Open Secrets: Gossip and the Reframing of a Canadian Painting Dynasty

Mary Pratt, "Girl in a Wicker Chair," 1978. Private Collection.
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The October 12, 2019, edition of CBC Radio’s “Weekend AM Newfoundland with Heather Barrett” begins with a Thanksgiving-themed story about Newfoundland’s love of the hot turkey sandwich, followed by an interview with Carol Bishop-Gwyn, author of a new unauthorized biography of the well-known East Coast painter-spouses Mary and Christopher Pratt. For the first story, reporter Jonny Hodder goes to the Sweet Newfie Kitchen in Mount Pearl where the owner Jaime Ryan tells him that her restaurant prepares “two ginormous turkeys every single day,” up to 70 or 80 pounds of meat, and “at least 100 litres of gravy a week.”

Bishop-Gwyn is then reached by phone at her home in Toronto with some gory details of her own. Her book, Art and Rivalry: The Marriage of Mary and Christopher Pratt, “is raising a few eyebrows” due to its warts-and-all portrait of a troubled marriage between two beloved painters. “The world that both the Pratts have moved in is in many ways small,” says Barrett, “the creative world, the intellectual world not only in Newfoundland but in Canada – so why stir that world up?” Bishop-Gwyn explains that she had been visiting the Pratts every year with her husband, Richard Gwyn, until Mary’s recent passing. As a biographer, not an art historian, Bishop-Gwyn was intrigued, but also confused about the Pratts’ relationship, because what she had heard from the Pratts themselves didn’t match what had been presented in the media. When Barrett asks Bishop-Gwyn why it was so important to “dig into” Christopher’s “philandering” and the competition between the spouses, Bishop-Gwyn replies: “I think what you’re saying is, ‘Why be intrusive?’ It’s tasteless or perhaps something that should be left alone? They’ve always been pretty available to the media.” Barrett concludes by thanking Bishop-Gwyn for the “frank insight into [the Pratts’] lives” to which Bishop-Gwyn says, “Yes, it is, and I hope people understand that I wasn’t trying to do it in any kind of prurient way. I wrote it as I thought it was.”

Mary Pratt, “This is Donna,” 1987. Collection of The Beaverbrook Art Gallery.

The exchange felt not unlike an episode of Road to Avonlea in which Aunt Hetty gets a dressing down for publishing something scandalous about prominent local townsfolk. Art and Rivalry is not perfect. It is sprinkled with name misspellings, missing attributions, and factual inaccuracies (Mary Pratt’s father Bill West graduated from Harvard, not Yale, for instance). This casts doubt on Bishop-Gwyn’s more audacious claims. What is not mentioned in the CBC interview, however, is that Bishop-Gwyn has nonetheless given us permission to speak of essential biographical information never before publicly disclosed to this extent, which may lead to a better understanding of the work of two of Canada’s most popular painters. Not incidentally, this work has largely been canonized as quaint, regional, quiet, domestic. It turns out gossip, if that is what you call it, can have an art-critical function.

In 1955, Mary West began dating Christopher Pratt. They had been in the same first-year English class at Mount Allison University in Sackville, New Brunswick. She was studying art and he was pre-med, but he wanted to study art, and she encouraged him. They were both from distinguished families, his from St. John’s, Newfoundland, and hers from Fredericton, New Brunswick. Their backgrounds, each defined by regional modulations of white, Christian, colonial propriety, would inform their lives and works in important ways. If Art and Rivalry is about sexual secrets, it is also about the thin, related façade of what was once called the merchant class.

We already know all of this through what has been told to us about the Pratts – who, as Bishop-Gwyn pointed out to Barrett, have offered much to the media themselves, each in their own chatty, yarn-spinning, and at times contradictory ways. We know, for instance, that Christopher and Mary got hitched and then, after Christopher’s brief stint studying at the Glasgow School of Art, returned to Mount Allison to finish their schooling. This is where faculty member Lawren P. Harris made special room for Christopher but infamously told Mary, at that point a mother, “Now you have to understand, in a family of painters, there can only be one painter, and in your family, it’s Christopher.” We know that the Pratts eventually moved to Newfoundland by the Salmonier river, where Christopher’s parents set him up in “the Murray house,” a notable local manor that had, at that point, devolved into a fishing outpost. Christopher began painting fulltime, with Mary keeping house and raising what quickly became four children.

We know the story of Christopher’s steady rise to success as a realist painter, his cold, geometrically precise style making him an eventual peer of his teacher Alex Colville, while Mary’s success would not, because of sexism, come until later. We know how to compare Christopher’s and Mary’s styles in the context of second-wave feminism and gender theory. Mary had to paint in the off hours, and while Christopher encouraged her to paint from photographic slides, her style was different: she used small sable brushes and no gridding to make still-lifes of things like jam jars and raw meat, suffused with a masterfully captured light that she would repeatedly call “erotic.” We know that many male critics, such as John Bentley Mays who said that Mary worked “in a queasily comfy middle range of domesticity,” got it horribly wrong – that, like Emily Dickinson, Virginia Woolf, and Alice Munro (three of whose books featured Mary’s art on the cover), Mary Pratt revealed a power and a violence contained in spaces and moments typically coded as feminine.

Mary Pratt, “Blue Bath Water,” 1983. Collection of Jennifer Wells Schenkman.

We also know about Donna Meaney, because both Mary and Christopher have portrayed her in their work. But up to this point Christopher’s relationships with Meaney and, allegedly, some of his other teenaged models have been, to use a Munro phrase, open secrets. Christopher Pratt and Donna Meaney were having sex. If Bishop-Gwyn’s bluntness in relating this is startling, it is no more startling than the bluntness both Pratts used, in different ways, in their depictions of Meaney.

Meaney first came to the Pratts as a nanny. After crowning her Valentine Queen at a local sock hop, Mary hired Donna because Mary’s art career was taking off and she could no longer manage the household by herself. There are several periods of Donna’s interaction with the Pratts, from the late 1960s to the early 1980s. Bishop-Gwyn writes with certainty that Mary knew and was initially troubled by the sex Donna and Christopher were having. This remains disputed, though the two women later became friends. (Through the decades, Donna would continue to send Mary a fruitcake at Christmas.) In something out of an Edward Albee play or a Muriel Spark novel, Christopher gave Mary slides of photos he had taken of Donna, which Mary painted. Later, when Donna returned to the Pratts, the spouses would both participate in taking photographs of her. Mary stage-directed her own shoots, having Donna, nude or in underwear, put on her nightgown or play with her toiletries.

Mary Pratt, “Donna with Powder Puff,” 1985. Private collection.

Art and Rivalry is a trade memoir, not a critical study, but it compels us to call Mary’s Donna paintings what they are: a major body of work. And unlike any major bodies of work by celebrated Canadian painters, it’s a record of a female artist looking at her husband looking at his mistress, while simultaneously identifying with her, and then attempting to repossess, re-gaze her. Mary is not commonly acclaimed for painting figures, although she did – and Donna was the one she painted most. This fixation helps us understand Mary’s more renowned still-lifes, such as early works The Bed (an unmade bed) and Supper Table (a mess of dinner leftovers). These are not just epiphanies of the everyday. They are part of Mary’s interest in showing what a so-called housewife of her stature was, at the time, not supposed to show. This is the fundamental perversion of Mary Pratt, a sort of merchant-class flasher who took pleasure in exposing things propriety forbade from the visual realm.

Art and Rivalry’s effect on Christopher is less flattering. His models were, Bishop-Gwyn writes, of-age, but, like Margaret Sinclair when she met Pierre Eliot Trudeau, they occupied a grey area that would not be acceptable today, legally or otherwise. Bishop-Gwyn’s is a caricature from pop psychology. She introduces Christopher’s predilection for young girls in concert with his predilection for boats. He collected and painted both, flexing his privilege as an esteemed local citizen to do so. His boats and his models allowed him to escape his domestic situation, which he nonetheless anxiously projected onto these things, naming one boat Proud Mary, another Dora Maar. (Picasso was one of Christopher’s problematic faves.) Wearing clean shirts ironed just-so by his wife, Christopher picked up the girls and brought them to his studio where he turned up the heat, played Beatles records, and got them to undress for money. The girls’ names were divulged in his paintings’ titles: Sheila, Bride, Marion, Diane, Bernadette, and yes, Donna. This is Bishop-Gwyn’s dark, Canadian-art version of “Mambo Number Five.” It also suggests something from the US literary tradition, from Poe, or Nabokov: a straight-white-male artist whose first lover (“Tannie”) died young, got him stuck in boyhood and duly obsessed with virginal females. Under Christopher’s mature brush, these females would comprise a haunted menagerie of painted mannequins.

Art and Rivalry accordingly reads like cinema (I have already cast the movie in my head), with the attendant flatness and motion required by cinematic plot. Some sections feel boiled down for the sake of melodrama. Particularly suspicious is Bishop-Gwyn’s creation of rivalries between Mary Pratt and other women. Of Mary and the gallerist Mira Godard, Bishop-Gwyn writes, “they would never like each other. Mary believed Mira was ‘enthralled’ with her husband.” This is old-fashioned misogyny (the suggestion that a partnered woman is threatened by any other woman her partner might encounter). It also can’t be entirely true, for Godard represented Mary, supported her, was her business partner. A late twist in Art and Rivalry is the appearance of Jeanette Meehan, Christopher’s under-painter, who would enter into a long-term relationship with him and be one of the catalysts for the Pratts’ separation. It is quite possible that in the mid-1980s, when Mary was painting her most striking Donna paintings, she had Jeanette in mind. Writes Bishop-Gwyn: “Mary herself simply could not believe that this simple outport girl [i.e., Jeanette] with so little formal education, could usurp her place in Christopher’s life.” Bishop-Gwyn later refers to Kenneth J. Harvey’s 2018 documentary about Christopher, in which Mary says of Jeanette, with comic audacity, “She was ignorant, she didn’t know from nothing, but she was perfect for Christopher.” What Bishop-Gwyn doesn’t mention is that Jeanette herself is in the documentary, and says of Mary, “She treated me very well … I guess being women we adjust to things.” Ambiguity defines life’s complexities; for Bishop-Gwyn, it slows the story down.

Mary Pratt, “Cold Cream, 1983. Collection of The Beaverbrook Art Gallery.

Voices of Christopher’s former models who are not Jeanette, including Donna Meaney, are markedly absent from Art and Rivalry. Of Meaney, Bishop-Gwyn writes, “Imagine an outport teenager’s delight at being seen speeding through her village in the passenger seat of a sports car alongside a famous artist.” That there is surely more to Meaney’s experience (however reticent she has been to speak openly of it) makes the characterization not just unsatisfying but tacky. Another of Christopher’s models is initially referred to by Bishop-Gwyn only as “Brenda,” a young clerk, we are told, employed by Christopher who “stepped in to pose nude” for his 1984 painting Girl in a Spare Room. Bishop-Gwyn then insinuates they had sex by immediately following this with a quote from critic Lawrence Sabbath: “One has the impression that both model and artist have crossed thresholds and come to terms, as they should, with the situation and its sexual implications.” Only the index confirms that this “Brenda” is Brenda Power, the Pratts’ longtime administrative assistant, whose full name is mentioned once in the book’s final chapter. If Bishop-Gwyn has implicitly accused Christopher of objectifying his models, she has done rather the same.

And so it is that Art and Rivalry is only the start of telling more nuanced stories about the Pratts’ lives, and about other Canadian artists who, like the confessional US poets or the Bloomsbury group, made work that invited biographical prying. The Pratts are part of a tradition in which lives are laid bare, with moral risk, for the sake of art. As detailed in a recent issue of the New York Review of Books, the poet Elizabeth Bishop once wrote to fellow poet and friend Robert Lowell in response to his non-consensual use of letters written to him by his then-wife, Elizabeth Hardwick: “One can use one’s life as material – one does, anyway – but these letters – aren’t you violating a trust? IF you were given permission – IF you hadn’t changed them … etc. But art just isn’t worth that much.” If we can now put this question and its subsequent accusation to Mary and Christopher Pratt, Bishop-Gwyn’s work is successfully, and rather thrillingly, done.

 

Editor’s note: a previous version of this piece featured a misleading claim about Blake Gopnik’s writing on Mary Pratt. His quote was taken out of context by Carol Bishop-Gwyn, and repeated in this piece. Together with the author we decided to remove his quote. We apologize for the error. 

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