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 Robert Newton Hurley  (1894 - 1980)

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Lived/Active: Saskatchewan/British Columbia / Canada/England      Known for: rural landscape, figure, still life, streetscene and genre painting, monotypes

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Ad Code: 3
AskART Artist
from Auction House Records.
Prairie Sunset
Artwork images are copyright of the artist or assignee
This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Robert Newton Hurley LLD (1894 – 1980)

“Mastery of the plain was the achievement of Englishman Robert Hurley. Diffident, slightly built, unlettered and untrained, Hurley was an unlikely giant killer.” Ronald Rees (1)

A prominent western Canadian painter, printmaker and draftsman, Robert Newton Hurley (AKA: R.N. Hurley) was born in Bromley-by-Bow, London, England; immigrated to Saskatoon, Saskatchewan in 1923; and died in Victoria, British Columbia, where he’d been living since 1963. Thousands of his iconic paintings of the Canadian prairies are in private and public collections. (2)

His mediums included watercolor, gouache*, acrylic, charcoal, felt pen, pencil, colored pencil, wax crayon, mixed mediums, and monotype*. His subjects included landscapes, railway tracks, telephone poles, snowscapes, farms, grain elevators, nudes, portraits, still lifes, genre*, aerial views, mountains, boats, and street scenes. His monotypes were abstractions done using found items like cloth, wire, string and mesh. His styles included Realism*, Fauvism*, Cubism*, and Semi Abstraction. His best known works are watercolor paintings of prairie views with big skies, telephone poles, and grain elevators. AskART has some excellent illustrations of his work.

“Funny, how the public go for these telephone pole studies, plus a grain elevator or two, plus a vast sky with clouds...” Robert Newton Hurley (3)

He was largely self taught and influenced by the works of John Sell Cotman and the how-to manuals The Technique of Watercolour Painting (1930 edition) by Leonard Richmond and J. Littlejohns and Water Colour Painting (1918) by Alfred W. Rich.

The only classroom training Hurley had was in the 1930s, when Ernest Lindner, then a new art instructor at the Saskatoon Technical Collegiate, showed an interest in Hurley’s art and invited him to join evening classes, discussion sessions at his home, and later to sit in on regular classes (c. 1933 – 1939). (4)

For most of his life, Hurley was a part-time painter. His regular jobs included working for the Canadian Pacific Railway and the Canadian National Railway on road gangs laying spikes; and working on farms, in lumber camps and gardening; and from 1941 to 1958, he worked as a caretaker (with some artistic duties) at the Dominion Plant Pathology Labo­ratory at the University of Saskatchewan.

He does not appear to have been very active in any artist associations, although his works were exhibited with the Manitoba Society of Artists (Winnipeg) in 1935, the Ontario Society of Artists* in 1938 and 1939, and with the Saskatoon Art Association in 1942. From the early 1930s, he exhibited frequently at the Saskatoon Exhibition and in the Saskatchewan Provincial Exhibition. His works were also included in exhibitions at the Vancouver Art Gallery (B.C.) in 1937 and 1939, the Mackenzie Art Gallery (Regina, Saskatchewan) in 1970, the National Gallery of Canada touring exhibition titled “Watercolour Painters from Saskatchewan” in 1971, the Mendal Art Gallery (Saskatoon) in 1974, and in the Mendal Art Gallery exhibition titled “Canadian Prairie Watercolour Landscape” in 1999. The Mendal Art Gallery held a retrospective of his work in 1986 accompanied by a catalogue authored by George Moppet titled "Robert Newton Hurley: A Notebook". (5)

Hurley was a very prolific artist, and he painted until he died; his lifetime output is estimated by most sources at about 7800 paintings. His works have always sold well and thus should be in thousands of private collections. His paintings were also popular official gifts presented by the province of Saskatchewan and other provincial organizations to distinguished visitors. Recipients have included Queen Elizabeth II; the Governor General of Canada Georges P. Vanier; and Geoffrey F. Fisher, Lord Archbishop of Canterbury.

According to the Canadian Heritage Information Network* and individual museum websites, there are over one hundred Hurley works in the permanent collections of Canadian museums. They include the Art Gallery of Alberta (Edmonton), the Mackenzie Art Gallery (Regina, Saskatchewan), the Mendel Art Gallery (Saskatoon, Saskatchewan), the Moose Jaw Museum & Art Gallery (Saskatchewan), the Nickle Arts Museum (Calgary, Alberta), the Owens Art Gallery (Sackville, N.B.), the University of Lethbridge Art Gallery (Lethbridge, Alberta), the Vancouver Art Gallery (B.C.), and the Winnipeg Art Gallery (Manitoba).

His awards and honors include many prizes at the Saskatoon Exhibitions and the Saskat­chewan Provincial Exhibitions he also received an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from the University of Regina in 1975.
(1.1) Source: Page 47 Land of Earth and Sky: Landscape Painting of Western Canada (see AskART book references).

(1.2) The terms “plain” or “Great Plains” are used in the United States, but rarely in Canada. There the terms “prairie” or “the Prairies” are more commonly used to refer to the broad expanse of flat land in the interior of North America, on the Canadian side of the 49th parallel. MDS

(2.1) Hurley worked for the Canadian Pacific Railway, the Canadian National Railway, on farms, and in lumber camps when he first came to Canada, often he lived outside of Saskatoon, but it was always a sort of home base and it became his principle home in 1930. He lived there until 1963. Source: Sky Painter: The Story of Robert Newton Hurley (see AskART book references).

(2.2) During World War I, Hurley served in France in a non combat role as part of the Auxiliary Army for three months in 1915; he later served in Britain as a soldier in the 1st Suffolk Regiment from 1917 to 1920. Source: Ibid.

(3) Source: Page 49 Land of Earth and Sky: Landscape Painting of Western Canada (see AskART book references).

(4) Please note: All artists mentioned in this biography have their own pages in AskART.

(5) The Collector’s Dictionary notes Hurley was a member of the Federation of Canadian Artists (FCA) and the Saskatoon Art Association (SAA). This is very likely, since Ernest Lindner, a Hurley mentor, was co-founder (reviver) of the SAA (c.1933) and it in turn was a member of the FCA . But as noted above, Hurley’s works sold briskly and he may not have been as dependent on involvement with these organizations, or their sponsored shows, in order to sell his paintings as were other artists. Source: Saskatchewan Council for Archives and Archivists.

Biographical Index of Artists in Canada (2003), by Evelyn de Rostaing McMann (see AskART book references)
The Collector's Dictionary of Canadian Artists at Auction (2001), by Anthony R. Westbridge and Diana L. Bodnar (see AskART book references)
The Collected Essays and Criticism: Modernism with a Vengeance, 1957 – 1969 (1995), by Clement Greenberg (see AskART book references)
Art and Architecture in Canada (1991), by Loren R. Lerner and Mary F. Williamson (see AskART book references)
New and Naked Land: Making the Prairies Home (1988), by Ronald Rees (see AskART book references)
Land of Earth and Sky: Landscape Painting of Western Canada (1984), by Ronald Rees (see AskART book references)
A Dictionary of Canadian Artists (1974), by Colin S. MacDonald (see AskART book references)
Sky Painter: The Story of Robert Newton Hurley (1973), by Jean Christina McLear Swanson (see AskART book references)
Canadian Heritage Information Network*
Saskatchewan Archival Information Network
Saskatchewan Council for Archives and Archivists
University of Regina (by phone call to Jay Branch, External Relations)
The Encyclopedia of Saskatchewan (online)
Art Gallery of Ontario (catalogue summaries online)

* For more in-depth information about these terms and others, see Glossary

Prepared and contributed by M.D. Silverbrooke.

** If you discover credit omissions or have additional information to add, please let us know at
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