is Romanticism in Taylor’s paintings it is not the heroic mood of the 19th century, but rather a mood of optimism based on knowledge with the use of light as the unifying principle.
Light is now also used to create form; the sky is reduced to a small band at the top of the picture, or it is not within the picture plane at all (Untitled oil, (no. 4) and Columbia Icefields). The emphasis turns increasingly to the rock itself – rock and ice – for he was discovering the great glaciers that hitherto he had painted only from a distance.
DuMond had often spoken and written of the need to search for the fundamental natural laws behind appearances. To him, style was something that came as a result of the study of universal truths. As Taylor’s work developed in the late '50s and early '60s, it changed from the more descriptive mountain landscapes to landscapes that emphasized both the surface texture and the underlying structure of rock and ice. Finally the rock wall, the face of the massif, was almost his sole concern.
A wall of rock is not a promising motif for a landscape painter. Courbet had experimented with a similar theme in his quarries in which he painted close-up views with little showing but the rock itself. His paintings have darkened through the years but one can still determine that he attempted a verisimilitude by using the actual texture of impasto to represent the rock surface. To some extent Taylor did the same thing. He was experimenting with acrylic paints at this time, and the textured surfaces which could be obtained so readily with them led them to move toward a study of texture itself as it related to the rock surfaces in the mountains. His colour was reduced even more but in order to achieve greater interest he imposed a kind of cubist overlay on these works. In spite of the texture which imitated nature, Taylor’s compositions were becoming more abstract.
In his 1968 show at the Jacox Galleries, Taylor moved firmly and clearly out of the dark paintings of the early '60s and brought a greater amplitude and monumentality into his works. Ice and rock, with ice now predominating, were the two opposing elements which he began to articulate: ice fields with their opacity and translucency, their softness and their hardness, their stillness and their power is what we see in these later works (Opabin). It is in these works that we see Taylor at his best, handling a subject matter that had seldom been handled before, and finding a unique and appropriate technique for his aesthetic purpose.
There is more to Taylor’s art than the rock and glacier themes even at this period. This exhibition attempts to show something of his range although, due to limitations of space, we have deliberately excluded his portraits, which are a minor but extremely interesting aspect of his production. Only a show devoted exclusively to them would be fair to his talents.
Included in the show, however, are some of his paintings of old buildings and ruins of Italy. While on sabbatical in 1955 Taylor made many sketches near Florence and Rome, and when he returned to Canada he combined the texture of the cut stone and brick with his semi-abstract style to produce some outstanding works (Gimignano). These works are surprisingly similar in composition and texture to his mountain themes, but the colour is warm in contrast to the coolness of the rocks and glaciers. These paintings show the influence of John Piper whose work Taylor admired. Although the intense colour of Piper’s art was foreign to Taylor’s temperament, he enjoyed the texture and calligraphy in this artist’s work.
Taylor also painted the prairies, and the ‘badlands’ of the Red Deer River Valley. To some extent the badlands relate to his mountain themes except in colour and detail, but the prairie landscapes are a radical departure from his constant concern for a vertical plane of rock, ice or cut stone. But he was able to handle the great reaches of the prairie landscape with ease and one can only wish that he had painted more major works on this theme.
It has become popular in recent years to prefer the sketch, and the unfinished work to the planned, deliberate and polished landscape. Although Taylor avoided slickness and polish in his larger works, his sketches have a special place in his ‘oeuvre’. This was evident when his smaller paintings were exhibited at the Art Gallery of the University of Alberta in February 1973.
We have included several of these works which are doubly interesting because some of them were painted in the summer of 1970, just prior to his death.
The late sketches have the simplicity and monumentality of larger works. They reveal few brush strokes, low-keyed colour, and implicit rather than explicit detail. The tone relationships are superb so that with the utmost economy a great sense of atmospheric space is achieved. He was, in this last year, so conversant with his subject that he displays an intuitive, almost Oriental, brilliance in his brush strokes. These last sketches represent his research for a new series of glacier and ice-field paintings and in contemplating where they might have led we are reminded forcibly of the artist loss we have suffered with his death.
Jack Taylor’s paintings were closely related to his teaching. In class he preferred to demonstrate with a brush rather than explain with words. He believed in the necessity for accurate observation and his students were soon aware that he was in a class by himself perceptually. He could see effects in nature which for most people remain unseen. Sketches produced to elucidate a point in class were complete and wonderful in themselves. He was quite aware of the awe in which his skill was held and was not above playing the conjurer with paint to startle and surprise his students. Throughout his visual proofs of abstract theorems he kept up a steady chatter which was sometimes serious but more often irreverent, but never dull.
He turned students into friends who frequently returned to visit after graduation. As a colleague he was liked and admired. He was the first to offer friendship and hospitality to new staff members and was generous to younger artists.
His reputation as an artist is growing as his work becomes better known. He had exhibited occasionally in Eastern Canada but his output was generally absorbed by collectors in Western Canada and there was not the time nor perhaps the inclination to make an impression on the art world of dealers and publishers. He was ignored by Arts Canada, the Canada Council and other official agencies. But he shared his gifts with those around him and seemed content to do so.
He was happiest in the mountains observing, drawing and painting, or in the classroom demonstrating a technique to a small group of students.
He knew how to paint and he knew how to live.
– J. Allison Forbes, 1973
(Reproduced with permission)
(The above Introduction was taken from the catalogue of the 1973 memorial exhibition J. B. Taylor Landscapes organized by The Edmonton Art Gallery and the University of Alberta, Department of Art and Design. The exhibition was shown at the Confederation Art Gallery and Museum, Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, September 5 – 23, 1973, and The Edmonton Art Gallery, Edmonton, Alberta, November 22 – December 18, 1973.)