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Molly Peacock’s lush biography of Canadian painter Mary Hiester Reid becomes intimate glimpse into life and marriage

By on September 9, 2021 0

There is something magical about approaching a painting. The canvas nose is bold, even when you’re not under the watchful eye of a museum keeper. It is a humiliating experience. It is often too easy to forget that this job in front of you is a physical manifestation of a person’s vision and talent.

Poet Molly Peacock falls asleep at night surrounded by the art of 19th-century Toronto painter Mary Hiester Reid, the subject of her new hybrid biography “Flower Diary: In Which Mary Hiester Reid Paints, Travels, Marries & Opens a Door “. The book is an intimate look at not only Reid’s work, but also Peacock’s life and marriage to Michael Groden, a prominent James Joyce scholar who died in March.

Three of Reid’s paintings hang on the bedroom walls of Peacock’s charming Toronto condo, perfectly at home with the spectacular views and enviable libraries. A fourth painting is on the way, recently purchased at an online auction.

I’m immediately drawn to a small canvas next to the bed – it’s also my favorite from “Flower Diary,” which features color plates of Reid’s artwork. (“Flower Diary,” published by ECW Press, with its carefully reproduced paintings, beautiful cover pages and glossy paper, places it in the running as the most amazing book to come out of the Canadian edition this year.)

A photo from Molly Peacock's book

The painting is simple in the description. Three pink roses, heavy in bloom, bow under their own weight as they cascade from a terracotta jug. Peacock, who spends endless hours studying the works, points out the softness of the canvas, the places where the paint has cracked slightly over time, and how Reid used tiny brushstrokes to give each petal its own. texture and animation.

It turns out that “Three Roses” is Peacock’s favorite too. “This is the essence of Mary,” she said.

Like Peacock, Mary Hiester Reid had dual US-Canadian citizenship. Reid married fellow painter George Agnew Reid, also known as the first principal of the Ontario College of Art (now OCAD University). The couple apparently had idyllic lives: traveling overseas to paint and share a studio in the Catskills area of ​​New York City, although “Flower Diary” makes it clear that the expectations of female artists at that time were very different from those of their male counterparts. Often women painted domestic scenes for practical reasons, as one would always expect them to maintain a household, despite whatever talents they may have possessed.

Peacock points out how these European tours are said to have influenced Reid’s painting style, which varies from canvas to canvas, as she was interested in artistic movements that had not yet made their way to Canada. “Mary has become an impressionist, a tonalist and a realist all at the same time,” Peacock explains, pointing to a colorful landscape across the bed that at first glance appears to have been painted by another artist.

Nasturtiums, one of the paintings by Mary Hiester Reid that writer Molly Peacock refers to in her book "Flower Journal."

As she carefully pulls it back from the wall, pulling it closer, Peacock assumes it was painted near her home in Wychwood Park, at the Pond in the early pink of sunrise, when Mary could create without interruptions or demands. of the woman.

“Flower Diary” is not a typical biography. There is not much historical documentation available on female artists of Reid’s time. But in Peacock’s mind, Reid’s 300 paintings serve as the documents of her life, as do her old homes and the travel diaries she left behind.

There was a very popular exhibition of Reid’s work at the Art Gallery of Toronto (now the Art Gallery of Ontario) in 1922, a year after his death, marking the gallery’s first solo exhibition by a woman. But it was not until the late 2000s that the AGO presented another solo exhibition, where Peacock discovered Reid and his story for the first time.

Some biographers are drawn to the opportunity to write the definitive biography of a famous person. As a poet, Peacock had no desire to write a scholarly book.

“I’m interested in people who have done something wonderful and who have been forgotten,” says Peacock, who, with his seven collections of poetry, is the author of “The Paper Garden: Mrs. Delany Begins Her Life’s Work at 72 ”, a study by British artist Mary Granville Pendarves Delany, who later in her life began to create a series of paper cut botanical flowers which are now kept in the British Museum.

“I am not an art historian. I just have a certain dose of fearlessness and I feel like I’m on solid ground, I’ve been thinking about creativity all my life and I’m a poet, ”Peacock says. “There is a certain kind of book I can write. It is a human and personal book.

“Flower Diary” lasted for about a decade, during which time Peacock published a collection of poetry. Writing about Mary’s life became a respite during Groden’s long illness.

Just as I have found intimacy by looking closely at Reid’s paintings, “Flower Diary” comes across as a revealing contemporary look at two people who have lived together a life of words and ideas.

Groden is not only present in the narrative, but behind the scenes of the enduring support he provided to Peacock as she undertook the research that provides the scaffolding for the book. As “Flower Diary” reveals, the couple first met in high school, broke up after freshman year in college, and reunited almost 30 years later. Memories of their relationship appear strewn throughout the book as separate “Interludes” but connected to the Reid’s marriage.

In retrospect, Peacock suggests that empathy is the ongoing theme running through the book and its side stories.

“There is a secret hope that someday in the future someone will bring back a helping hand to bring you or your era back,” Peacock said. “It’s a moving thing to do. It’s touching and everything Mary put in her paintings.


Sue Carter is associate editor of Inuit Art Quarterly and a Toronto-based freelance contributor. Follow her on Twitter: @flinnflon