Newton Brett - A Notable Western Canadian Artist
To the reader: This biography of the artist was prepared by his grandson, in consultation with Brett's daughter. Last updated April 7, 2020.
Newton P. Brett (1889 – 1969) was a Canadian painter and commercial artist who lived and worked in Winnipeg, Manitoba.
In his own time, Brett was a well-known regional painter of both landscapes and portraits, though he never received the wider recognition of his Winnipeg colleagues, L.L. Fitzgerald, Charles Comfort, Fritz Brandtner, and W.J. Phillips. As remembered by his daughter, Joanne Brett Sibley, he was a quiet, gentle man, modest perhaps to a fault: “His whole life was painting, if not doing it, thinking always about his next subject and painting it.”[i]
Brett’s domestic life was conventional and outwardly placid, a marked contrast to the tumultuous backdrop of his era: two world wars, the greatest depression of the 20th century, and the severe drought of the 1930’s that ruined many farmers and transformed parts of the northern plains into a dustbowl. He married Flora A. Batters in 1922.[ii] Two children followed, Joanne and Peter. He died in Winnipeg on July 23, 1969, just short of his 80th birthday.[iii]
Newton Brett continued to paint until the end. After his death, his unsold work either went into storage or was distributed among his children and grandchildren. It has received little public exposure since.[iv]
The best of Brett’s paintings are in a distinctive, individual style, with a strong connection to the work of the Group of Seven and other important Canadian painters of the early to middle years of the 20th century.
An example of Brett's later style applied to a northern forest scene. c. 1950 - 1969
Born in Manitoba on August 14, 1889, Newton Percival Brett was raised on a farm close to Dugald, in the rural municipality of Springfield, east of Winnipeg.[v] He was one of nine children. His father and mother were farmers of mainly Irish and Scottish descent.[vi]
Brett once remarked that from quite a young age his great goal in life was to get off the farm.[vii] He was fortunate that his father, William, encouraged this desire by promising to pay for his higher education.[viii] Brett’s earliest training as an artist took place in Winnipeg, probably during the period 1905 to 1910.[ix] The dates are uncertain, as are the teachers and institutions where he studied. What can be said is that by the time he arrived in Winnipeg, the city was undergoing a considerable cultural and artistic awakening. The Canadian Pacific Railway had been completed in 1885, making Winnipeg a key transportation hub, and over the following 30 years this small outpost, created by the fur trade, exploded into a bustling metropolis. By the time Brett was in his teens, Winnipeg was the third largest Canadian city.[x] The Winnipeg Art Society formed in 1886,[xi] the Manitoba Society of Artists in 1902,[xii] and the Western Association of Artists in 1908,[xiii] indicating that there were competent painters in the region during that period, who could supply basic fine arts training. One example is Lucille McArthur (1844-1902) who studied in Europe and exhibited at the Paris Salon.[xiv] The Winnipeg Museum of Fine Arts opened in 1912.[xv]
Lightning and Horses, an early painting inspired by Brett's childhood on the farm in Dugald.
After studying in Winnipeg, and before the First World War, Brett went to the much larger city of Chicago, where he attended the Art Institute of Chicago.[xvi] It is likely that here, for the first time, he saw works by great artists, both historical and contemporary. In particular, he may have taken in the impressive 1911 exhibition by the Spanish painter, Joaquin Sorolla, who was at that time one of the most celebrated living European painters.[xvii] According to Brett’s daughter, Joanne Brett Sibley, he often expressed great admiration for Sorolla.[xviii] It is also possible that Brett studied at the Art Students League in New York, although the evidence for this is anecdotal and unconfirmed.[xix]
The commercial art and graphic design firm, Brigdens of Winnipeg Ltd., opened in 1914.[xx] Brett was back in Winnipeg by that time and was on the staff as a commercial artist the same year. He was to stay with Brigdens for his entire professional career.[xxi] The semi-annual Eaton’s catalogue was a large part of Brigden’s Winnipeg business and its production was a massive undertaking requiring an assembly-line approach and the talents of as many as 80 artists. Brett was known for specialising in the heads and hands of the fashion figures,[xxii] a talent he also put to use in a parallel career as a portrait painter. He rose through the ranks of Brigdens to become Fashion Art Director[xxiii], and he was still working in 1956 when Arnold Brigden, the manager of the firm, retired.[xxiv] By 1961, Brett had retired, and he devoted the remaining years of his life to painting.[xxv]
Newton Brett sitting at the back, far left, in the Brigdens of Winnipeg Ltd. studio, 1916.
Photo courtesy of National Archives of Canada, Charles Comfort Collection. PA-207495
Career as an Artist
Brett was fortunate that the owners and managers of Brigdens Limited believed strongly in the role of visual artists in the cultural development of Canada. Fred Brigden Sr., who had started the firm in Toronto, was much influenced by the great 19th century art critic and social reformer, John Ruskin, whom he had studied under at the London Working Men’s College. Brigden Sr. encouraged his employees to continue with their fine-art training and practice outside their commercial work for the company. And this corporate philosophy of self-improvement and a belief in the fundamental importance of the visual arts carried on after Brigden Sr. had passed the management of the firm on to his son, Fred Jr., and nephew, Arnold.[xxvi]
Charles Comfort and Fritz Brandtner were two of Brett’s contemporary colleagues at Brigdens who went on to national reputations. Later in life, in his reminiscences, Comfort spoke warmly about Brigdens and the key role it had played in his own artistic development, as well as that of Winnipeg as a whole.[xxvii] Another colleague, Hal Foster, made a name for himself illustrating the hugely popular comic strips Prince Valiant and Tarzan. Yet another, Charles Thorson, worked for both Disney and Warner Brothers Studios, where he collaborated on the original design conceptions for Snow White and Bugs Bunny.[xxviii] The creative ferment nurtured by Brigdens was to play an important role in the development of many artists, including Brett.
While working full-time at Brigdens, Brett carried on an active painting career, dividing his efforts mainly between landscape and portraiture. In addition to Joaquin Sorolla, he admired a range of artists that we associate with such diverse movements as impressionism, post-impressionism, fauvism and German expressionism, first becoming familiar with their work through a large personal collection of books on art.[xxix] He also visited art galleries and museums in Canada, the United States and Great Britain.[xxx] His contemporaries in the Canadian Group of Seven had an influence on his style as a landscape painter, particularly his later work.
Brett was an active member of both the Winnipeg Sketch Club,[xxxi] with its focus on figure studies, and the Manitoba Society of Artists, where he exhibited for many years.[xxxii] In addition, he showed in larger western Canadian regional exhibitions such as one held by the Winnipeg Art Gallery in 1934 where Brett’s work was shown alongside that of Fred Varley, J.W.G. MacDonald, W.J. Phillips, Charles Comfort, Emily Carr, and L.L. Fitzgerald.[xxxiii]
Brett served as both vice president and president of the Manitoba Society of Artists.[xxxiv] He also served as a director of the Winnipeg Art Gallery and chairman of the Acquisition Committee.[xxxv]
Brett was a well-known Winnipeg portrait painter, and portraits in oil make up the largest part of his commissioned work. During his time it was often an obligation or perk, depending on how you felt about it, for high ranking public functionaries to sit for a portrait. Brett painted a number of premiers, justices, and mayors. Some of these portraits hang in the halls of the Manitoba Legislative Assembly and other public buildings in Winnipeg.[xxxvi] He also painted other kinds of portraits, both public and private, including that of Capt. Herbert Phillip Crabb, father of prominent Winnipeg art collector, John Crabb, who later owned several Brett paintings.[xxxvii]
Brett’s largest corporate commission was for the Royal York Hotel in Toronto.[xxxviii] Three wall-size murals were completed and installed in the Manitoba room in the new wing of the hotel, completed in 1959. The theme for these murals is the Manitoba landscape inhabited by Manitoba wildlife. Bison, Elk and Mallard Ducks feature prominently. Two of the murals measure approximately two meters square, and they flank the third central mural, which measures approximately two meters by three meters. This grouping decorates one wall of the Manitoba room, where it remains as of this writing (March 2020).[xxxix]
The Newton Brett murals in the Manitoba Room, Fairmount Royal York, Toronto, Ontario.
Photo courtesy of Fairmount Royal York Hotel
Personal Artistic Work
Much of Brett’s personal work was devoted to landscape painting, with occasional excursions into still-life and informal portraiture. Though he was adept in the use of pastel, watercolour and oil paints, the majority of his work is in oil and painted on board.[xl] He liked masonite board because it allowed him to easily adjust the composition. All that was required was a pencil, ruler and handsaw, with which he sometimes cut away much of the whole, saving only the one small part he thought was particularly good.[xli]
A backyard view from Brett's home studio on Montrose St., Winnipeg,
that he painted many times over the years.
Brett painted both in the studio at his home and out of doors. Prairie landscapes, northern woodlands, the Rocky Mountains and the West Indian island of Jamaica, both the people and place, were subjects he returned to many times.[xlii] As he grew older his style became more abstract, the colours richer, the surfaces more textured and lively, without ever completely losing a foothold (though at times tenuous) in the recognisable. As has often been remarked, painters, more than some other kinds of creators, often develop and improve with age. This was certainly true of Brett. His most distinctive and remarkable landscape paintings, mainly of the forests and lakes of eastern Manitoba and northwestern Ontario, were produced during the last 25 years of his life.
Brett sold many paintings over his career, acting in many cases as the dealer for his own work.[xliii] His work is most often signed “Newton Brett” or “N. Brett” using both capital and lower-case printed letters. Very few of the paintings I have seen are dated. Unsold works were not always signed.[xliv] Paintings by Newton Brett resided in many private and corporate collections across the prairies of Canada, in British Columbia, and various American states. Corporate and public collections included: The Winnipeg Art Gallery,[xlv] The Hudson’s Bay Company,[xlvi] United Grain Growers (now Viterra),[xlvii] Canadian Wheat Board (now G3),[xlviii] the Winnipeg School Board,[xlix] Manitoba Government House (the Lieutenant Governor’s Residence),[l] and The Manitoba Legislative Assembly Building.[li] Prominent Winnipeg art connoisseur John Philip Crabb[lii], also had Brett paintings in his collection.
Newton Brett is referenced in the following exhibition catalogues:
150 Years of Art in Manitoba: A Struggle Towards a Visual Civilization by Bonnie Pitman. 1970. Winnipeg Art Gallery.
The Brigden Collection: A Winnipeg Centennial Exhibition by Winnipeg Art Gallery 1974.
Brigdens of Winnipeg by Mary Jo Hughes Winnipeg Art Gallery 2001. Catalogue for the exhibition, June 7 to August 26, 2001.
[i] Joanne Brett Sibley. Personal anecdote by email to John Brett, March 16, 2020.
[ii] Winnipeg Free Press, Wedding Announcement, June 28, 1922.
[iii] Winnipeg Free Press, Obituary, July 25, 1969.
[iv] Personal assessment by John Brett and Joanne Brett Sibley. No retrospective exhibitions of his work from his death to March, 2020.
[v] Manitoba vital statistics, online service. Detailed birth information registration #: 1889-003056
[vi] Ontario Brett Genealogy, 1993, prepared by Peter A. Brett, son of Newton Brett.
[vii] John Brett, grandson, personal recollection.
[viii] Joanne Brett Sibley. Personal recollection by email to John Brett, March 15, 2020.
[ix] 150 Years of Art in Manitoba: A Struggle Towards a Visual Civilization, by Bonnie Pitman. 1970. Winnipeg Art Gallery. p. 68. Approximate Winnipeg study dates are speculation by John Brett and Joanne Brett Sibley.
[x] Canada Yearbook, Censuses 1871 – 1931. 1911 Census and 1921 census.
[xi] Virginia G. Berry, “CASEY, LUCILLE C,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 13, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed April 1, 2020, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/casey_lucille_c_13E.html.
[xii] Manitoba Society of Artists website: https://www.manitobaartists.com/about/
[xiii] Winnipeg Art Gallery website: https://www.wag100.ca/timeline/date:1908
[xiv] Virginia G. Berry, “CASEY, LUCILLE C,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 13, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed April 1, 2020, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/casey_lucille_c_13E.html.
[xv] Winnipeg Art Gallery website: https://www.wag100.ca/timeline/date:1912
[xvi] Joanne Brett Sibley. Personal recollection by email to John Brett, March 15, 2020. This has not been confirmed, as attendance records for the Art Institute of Chicago have been requested but not received. Dates for Newton Brett’s residence in Chicago are speculation by John Brett and Joanne Brett Sibley.
[xvii] The Art Institute of Chicago Catalogue of Paintings by Joaquin Sorolla Y Bastida under the Management of the Hispanic Society of America, February 14 to March 12, 1911. Available to view online at the Illinois Digital Archives: http://www.idaillinois.org/cdm/ref/collection/artic/id/117
[xviii] Joanne Brett Sibley. Personal recollection by email to John Brett, March 15, 2020.
[xix] Joanne Brett Sibley. Personal recollection by email to John Brett, March 15, 2020.
[xx] Brigdens of Winnipeg, by Mary Jo Hughes Winnipeg Art Gallery 2001. Catalogue for the exhibition, June 7 to August 26, 2001. Page 9.
[xxi] The Brigden Collection: A Winnipeg Centennial Exhibition catalogue by the Winnipeg Art Gallery 1974. No page numbers. A list of employees and their years of service is included in the catalogue.
[xxii] Brigdens of Winnipeg, by Mary Jo Hughes Winnipeg Art Gallery 2001. Catalogue for the exhibition. June 7 to August 26, 2001. Page 12.
[xxiii] Joanne Brett Sibley. Personal recollection by email to John Brett, March 15, 2020. Brett is also referred to as “Art Manager” in the Winnipeg Tribune, Mar. 14, 1950, in reference to his role of judge in a Junior and Senior High School design competition.
[xxiv] The Brigden Collection: A Winnipeg Centennial Exhibition catalogue by the Winnipeg Art Gallery 1974. No page numbers. A list of employees and their years of service is included in the catalogue.
[xxv] Joanne Brett Sibley. Personal anecdote by email to John Brett, March 15, 2020. Also a Feb. 10, 1961 Government of Manitoba press release “Portraits of Past Premiers to be Unveiled at Opening”, refers to Brett as “a former staff artist for a Winnipeg engraving firm.”
[xxvi] Brigdens of Winnipeg, by Mary Jo Hughes Winnipeg Art Gallery 2001. Catalogue for the exhibition. June 7 to August 26, 2001. Pages 8 - 11.
[xxvii] Charles Comfort, “Sketches from Memory”, unpublished manuscript from the Charles Comfort Papers, Charles Comfort Collection, National Archives of Canada, p. 1 and p. 151.
[xxviii] Brigdens of Winnipeg, by Mary Jo Hughes Winnipeg Art Gallery 2001. Catalogue for the exhibition. June 7 to August 26, 2001. Pages 15-17.
[xxix] Personal recollection by Brett’s grandson, John Brett.
[xxx] Joanne Brett Sibley. Personal recollections by phone with John Brett. Also recollection of travel to the UK by email, Mar. 18, 2020.
[xxxi] Feb. 10, 1961 Government of Manitoba press release “Portraits of Past Premiers to be Unveiled at Opening”, refers to Brett as “a member of the Winnipeg Sketch Club”.
[xxxii] Winnipeg Free Press (WFP), and Winnipeg Tribune and Winnipeg Evening Tribune (WT) notices of his participation in MSA exhibitions: WT Nov. 9. 1935 p. 27; WF Mar. 8, 1938, p. 37; WT Mar. 5, 1945 p.9; WF Mar. 13, 1948, p. 18; WF Mar. 16, 1950, page # not legible; WT Feb. 4, 1963 p.13.
[xxxiii] Winnipeg Evening Tribune, July 25, 1934, p. 9.
[xxxiv] Winnipeg Free Press, Mar. 27, 1943, p.18 / The Winnipeg Tribune, Mar. 30, 1944, p.25.
[xxxv] Feb. 10, 1961 Government of Manitoba press release “Portraits of Past Premiers to be Unveiled at Opening”, refers to Brett as having “served as a director of the Winnipeg Art Gallery and as chairman of the Gallery’s acquisition committee.” Also noted on WAG website page: http://www.wag100.ca/test/date:1949
[xxxvi] Catalogue Raisonné for Newton Brett(incomplete) by Peter Brett, son of Newton Brett c. 1972.
[xxxvii] Catalogue Raisonné for Newton Brett(incomplete) by Peter Brett, son of Newton Brett c. 1972.
[xxxviii] Winnipeg Free Press, Feb. 25, 1959, p. 37
[xxxix] A current view of the Manitoba room can be seen on the Fairmount Royal York web page: https://www.cvent.com/venues/toronto/hotel/fairmont-royal-york/venue-4b83a62e-f14f-47a1-8658-d489ad605b19
[xl] Catalogue Raisonné for Newton Brett(incomplete) by Peter Brett, son of Newton Brett c. 1972.
[xli] Recollection by his son, Peter Brett, and grandson, John Brett.
[xlii] Catalogue Raisonné for Newton Brett(incomplete) by Peter Brett, son of Newton Brett c. 1972. Also Joanne Brett Sibley in a personal recollection by email to John Brett, March 15, 2020.
[xliii] Joanne Brett Sibley. Personal recollection by email to John Brett, March 16, 2020.
[xliv] This is the opinion of Brett’s grandson, John Brett, based on the viewing of more than one hundred paintings.
[xlv] Letter from WAG (Winnipeg Art Gallery) associate curator, Gary Essar, dated Dec. 8, 1989, confirming possession of paintings, and WAG photos of paintings held by the Winnipeg Art Gallery. These materials in the possession of John Brett.
[xlvi] Picture This: Hudson’s Bay Company Calendar Images and Their Documentary Legacy, 1913-1970, by Andrea M. Paci, December 2000. University of Manitoba, Dep. of History (Archival Studies). A thesis in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the Degree of Master of Arts. P. 118 Appendix A: Calendar Record.
[xlvii] Catalogue Raisonné for Newton Brett(incomplete) by Peter Brett, son of Newton Brett c. 1972.
[xlviii] The Canadian Wheat Board Newsletter, Dec. 1976, p. 8.
[xlix] Winnipeg Free Press, Feb. 6, 1945, p.7.
[l] Winnipeg Tribune, Feb. 12, 1963, p. 13.
[li] Catalogue Raisonné for Newton Brett(incomplete) by Peter Brett, son of Newton Brett c. 1972.
[lii] Catalogue Raisonné for Newton Brett(incomplete) by Peter Brett, son of Newton Brett c. 1972.