Modernist painter Isabel McLaughlin was captivated by Bermuda’s artistic appeal during her frequent visits in the 1940s and 1950s

This article was taken from our archives. It first appeared in the November 2001 issue of The Bermudian. It appears here exactly as it did originally. 

One sunny Bermuda day in January 1953, staff at Cedar Lodge, a large 11-acre property in Paget across the harbour from Hamilton owned by a rich winter resident, a Canadian, were engaged in an unusual and seemingly eccentric task. At their employer’s direction, they were packing into a box a cubic foot of pink sand carefully collected from the Coral Beach Club on the South Shore, to be shipped air freight to Canada. Bermudians are used to the eccentricities of visitors, but this seemed like an odd and expensive act of folly—sending sand to winter snows at considerable expense. Who was this Canadian millionaire and why was he shipping sand off to Canada?

The shipper was Robert Samuel McLaughlin (1871–1972), a plutocrat known to millions of Canadians as “Colonel Sam.” In the succinct description of a May 1948 interview in The Bermudian magazine, McLaughlin, then 77 years old, was “very rich and connected with General Motors.” Rich indeed. McLaughlin’s Oshawa, Ontario, family carriage factory had evolved from making buggies to manufacturing Buicks. His company had been bought out in 1918 by General Motors, which promptly made him chairman of the board of the hugely profitable Canadian company. The magazine profile spoke reverently of the large Cedar Lodge property, which McLaughlin had bought in the late 1930s, part of his vast real-estate holdings that included Parkwood, a 50-room mansion in Oshawa, a large hunting camp in western Ontario and 39 miles of salmon river complete with a private fishing lodge in eastern Quebec—not to mention a Canadian farm with a stable of racehorses. Very rich indeed.

Robert Samuel McLaughlin

McLaughlin and his wife, Adelaide, liked to spend the winters in Bermuda (“this sweet little island”), where they entertained grandly, welcoming a stream of visitors from Canada and the United States to their large home and attached guest house, a showcase property where McLaughlin employed 11 servants to wait on the parade of company, including a team of gardeners to keep the house filled with flowers. Rich Canadians such as Lady Eaton, whose family owned the largest nationwide department-store chain of the day, naturally liked to visit regularly. So many guests flocked to Cedar Lodge that their host wrote jokingly in one letter that the flow of guests was “going strong” since “Our boarding house rates seem to be quite reasonable and appeal to the general population.” Little wonder— if the Colonel enjoyed a guest, he would simply book him or her into the Pink Beach Hotel or Cambridge Beaches to stay longer at his expense if a new wave of incoming guests left no room at Cedar Lodge. Not surprisingly, at one point McLaughlin thought of buying the hotel at Deepdene.

Sam McLaughlin was shrewd, humorous and well cared for by attentive nurses and secretaries, who often had red hair, seemingly his favourite hair colour in women. Bermuda’s elite—guests such as Governor Hood and his wife and William Zuill of Bermuda Journey fame—benefited from his table, too: he thought nothing of having 35 people in for lunch after a golf tournament, or more than 120 guests to an anniversary party. It seems ironic that he wrote on the eve of one trip to the island that he wanted “to get down to Bermuda to relax and rest, mentally, physically and spiritually….” The round of entertaining continued nonetheless, and McLaughlin, who relished a good joke or a mildly naughty limerick, sighed over the stuffiness of Bermudians such as historian Henry Wilkinson, whom he declared “a sweet fellow and I am very fond of him but it is hard for him to interpret what the word ‘fun’ means.”

Adelaide and Sam McLaughlin thus enjoyed Bermuda for almost five decades in the conventional way of the visiting rich, with cocktails and croquet and golf and outings to the Coral Beach Club. But there was, at times, a different set of visitors to Cedar Lodge during these years, engaged in a pursuit that explains the seeming folly of shipping sand to Canada.

Red-haired, vivacious, intelligent, strong-willed and charismatic, Isabel was the child who might have succeeded her father in the business world had she been male. But the two shared another bond; the Colonel loved art and Isabel was a gifted artist.

Sam McLaughlin had no sons, but he had five daughters, whose respective interests ranged from equestrian riding to living the life of a society flapper. But his third daughter, Isabel, whom he called “Ballie” and the family called “Izzie,” was the apple of his eye. Red-haired, vivacious, intelligent, strong-willed and charismatic, Isabel, born in 1903, was the child who might have succeeded her father in the business world had she been male. But the two shared another bond; the Colonel loved art (as had his father before him) and Isabel was a gifted artist. Accordingly, the Colonel was quick to urge Isabel not to let her talent be lost in a whirl of travel and social engagements and philanthropic work—although his urgings were not without a touch of hypocrisy, as we shall see.

Isabel McLaughlin (1903–2002) was a talented modernist painter who studied in Paris and Vienna in the 1920s as well as at the Ontario College of Art in that same decade. A friend of Canada’s Group of Seven painters—famous innovators who portrayed the Canadian wilderness with a new boldness and nationalism—she was interested in the work of the Cubists as well as artists such as Kandinsky. Her own still-life and landscape paintings emphasize colour and pattern handled boldly, directly and energetically, as Canadian art historian Joan Murray has pointed out.

Isabel and her guests came to enjoy the light, flowers and scenery of Bermuda in a different way. Isabel’s life was centred around women (she seemed to have little lasting interest in men, except for her powerful father, who would have been challenging for any suitor to measure up to). Her friends included other leading Canadian women artists such as Montrealer Prudence Heward and Toronto artist and theosophist Yvonne McKague Housser, her closest confidante.

Isabel McLaughlin in Bermuda, c.1947, Isabel McLaughlin Archives, The Robert McLaughlin Gallery, Oshawa

Accordingly, Isabel’s annual sojourns in Bermuda from the late 1930s found her slipping off to paint beach scenes, sailboats in motion and vibrant arrangements of tropical leaves, flowers and other materials. That box of sand? Well, the Colonel sent it up to Toronto to make sure that Isabel could follow up in her Toronto studio on the sketches she made in Bermuda. And the Colonel did not content himself with sending sand. On another occasion, he dispatched a box of croton leaves, “so that you could check…on your painting in order to make sure that you were taking full advantage of the beautiful colours and shapes.”

On yet another occasion, a large box of Bermuda lilies was sent off to Ontario. Such aesthetic care packages were accompanied by McLaughlin’s gentle but persistent urging that “Ballie” keep at her art. He chided her in one 1950 letter: “…[I]f you were not so busy doing things for people and had time to settle down for a little series of painting…you are capable of turning out some mighty nice stuff.”

The Colonel was right, and shipping the boxes paid artistic dividends. Swirling still lifes such as Variations on a Subject (1954) and Swirl (1963) feature bright croton leaves and other Bermuda plant materials, more than repaying the time and trouble of shipping sand and leaves from the island.

Isabel’s time at the South Shore beaches produced one of her best paintings, South Shore, Bermuda (1953), a vista of terrace, umbrella, flags, bright sea and curving Bermuda walls, no doubt inspired by sunny days at Coral Beach.

Bermudians visiting Canada can enjoy these works today at Oshawa’s Robert McLaughlin Gallery, an art museum generously funded by the family and named for Isabel’s grandfather. Oshawa remains one of General Motors’ leading auto-making locations.

But there was an irony about the father’s injunctions to his daughter not to allow herself to be distracted from her art. Colonel Sam, charismatic as he was, did not realize how much attention he himself expected from his daughter. When Isabel was ensconced in what she dubbed her “tower room” at Cedar Lodge, she wrote to her artist friends of the artistic appeal of her surroundings: “the light is so bright, and so amazingly fantastic” in the mornings and evenings. But she added in frustration: “I am so provoked I have been able to do so little with it, but, needless to say, it is Family Life that has always made it so difficult, time so broken…. I am trying to suggest, gently, that I would like a little time each day for drawing….” The Colonel would have been chagrined had he known Isabel was “miserable” at the time his social whirl robbed from her drawing schedule.

One strategy Isabel used to get time to paint was “safety in numbers.” If she brought artist friends down, some could entertain the Colonel and give her time to draw and paint. Accordingly, Isabel did not keep Bermuda’s painterly qualities to herself. On several occasions, she brought fellow artists down to paint. In late May and June 1937, soon after the Colonel acquired Cedar Lodge, Isabel and her artist friends Prudence Heward, Yvonne McKague Housser and Audrey Taylor came to the island for a couple of weeks. True, the quartet lounged beneath umbrellas in the deck chairs on the terrace of the guest mews at Cedar Lodge, but Housser also did a wonderful painting—Bermuda 1937—of the chaises longues draped with beach towels, against the wall of the guest lodge, making art out of leisure. She also painted magnolia blooms, although she fretted in a journal she kept of her working artistic holiday that her image was “not very original.”

Housser saw the potential of painting Bermuda’s people, a promise now realized by island artists such as Sharon Wilson. Recovering from an illness as well as the death of her artist husband the year before, Housser lamented, “I haven’t enough concentration or imagination to use this marvellous colour and dark-skinned people.”

Taut Sails, 1961, oil on canvas, 28″x36″ of the Masterwork’s Collection

Indeed she did not: a bacterial infection put her in the King Edward Hospital, and she had a lot of time to contemplate the magnolia on her bedside table in the hospital before painting it. She also continued to look beyond the images of tourist beauty, sketching a line drawing of the black charwoman who cleaned her hospital room on a page of her journal, all she had strength to do. She listened, fascinated, to the speech of the black women on the Paget ferry and penned an empathetic portrait of the cook at Cedar Lodge in her journal: “a bird’s nest of white hair, old faded eyes, stooped frail and rather an old dear, hard to work at her age.”

For her part, Prudence Heward produced one of her better-known paintings, Clytie, a poignant portrait of a little black girl against a backdrop of coral wall, house and vegetation. But for Bermuda art connoisseurs, it is a tricky painting—the backdrop is Bermuda, but Heward completed the painting when she returned to Montreal, using a young friend of the Heward family’s black cook as a model, posing proudly and solemnly in the white dress and gloves she had worn as a flower girl at a wedding.

From sand to flowers to tropical backgrounds, visiting artists carried off from Bermuda the images they needed, and not just via air freight. Isabel McLaughlin and her friends had thus made the same aesthetic discovery of Bermuda that many artists—including Americans Winslow Homer, Ogden Pleissner and Georgia O’Keefe—had made before them.

Isabel McLaughlin brought down artist-visitors on several occasions, and Housser corresponded with her about the best medium for painting Bermuda scenes (“the tempera sounds fine for Bermuda”). With less contradiction than the Colonel, she urged Isabel to keep at her art, chiding her on her luggage on one March 1946 visit to Cedar Lodge: “What a shame you didn’t take your paint box instead of that suitcase containing your fur coat….” Clearly, her artist friends thought Isabel’s art materials should outrank her heiress wardrobe. Remembering Bermuda’s scenic delights, Housser wrote to Isabel at Cedar Lodge, sending love to “the singing tree frogs and those pine trees back of the mews and the traveller’s palm.”

Isabel remembered the 1937 painting group with fondness for decades. In 1956, writing to Housser from Cedar Lodge, she was filled with nostalgia remembering both that gathering of friends (Prudence Heward had died in 1946), and the old Bermuda of dazzling white, carless coral roads and the Bermuda Railway, its tracks now torn up: “…the Toonerville trolley is gone, and I see our darling little ferry is running at a loss, and very few carriages left.” Spending Christmas in Bermuda in 1961, she herself mailed a box from the island—the more conventional Bermuda memento of a set of china, a gift for her friend Yvonne Housser.

Isabel McLaughlin painted in many places—Arizona, Tobago, Mexico, the wild northern Ontario mining country around Cobalt—but, with her father as both encourager and obstacle, her Bermuda paintings and sketches are among her strongest. With her characteristic generosity, after the founding of Bermuda’s Masterworks collection, she donated one of her works, Taut Sails, to Masterworks as well as one of her Bermuda sketchbooks.

Not a bad exchange for a box of Bermuda sand.