Laura Bernice Fenwick Martin CPE, PDCC, FIAL
(July 8, 1902-September 15, 1999)
Bernice Fenwick Martin’s lifetime traversed this country’s most formative and defining century. From her birth in 1902 in the village of Shelbourne, Ontario, to her death in Toronto at the age of ninety-seven, her life was a storied and well-travelled journey of extraordinary experiences threaded together by her singular love of art and an unwavering pursuit of creativity. And just as all good artists proffer a glimpse into their time and place, Bernice Martin’s artworks present themselves as colourful illustrations of this remarkable journey. They become pages of a visual diary written with brush and burin, recording her personal responses to moments and places that will never come again.
A loving father’s present to his three-year old daughter of a brand new pair of shiny red shoes occupied the first and most cherished memory of her life. That brilliant hue still vibrated in her memory after almost a century and was the fated spark that fired an imagination’s lifelong reverence of colour.
From a feature article on Bernice Martin in Saturday Night (January 17, 1953), we learn that the artist “revealed her [artistic] bent as early as eight years of age, when dolls remained clean and new but her little sketchbook and colors[sic] were in constant use.”
In the 1920s and 30s, Martin studied at the Ontario College of Art under J. W. Beatty and Franklin Carmichael, mentors both, who personally instructed and encouraged her. At Beatty’s funeral in 1941, she met the artist Peter Clapham Sheppard and the two remained devoted friends and sketching companions until his death in 1965. Together with her husband, Langton Martin, he too a talented draughtsman, the couple enjoyed extended trips around the world as well as an active social life that included, among others, A. Y. Jackson and Elmer Isler. Dedicated above all else to her art, Bernice Martin became an accomplished painter, watercolourist, and printmaker, having solo shows at Eaton’s College Street Fine Art Gallery, Casa Loma, and the Guild of All Arts. Her paintings were also featured in the Royal Canadian Academy exhibitions from 1945 to 1947. One of her works is in the collection of the National Gallery of Canada.
The themes in her work extol the identity and unique character of the Ontario landscape: the rustic idylls of country life; the vibrant rhythms of waterfalls and rapids; the mute and frozen charm of a winterscape; mills and harbours; floral gems; exultant Aprils; the chill of October days ablaze in hues of russet and gold. Extolled because these images were never removed from the truth --- neither by abstraction nor slavish realism --- but studied, drawn, coloured, and recorded with a genuine appreciation of beauty.
The art of Bernice Fenwick Martin and her contemporaries is becoming increasingly acclaimed at auction houses today as works by the Group of Seven become scarce or simply priced beyond the reach of most aficionados.
“I look back on my life and my painting hours were the happiest. I’d spend long hours and forget time”, she once said. “My time was always measured by the passage of light.”
Submitted by Louis Gagliardi Curator, Bernice Fenwick Martin Collection