A German Spy (or Artist) in Newfoundland?

Archival Moment

May 22, 1915

“Capture, transform and annihilate that sterile land of Newfoundland”

Photo Credit: The Rooms Provincial Archives: A 49-93; Rockwell Kent Cottage at Landfall, Brigus

Photo Credit: The Rooms Provincial Archives: A 49-93; Rockwell Kent Cottage at Landfall, Brigus

The celebrated American artist Rockwell Kent made his first visit to Newfoundland in 1910 visiting the Burin Peninsula with the hope of finding a place to establish an art school. In 1914, Kent returned to Newfoundland settling with his wife and children in the historic town of Brigus.

Kent was a big personality, in a small town, making it inevitable that the residents would be interested in their new neighbor. They were not amused with what they were witnessing. With anti German sentiment rising as World War I approached, Kent who had studied as a youth in Germany cavorted about the town singing German tunes and extolling the virtues of German culture.

There was also the matter of a very large order of eight tons of coal that he had ordered and purchased for his winter’s supply. To pour salt into the wound of rumor no locals were admitted to his studio that remained locked with a sign that read “CHART ROOM — WIRELESS STATION — BOMB SHOP.” The last straw was that he painted a German eagle underneath the sign.

The locals concluded that the coal was for German submarines that were lurking in the waters off Newfoundland and his studio was definitely a German spy station passing on naval intelligence to his German friends!

He had to go!!  The government of the day quietly investigated sending police constables to Brigus to interview him. Kent was not happy with the investigation. He wrote to Governor Davidson at Government House in St. John’s stating:

“if an investigation had been conducted by men of probity and understanding, as I from the beginning have demanded, instead of by half illiterate constables, themselves of the mob, it is impossible that I would now be leaving this country”

There were few who had sympathy for him. In accordance with the decree of the government he was compelled to depart Newfoundland on the steamer “Florizel” in 1915.

Not happy with the order to leave Newfoundland he took several parting shots at the people of Brigus and the people of Newfoundland generally. One was in a letter; the other was in a painting.

In a letter to the journal The New Republic on 22 May 1915 one of the most influential liberal magazines in the United States he wrote that he hoped some German would “capture, transform and annihilate that sterile land” of Newfoundland.

The painting that best reflects his frustration with Newfoundland is House of Dread. The painting depicts a drab house with a woman falling from a window and a man below hunched against the wall. Kent said of the painting “It is ourselves in Newfoundland, our hidden but prevailing misery revealed.”

One would think that this would have been the last of this troublesome painter but in 1967 Joseph Robert Smallwood, the Premier of Newfoundland and an admirer of Kent’s work decided to try and make amends. He wrote to him:

“I certainly would not blame you (Rockwell Kent) if you felt nothing but revulsion at the thought of Newfoundland and yet from all I have ever read of yours, and heard about you from mutual friends, I would truly be surprised if you had not taken it all with good humour … How can Newfoundland show her regard for you? …Would you come back here? Would you be this government’s guest on a visit back to Newfoundland, including Brigus? … Please forgive us for past injuries, and please be magnanimous enough to be our guest some time at your convenience …”

In July 1968 Kent did return to Newfoundland as a guest of the Newfoundland Premier. During his visit he was the toast of the town with the Premier being profuse in his apologies for the treatment that he had been given in 1915 and hosting a grand luncheon with several hundred guests. Kent seemed to be pleased with the reconciliation. In appreciation in 1968 he published a book, After Long Years that included a number of drawings from his time in Brigus. He dedicated the book to his new friend Joseph R. Smallwood.

The house that Kent made his home in Brigus was in in the area of Brigus called The Battery, The house, known today as the Kent Cottage at Landfall. The Rooms Provincial Art Gallery Division and Canada Council for the Arts, supports a series of summer Artist-in-Residence programs at the house. Since 2005, The Rooms and Landfall Trust have partnered to annually co-sponsor a summer Kent Cottage resident artist. In 2008, the Trust started an annual writer’s residence program at the Cottage.

Recommended Archival Collection: What do we have in the ‘Rooms Archives’  on Rockwell Kent?  Type his name in the search bar here: http://gencat1.eloquent-systems.com/webcat/request/DoMenuRequest?SystemName=The+Rooms+Public&UserName=wa+public&Password=&TemplateProcessID=6000_3355&bCachable=1&MenuName=The+Rooms+Archives

Recommended Archival Collection: The Rooms Provincial Archives, GN 1/10/0 Box 2. Letter’s of Rockwell Kent to Sir Walter Davidson, 1915.

Recommended Web Site: Landfall Trust of Brigus, Newfoundland and Labrador  http://www.landfalltrust.org/