Two extended stays in Bermuda were crucial to the career of painter Owen Merton, whose son, U.S. Catholic author Thomas Merton, achieved greater renown.

‘Burning fields and cold motion of stillness’ is an unconventional landscape description: fields may burn but can motion be cold, and can it be still? It’s the title of a painting made in Bermuda by Owen Merton, a New Zealand-born painter who visited the Island in the early 1920s. Many people know of him through the autobiography.

Burning Fields and Cold Motion of Stillness is a view from the slopes of Scaur Hill above the property Ely’s Lodge looking across Ely’s Harbour to the open sea. Like works such as Winslow Homer’s Inland Water, it is dominated by the uncompromising line of the horizon, but unlike Homer, Merton did not seek to create an illusion of deep space.

Instead he constructed flat space, building his painting up in vertical bands of colour, stacked on each other and rising up to the top of his sheet of paper. This emphasis on the surface of the painting is a strategy that Merton could have learned in New York where he had lived since 1916, and where he had been carving out a modest place for himself on the fringes of the avant-garde. Most notably he had been well represented in a historically important exhibition of contemporary art in Philadelphia in April and May 1921. He was also taken on by three commercial galleries, the Ferargil Galleries, the New Gallery and, most importantly, the prestigious Daniel Gallery with which he was associated from 1918 to 1925.  The majority of his appearances at the Daniel were in medium (around 11 individual artists) to large (at least 24 participants) group shows. However, more significant than these rather diffuse occasions in which he could have disappeared in the crowd, was a compact show Water Colorists of Distinction, held in December 1919-January 1920 in which he was associated with only five other artists-Charles Demuth, John Marin, William and Marguerite Zorach and William Yarrow. 

Owen Merton, modest modernist, had traditional beginnings. He was born in 1887 in Christchurch, New Zealand, a city that had developed a rich musical and artistic tradition. The family environment was supportive too: his father was a musician and music teacher and his mother was a schoolteacher. Merton acquired a reputation early as a precocious draughtsman and after some study at the local art school, he travelled to England when he was still in his teens. After two years there, and two years back in New Zealand, he cut all physical ties with his homeland and returned to Europe again in 1909.

From 1909 to 1914, he studied in London and Paris under various teachers, made numerous sketching trips in and England and Europe, and met Ruth Jenkins, an American art student from New York. They married in 1914 and settled in a small town in southern France, where their first son Thomas was born. In 1916, poverty drove them across the Atlantic to Ruth’s family in New York. What we know of Owen’s paintings up to that time does not prepare us for any radical developments. His taste had been formed in a conservative, colonial, provincial environment that taught him to admire picturesque subjects in all their diversity-old shops, houses and churches, boats of all sorts and sizes, distinctive regional costumes and customs. The other side of the coin is that he was unsympathetic to the new forms of art and mocked some major paintings by Henri Matisse he saw at the 1910 Autumn Salon in Paris.

Owen Merton in the 1920s. Photo: Reproduced with permission of the Thomas Merton Study Center, Bellarmine College, Louisville, Kentucky 

Merton came to Bermuda for the first time in 1921. His wife had died in October and he may have been glad of an opportunity to distance himself from the memories of her illness and death. Or perhaps he wanted to escape the winter. Or perhaps he was just looking for new subjects to paint. His two sons weren’t a problem: their ever-obliging maternal grandparents looked after them in their home on Long Island.

Bermuda was in the air as an artist’s destination, even among the avant-garde. Among painters whom Merton could have known were Marsden Hartley who arrived in Bermuda in late December 1916, and Charles Demuth who joined him in the following February. Their visit coincided with that of the French Cubist, Albert Gleizes. Not that these artists produced the sort of romantic painting Euphemia Young Bell called for in her 1913 guidebook, Beautiful Bermuda. Demuth, for instance, and perhaps influenced by Gleizes, “extended the angular vocabulary he had introduced in his Provincetown paintings,” as American art historian Barbara Haskell has put it. 

Merton’s first visit to the Island extended to the spring of 1922. He returned later the same year and stayed until the following year. The earliest evidence of work done during that first visit is a watercolour, now in a New Zealand collection, that shows typically Bermudian buildings. It is inscribed Ruined Houses and dated January 29, 1922. It seems likely that he was based in Somerset because that part of Bermuda is depicted in all his local works. On his second visit, he settled in Somerset, where he could have most easily met Americans Evelyn and Cyril Kay Scott and their son Creighton, who had came to Bermuda in November 1921 for an extended stay. Evelyn Scott was a writer and critic. Cyril had been a medical missionary, a distinguished academic, a businessman, accountant and farmer in Brazil, and had most recently transformed himself into a writer. When Merton met them they were living on or close to Ely’s Lodge, which wealthy American friends of theirs had bought. At first the Scotts lived in rented premises, but eventually built a five-room cottage on the estate. 

During the summer of 1922 Merton returned to the U.S. and took the opportunity to show the paintings he had brought from the Island around the New York dealers. It worked: the Daniel Gallery agreed to give him a solo exhibition in April 1923. He had finally cracked that hard nut of a solo exhibition in a commercial gallery. Now travelling with son Tom, later Thomas, Owen returned to Bermuda in October 1922 on the Fort Victoria. They entered the Great Sound on October 16, and Owen pointed out where they were going to live “among the dark green cedars” in Somerset. The younger Merton’s account of their arrival in Somerset in his autobiography deserves to be quoted. “Yet it was evening before we finally got there. How quiet and empty it was, in Somerset, in the gathering dusk! Our feet padded softly in the creamy dust of the deserted road. No wind stirred the paper leaves of the banana trees, or in the oleanders. Our voices seemed loud, as we spoke. Nevertheless it was a very friendly island. Those who occasionally came by saluted us as if we were old acquaintances.’

Burning Fields and Cold Motion of Stillness is a view from Scaur Hill Photo: Courtesy of Ferner Galleries, Auckland, New Zealand 

They settled into a Somerset boarding house   The Cedars, which is mentioned in a couple of early guidebooks although at the bottom of the scale, before disappearing completely in more up-market publications. Bushell’s Bermuda Handbook for 1925 notes that it had rooms for eight guests and charged $3 a day: rates elsewhere ranged up to twice that. It still exists, a single-storey, rather rambling colonial house with a generous verandah along the front, set in spacious grounds at the end of Cedars Lane, and now painted a deep red. 

Merton spent more and more time with the Scotts and eventually moved in with them, leaving Tom for the time being at The Cedars on the ostensible grounds that it was near the school he was attending. Eventually, of course, Tom left school, joined his father and discovered a new friend in Creighton Scott, one year his junior. 

Merton was enraptured by a place where “one only lives in a world of light falling on matter” which was, he added, “all I need at present.” Light was more than ordinarily important for him and Bermuda offered a spectacular, almost explosive, opportunity to explore this aspect of his sensibility. The most passionate of Merton’s Bermuda watercolours are distinguished by their often intense, sometimes incandescent colours. 

His constant concern had been to find a firm structure for his pictures and in most of his works painted in Bermuda, the dominant constructional device is the straight horizon, sometimes interrupted by low hills, and usually placed about halfway up the picture. The broad skies are pulled down vertically, the fore- and middle-grounds are stacked up in bands, and three-dimensional illusion is sacrificed to an emphatically flat picture plane, a standard modernist device. 

These Bermuda paintings, which are of major importance in the evolution of Merton’s work and will be central to a retrospective exhibition being planned in New Zealand for June 2004, demonstrate that he had finally broken with his conservative beginnings and joined the 20th Century. It is possible that the liberating experience of life on the Island and the stimulating friendships he made there were, together, the trigger that helped him take this step. 

Trees, Red Bank and Houses Photo: Courtesy of The Fletcher Trust and John Leech Gallery, Auckland, New Zealand

In early 1923, Owen returned to New York to prepare his sole exhibition, Bermuda Paintings, at the Daniel Gallery. No copy of the exhibition catalogue is known to survive, and the only evidence available on the works displayed is contained in press reports. After the Daniel show, some of Owen’s Bermuda paintings were seen fleetingly in a solo exhibition in downtown Manhattan in early June. Other Bermuda subjects appeared in a range of group shows in New York in 1923 and 1924, including Bermuda, which was eventually bought by the Brooklyn Museum of Art. 

It has been possible to identify the subjects of several of these works. Roadway and Banks is a view looking south on Somerset Road where it cuts through the western side of Scaur Hill above Ely Lodge; Coastal Trees, Bermuda may have been painted at Somerset’s Long Bay, one of the few points where the beach is flanked directly by an area of low ground; The Road to Sky-Laughter Passing Below was painted either from somewhere near Ely’s Lodge looking across Ely’s Harbour, in which case the house on the right is Wreck House, or in Mangrove Bay, Somerset Island; Burning Fields and Cold Motion of Stillness was painted from the lower slopes of Scaur Hill. The Brooklyn Museum of Art’s Coastal Trees, Bermuda is a view from above Mangrove Bay looking northeast to Ireland Island. All of these sites are close to The Cedars and Ely’s Lodge. 

Some of the titles attached to the Bermuda paintings are unexceptional, matter-of-fact indications of place, but there are others composed in a poetical style so atypical of his 

standard practice as to demand attention for that reason alone: Whorl of Wind and Light, Climbing Trees from Departing World, The Road to Sky-Laughter Passing Below and Bastion of the Day with Assaulting Trees. 

Their genesis probably lies in Owen’s friendship with Evelyn Scott. The association of wind, trees and light in Whorl of Wind and Light, Climbing Tree from Departing World is present in a vignette in one of Scott’s novels: “In the damp cold wind […] a group of cedars were rocking massively among the clouds that swept through the grey light of the sky.” 

One of the striking features of Scot’s prose is her use of incongruity in landscape descriptions. In another of Merton’s titles Laughter Passes Below-The Road to Sky-Laughter Passing Below—and in Scott’s novel The Golden Door “night [rushes] down from the sky” “with a roar of darkness.” Elsewhere she writes of “the roar of the wind [sweeping] through the bright silence of the fields,” clouds sweeping by in “static haste,” wet fields of a “cold burning green” colour, lights burning “with a glowing stillness” and twilight rising “in a cold grey stillness.” Burning Fields and Cold Motion of Stillness combines these descriptive details.

The possibility that these titles were invented by Evelyn is both unverifiable and intriguing, but regardless of their authorship they are part of a nexus which brings together the lyrical paintings and lyrical prose of two artists working briefly in close harmony. 

From 1923 to 1928, Merton lived chiefly in the south of France, although within those years he spent several months in Algeria, made short visits to London, and even returned briefly to New York. After 1928 he was based in England, but he was stricken by serious ill health and entered a London hospital in 1929. 

Professionally, he had been slowly acquiring a solid reputation as a watercolourist, although his frequent travels worked against the development of a strong following among collectors. Apart from works included in numerous group shows, he had solo exhibitions in two prestigious galleries, New York’s Daniel Gallery in 1923 and 1925, and London’s Leicester Galleries in 1925 and 1928, but his long illness and relatively early death in 1931, at age 44, shattered the impetus he had been building up. 

He has always been remembered as a skilled watercolourist in New Zealand, where his works entered public collections as early as 1912, but otherwise—apart from one painting in the Brooklyn Museum of Art-the greater part of his output remained hidden from public view in private collections. Only relatively recently have those works begun to enter the marketplace. 

Major works from all periods of his overseas career have been attracted to New Zealand over the years, including a substantial group of Bermuda works: one of these is now in the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, another is in a major corporate collection, and the rest are in private hands.

In the Northern Hemisphere, however, he has come to the attention of a specialised public because of his more famous son. Thomas Merton’s autobiography, published as The Seven Storey Mountain in the U.S. and Elected Silence in the U.K., paints a brief and tantalising portrait of this undervalued painter.

Roger Collins is a New Zealand art historian, with a special interest in colonial New Zealand art and New Zealand-born expatriate artists. Research for this article was carried out with the assistance of a grant from the New Zealand History Research Trust Fund of the Ministry for Culture and Heritage, Wellington, New Zealand.