"I am 3/4ths Canadian, and one 4th New Englander - I had ancestors on both sides in the Revolutionary war." - Elizabeth Bishop

Friday, May 21, 2010

Nova Scotia Connections -- "Large Bad Picture"

It has been a little while since I did a Nova Scotia Connections. Even though I have endless subjects to cover, sometimes I find it difficult to choose one. As those who know me understand, I have so much to stay about any given topic, that deciding where to begin and end can be problematic. To this point, I’ve allowed circumstances and my own inclinations to mix and decide which topic I will settle on. Truly, I often don’t know until I sit down what I will write. For the past few weeks, however, one subject has started popping up and seems to be asking to be written about a little bit; but this subject is a very big one for Elizabeth Bishop – and I have been having a difficult time trying to decide what to write first. Part of the issue with this subject is that I am not the only person to have worked on it, in terms of researching and writing about it for publication. My dear friend and colleague Lilian Falk has also spent many years delving into this important person in Elizabeth Bishop’s maternal family collective – I am hoping that starting off this subject will prompt her to write something for this blog. I realize that, like the World War I subject, this one will be multi-part, though just how it will unfold, I haven’t yet decided.

Perhaps you have guessed by the title what, or rather, who I’m talking about: George Wylie Hutchinson (1852-1942), Elizabeth Bishop’s great-uncle, one of Elizabeth Hutchinson Bulmer’s brothers (she was Elizabeth Bishop’s maternal grandmother). George Hutchinson was a painter, illustrator and photographer, who had a remarkably interesting life, a subject worthy of study. Elizabeth Bishop was well aware of Great-Uncle George and his two brothers (John Robert and William Bernard – I will definitely be writing about them, too, in the future). All were still alive during her childhood years in Great Village. Indeed, George Hutchinson lived to nearly 90 and was in communication with his sister right up until she died in 1931.

Elizabeth Bishop grew up looking at Hutchinson paintings, his portraits and seascapes hung on the walls in the Bulmer family home. Indeed, Hutchinson was sending little water-colours to his sister and nieces right into the 1930s. We are fortunate to have a few Hutchinson paintings at Acadia University, a few which were left in Nova Scotia after Elizabeth Bulmer died. But Hutchison work is also found in interesting places in the United States and the United Kingdom. I could write at length about George Hutchinson and his importance to Elizabeth Bishop, but I will limit myself here to commenting on one aspect of their connection. Not surprisingly or accidentally, Elizabeth Bishop, who was fascinated by visual art, has two important poems based on George Hutchinson paintings. Interestingly, these poems span her entire career: the first, “Large Bad Picture,” was published in her first book North & South in 1946; the second, “Poem,” was published in her last book Geography III in 1976. The poems address many subjects and themes, one of which is the position of the artist vis-รก-vis the worlds of “commerce and contemplation,” as she writes in “Large Bad Picture.”

As tempting as it is to go off on a tangent of explication and interpretation of the poem, I will forebear and give you an actual glimpse of the painting itself, a painting which imprinted deeply in Bishop’s mind. The painting is a large canvas, a seascape of Labrador. Though the poem does not indicate it, the painting was done by a young George Hutchinson – perhaps even as a teenager. He spent some years as a cabin boy in the 1860s and painted several large canvases based on his experiences. Bishop would have first seen this painting hanging in the house in Great Village. It may have been the only place she saw it, however, perhaps not. When the Bulmers died in 1930 and 1931 respectively, much of the content of their house went to their youngest daughter, Mary Bulmer Ross, who lived in Montreal. Mary acquired quite a few Hutchinson paintings, including “Large Bad Picture.” Elizabeth Bishop visited Aunt Mary on a number of occasions over the course of her life.

When Mary died in 1970, the paintings were inherited by Mary’s oldest child, Elizabeth Ross Naudin. Elizabeth and her husband Ray knew Bishop fairly well, having lived in Brazil in the early 1960s, while Bishop was resident there. They lived in Florida during the final decades of their life. Both died in 2008. I met Elizabeth and Ray in the late 1990s and had a correspondence with Elizabeth. Elizabeth kindly sent me a photograph of “Large Bad Picture” and that is what I include below. As far as I know, this painting has never been exhibited. Alas, I am no longer sure where the painting is. I did not know any of Elizabeth and Ray’s daughters, so have lost touch with the family.

As I mentioned above, George Hutchinson had a remarkable life, and over the next year or so, I will write about him (and his brothers) and Bishop’s connection to him, and invite Lilian Falk to contribute postings about this fascinating (if not famous) artist. In the 1960s, Elizabeth Bishop wrote to Anne Stevenson about her great-uncles. Of them she said, and I am paraphrasing, that the Hutchinsons “had brains”, “talent” and were “eccentric.” She identified her own penchant for travel and seafaring in this family – particularly her great-grandfather, the master mariner who was shipwrecked. But the Hutchinson great-uncles also sailed the seven seas and wrote about their travels to places as far flung as India and Russia. Stay tuned for more of their story.

Seascape by George Wylie Hutchinson, circa 1870s, subject of Elizabeth Bishop’s poem, “Large Bad Picture.”


  1. Thank you so much for creating such a wonderful and informative resource; the particularities of Bishop's life are brought together with such vivid clarity as to enable a complete and human picture of the poet unlike any I've come across. In this entry on "Large Bad Picture" it is mentioned that the whereabouts of the painting are unknown; I am curious as to whether there are any ideas as to where the painting ended up or may currently be. I am also curious to know how it was determined that the painting is the ekphrastic object. Thank you.

  2. Hi Aaron, Thank you for your kind comment about the blog. Glad that you find it interesting and useful. As for where the "Large Bad Picture" painting is, I am continuing to look for it and hope that I will be able to connect with one of Elizabeth Naudin's daughters one of these days. As for how it is known that this painting is the one Bishop writes about in the poem, it was generally known in the family as the painting. Families can get things wrong in their individual and collective memories, but this painting did hang in Bishop's maternal grandparents' home and of all the other George Hutchinson paintings I have seen, this one is the most likely candidate.

  3. Hi Sandra,
    Thank you so much for this post, and for the photo! I've been writing a dissertation on women's ekphrastic poems one chapter of which is dedicated to Bishop's poems on her Uncle's paintings. I genuinely appreciate your entry here, and especially your generous sharing of the photograph!

  4. This is the fellow who did the Robert Louis Stevenson illustrations, right?

  5. Just reading your post Elizabeth. We (my father and I) are wondering if your George Hutchinson is the same 'G Wyllie Hutchinson', a Canadian painter, who we have four paintings of here in the UK. They date from around 1914, and have been in our family nearly a century.They were painted around suffolk. It would be interesting to find out if there is indeed a connection...
    Kind regards, Silas Amos