09 May 2011

Small Canadian art treasure in a rubbish skip

The Earthly Paradise blog described a super 2011 exhibition at the Art Gallery of Alberta which focused on the Nature and Spirit: Emily Carr's Coastal Landscapes. In response, I admitted that my total knowledge of Canadian art was limited to The Group of Seven (originally Franklin Carmichael, Lawren Harris, AY Jackson, Franz Johnston, Arthur Lismer, JE MacDonald and Frederick Varley), Emily Carr and some World War One artists who overlapped membership with the Group of Seven.

Only three weeks later I was watching an antiques programme on tv called Flog It (I know, I know *sigh*). One of the experts, James Lewis, was discussing a Canadian artist who had been establishing his art career straight after WW1 and was associated with the Group of Seven. I pricked up my ears and squinted at the small oil painting that had been found in a rubbish skip in Scotland. The painting was by Robert Wakeham Pilot (1898-1967) and despite its deplorable storage site, seemed to be in good condition.

James Lewis examining the Robert Pilot painting, presented at the Flog It programme, 2009

So who was Robert Pilot? He was born in Newfoundland in 1898 and moved to Montreal with his mother and his step-father (the artist Maurice Cullen) when he was just a lad. Despite there being no money in the family, he was able to study figure drawing at the Royal Canadian Academy and landscape painting with an experienced artist.

After serving in the army overseas in WW1, Pilot returned to Montreal and was invited to participate in the first Group of Seven exhibition in 1920. This was his first opportunity. His second opportunity came when some generous soul paid for the young artist to study in Paris. There he studied at the Academie Julian in 1920, was elected a member of the Salon National des Beaux-Arts and exhibited in the Paris Salon in 1922. It seems very likely that if he wasn’t a convinced impressionist before 1920, the Canadian impressionist style that Pilot preferred was moulded by his French experience.

I cannot find the name of the painting presented at the Flog It programme, nor its date. Canadian Impressionists are famed for the depiction of snow with the light shimmering on ice and snow. Perhaps a viewer closely examining the small painting would be able to see the Chateau Frontenac in the distance in Quebec City, the city lights reflected in the ice and water. Perhaps not.  In any case, I have given another example of Robert Pilot's work (Twilight at Levis, 1933) in the photo below.

Back home in Canada Robert Pilot joined the Royal Canadian Academy, giving the public more opportunities to see his work. These days he is described as a close contemporary-colleague of the Group of Seven, but I would be interested to know how much Pilot shared studios, exhibitions, sales and publications with the more famous Group back in the 1920s and 30s.

The second half of his career was successful, artistically, academically and organisationally. He was elected president of the Royal Canadian Academy in 1952. Pilot died in 1967, and within a short time, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts mounted a fine retrospective exhibition to honour Pilot’s life.

Pilot, Twilight at Levis, 1933, 76 x 102 cm. The painting was first exhibited at the Royal Canadian Academy and was then bought by the National Gallery of Canada

Skips are, by definition, full of waste products. Nonetheless people can often find useful material in them, suitable for recycling. However who knew about post-WW1 Canadian oil paintings? The successful bidder at Flog It bought the Robert Pilot painting for £1900!


Billback said...

My wife found a silver bowl in a skip. The hall marks were rubbed, but she could still read the date and maker's mark. The owners didn't like the bowl any more, or they didn't know it was silver.

Nicholas V. said...

It's amazing what people will throw out because they don't like it, or because it's out of fashion, or because it clashes with the new drapes, or because the horrible Aunt Agatha gave it to them...
I'm all for garage sales and donating things to charity, or having a "give-away party"...
I was not aware of this artist, but his works I found on the web are delightful!

Hels said...

Bill and Nicholas

Mostly I think we are ripped off by auction houses and antique dealers. But just very occasionally we get lucky eg digging up a silver bowl in a skip or finding piece of 19th century porcelain when clearing out granny's attic.

I have a whole theory about taste. Your own taste is modern and cutting edge.
Your parents' taste was a bit old fashioned.
Your grandparents' taste was heavy and horrible.
But your great grandparents' taste was remarkably modern and.. well... as elegant as your own.

I asked my sons to go through my beloved and much treasured antiques when I was writing my will last time. They told me, very gently, to bequeath my treasures to the National Gallery since they thought my taste sucked.

Jane and Lance Hattatt said...

Hello Helen:
What a very fascinating story. One is left wondering at the wisdom of people who consign objects of beauty, which may not necessarily be of great value, to the rubbish bins.

Hels said...

Jane and Lance,

isn't that the truth!

And consider the opposite as well i.e people who consign objects of great value, which they may think are unattractive, to the rubbish bins.

One of the great joys of blogging, and of reading other peoples' blogs, is that we come across these terrific stories :) I saw the Canadian painting story on tv in the wee small hours and would have ignored it totally, except that I was "on alert" from The Earthly Paradise blog.

ChrisJ said...

I hadn't heard of him. I love the painting you chose.
My mom often tells me how lucky I will be when I get to have all her treasures. I just smile and nod!

Hels said...

I hadn't heard of Robert Pilot either and I am reasonably well educated in art history.

So the National Gallery of Canada should mount a touring exhibition of at least the Group of Seven and their contemporaries to travel to Britain, Australia, New Zealand etc.

World War One artists from the old British Empire are fascinating modern audiences nowadays - I have been to two very fine exhibitions in Melbourne and Canberra.

Krissy Brady | Muskoka Autumn Studio Tour said...

What an amazing story! I love shows that share the value of a found item, though it saddens me sometimes to think of the many lost items that have been thrown out all for the sake of "new" and "modern."

Hels said...

I love those programmes as well. Although we cannot touch the objects or hold them up to the light, I think the discussion by expert antique dealers spreads the information beyond the hallowed halls of auction rooms and galleries.

Emm said...

It is so strange, I know all too well that feeling of simply wanting to get rid of a grimy old painting that's been hanging on your wall for decades. We just never know that they could be valuable!!!

Hels said...

quite right! I know exactly what you are saying.

40 years ago my mother in law gave me a bag of jewellery that I assumed was cheap and cheerful. I have never worn them because they are not my taste at all, but I can't give them away because there just MIGHT be something of value in there.

Hels said...

I have been once again looking for paintings Robert Wakeham Pilot, and wondered why they all seemed to be very small (20-40 cms long). Perhaps a Canadian art historian blogger can explain why Pilot's shimmery, atmospheric, watery scenes were not painted on more monumental canvases.

rhu said...

I am the great niece of Robert Pilot and what the article failed to report is the fact that Pilot's widowed mother married Maurice Cullen. Thus began Robert's journey into the world of Impressionist Art. Stepfather, instructor and the reason they moved to Paris. If you are interested further, there is wealth of information on Cullen and it fills out the person of Pilot for you.

Warm regards,

Hels said...


many thanks and you are quite right, I easily found material on Maurice Cullen 1866-1934. I particularly like the fact that he exhibited with important organisations like the Royal Canadian Academy and in the Spring Exhibitions of the Art Association of Montreal.

I will add the family relationhip to the post straight away.

Skip Hire Altrincham said...

Very interesting post, thanks for sharing.

Gabrielle Pilot said...

May I add to all your comments about the enormously talented artist Robert Wakeham Pilot that you speak of: I married his son, Wakeham Dawes Pilot the year before his father died. We are putting together memorabilia and photographs of Pilot paintings we inherited,for a very special evening, the major of Westmount(Quebec) is honouring him,
May 3, 2017.
He was a very modest, shy gentleman whose many many paintings were kept privately in all the wealthy Westmount homes: for security reasons this was not known publicly. As was mentioned by Barbara, a great niece, (would love to know who she is) of Robert Pilot was taught by his stepfather, Maurice Cullen. He was asked to join the Group Of Seven but preferred & chose Quebec city & Montreal.
signed with pleasure, Gabrielle

Hels said...


bless your heart. Now I must examine the Group of Seven art principles and politics all over again.

The great thing for the artist about private sales is that he is properly paid for his hard work. The miserable thing for us about private sales is that the art is virtually locked away from the rest of the world.

If families are prepared to open their treasures for one night (3rd May 2017), perhaps they would be prepared to mount a proper exhibition in a great gallery. Of course the curators of the public gallery would have to offer up their first-borns as security, but it would be worth it.

Hels said...

Skip Hire

It took me five years, but finally I found your businessname/nickname hilarious :)