For me, it all began with our honeymoon. Sandy had lobbied for a trip to the mid-Atlantic island of Bermuda, with its pink sand beaches, oleander-lined lanes, and white-roofed pastel cottages. We were immediately beguiled, and we were not alone in our fascination. Earlier visitors, harried by North American life, had long regarded Bermuda as “the isles of rest.” Mark Twain travelled there seven times, telling his friends, “You go to heaven if you want to — I’d druther stay here.” Winslow Homer revelled in the verdant territory’s sapphire seas. And Princess Louise, the bohemian wife of Canada’s fourth governor general, fled Ottawa’s cold for “Nature’s Fairyland” in 1883. Even Mackenzie King extolled Bermuda’s charm, writing in his diary that it was “Italy without smells and dirt.”
My wife and I have since become avid Bermudaphiles, filling our home with books and memorabilia that evoke the place. Our passion for Bermudiana has also prompted us to search for island-inspired art: Princess Louise’s exquisite watercolours are at the National Gallery, we now know. Bermuda canvases by Jack Bush, John Lyman, André Biéler, Yvonne McKague Housser, and Isabel McLaughlin adorn other Canadian collections.
Then one day, while I was browsing the internet for research leads, my eye happened upon the words “Bermuda” and “John Lyman” in a Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec finding aid. My curiosity was piqued. The son of a American pharmaceutical manufacturer in Montreal’s Square Mile, John Goodwin Lyman was born in 1886. As an adolescent, he refused a mercantile career and turned to art. In Paris, he studied at Matisse’s atelier and embraced the postimpressionist idiom.
Lyman’s hometown, however, was not ready for postimpressionism. When he mounted his first show there in 1913, the critics recoiled. His vivid colours and sparse contours offended their predilection for cows in meadows. Lyman, they wrote, was no better than “a four-year-old boy with a box of crayons.” The artist was shattered. He compounded his apostasy by marrying a beautiful Catholic Québécoise, Corinne St. Pierre.
A sympathetic uncle, James Morgan, invited the couple to Southlands, his Bermuda winter home. There they perched for five years, after which Lyman emerged as a rejuvenated modernist. He returned to Europe, painting in France and North Africa. In the 1930s, he went back to Montreal to proselytize for modernism, eventually becoming head of McGill’s art department. He died in Barbados in 1967.
How did Bermuda fit into this transformation? The BANQ collection offered several answers. Lyman’s letters to his father detailed his modernist turn, prompted by the salubrious clime. (His portrait of Corinne languidly lying on the beach shaded by a parasol would have pleased Matisse.) The archives also revealed Lyman’s new-found respect for tradition, evident in a neatly typed manuscript on the “old Bermudas.”
Lyman’s antiquarianism was nurtured by prowling floral lanes on a bicycle with sketchbook and box camera in hand. He marvelled at the coral-stone houses that had evolved out of local materials and homegrown skills over three centuries. This he called “bred-in-the-bone” architecture, so strikingly different from “that Frankenstein of existing styles” in concrete elsewhere. Lyman meticulously catalogued Bermuda’s furniture, fashioned out of local cedar and exotic woods brought back by island seafarers. In the evenings, he read his way through the place’s history.
All this effort resulted in a forgotten manuscript, the first authoritative investigation of the island’s unique architectural tradition. Read alongside Lyman’s modernist canvases, it reveals a critical dualism: an ability to simultaneously appreciate both the old and the new in civilization.
Lyman peddled his manuscript in New York, but postwar austerity and the slim market for Bermuda books cooled publishers’ response. So it slumbered in his archive. After I first encountered those pages, I excitedly wrote an article in the magazine The Bermudian. The response was gratifying. What Lyman had observed immediately appealed to the Bermudian sense of distinctiveness. The archeologist Edward Harris and the respected local historian Linda Abend then joined me to give Lyman further recognition. In this, we collaborated with other experts from Colonial Williamsburg and the Canadian art world. Together, we set Lyman’s pioneering chronicle in the context of modern scholarship. And this year, at last, he became a published author.
Duncan McDowall is emeritus University Historian at Queen’s University. He is also a co-editor of John Lyman’s The Old Bermudas.