N.L. marks 100 years since artist Rockwell Kent suspected of spying

The Canadian Press
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Rockwell Kent, the American painter and writer who famously illustrated “Moby Dick,” was also a German-speaking rogue who so riled his neighbours in Brigus that he was expelled for his own safety.

Rockwell Kent, shown in an undated handout photo, was an American painter and writer famous for illustrating “Moby Dick.” It’s been 100 years since he was asked to leave Newfoundland. — Photo by The Canadian Press

It was 1914, the First World War was underway and many people thought Kent was a spy.

He had visited Dresden in his youth, spoke German and sang lieder — 19th-century German poetic songs — while poking fun at growing suspicions. His open retaliation included a sign posted on his cottage on a seaside cliff just outside Brigus.

It read: “Private. Chart Room. Wireless Station. Bomb Shop.” Kent, wearing a painted-on Kaiser moustache, posed for a photo in front of it.

Events this past week and later this summer marking the 100th anniversary of his tumultuous, 17-month stay in Newfoundland have revived interest in a story even many local people don’t know.

Caroline Stone, curator of the 2014 Kent Centennial in Newfoundland exhibition at The Rooms provincial art gallery in St. John’s, said there’s still debate about Kent’s ouster.

“Americans feel that he was extradited almost. Newfoundlanders were quoting letters from the period that said he had really just been asked to leave.

“But from what I can understand, he was given the tickets for his family to go back to America, he was given a deadline and he was told that the government couldn’t vouch for his safety if he decided to stay.”

Kent, his wife Kathleen, and their four young children left in July 1915 to go back to the U.S.

Perhaps no one knows Kent better than filmmaker Frederick Lewis. The Ohio University media arts professor spent more than 10 years off and on tracing the travels that inspired Kent’s memoirs and paintings in Greenland, Newfoundland, Alaska, Russia and Ireland.

The result was “Rockwell Kent: A Documentary.”

Lewis marvels at Kent’s prolific versatility as a writer, artist, architect, carpenter, globe trotter and a thrice-married “major-league philanderer.”

“I’ve done several documentaries on artists and other subjects but Kent is the holy grail and Moby Dick all rolled into one,” he said in an interview.

“He seemed to have lived maybe six or seven lives in one.”

Kent, a lifelong socialist who denied ever being a member of the Communist party, loudly voiced his views even at his own peril, Lewis said. His legal battle in the 1950s when he was refused a passport on suspicion of being a Communist led to a landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling. It declared travel a constitutional right that can’t be stripped without due process.

In an interview at the time, Kent compared the ordeal to a woman who takes a man’s pants to keep him from going out.

“They’ve stolen my pants in taking my passport. And I want my pants back.”

Lewis recounted how Kent first arrived in Newfoundland in 1910 with plans to set up an art school in an empty fish plant in Burin. That fell apart when word came that Kent’s extramarital lover was expecting a child in Boston.

He moved to Brigus in February 1914 in search of a place to immerse himself in his painting. His wife joined him in the spring of that year. They had their fourth child while living in the Brigus house and would have a fifth before divorcing in 1926. Kent would marry, divorce and marry again.

His paintings still hang in galleries ranging from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City to the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia.

The 200-year-old Brigus house on four protected hectares is now restored as an artist’s retreat called the Kent Cottage at Landfall overseen by the Landfall Trust charity.

It is a well-loved gathering place for workshops and events. And it now features a new female figurehead over the main entrance. She is a replica of a protective wooden ship’s carving that Kent restored, along with what he called her “bosom of disturbing opulence,” and hung over the cottage doorway.

On June 21, Kent’s birthday, the Landfall Trust and carver Vince Jones will dedicate the new figurehead.

Stone said with a laugh that she can think of one other fitting tribute.

“She deserves to be called Kathleen.”


By Sue Bailey


Organizations: Ohio University, Brigus house, Landfall Trust U.S. Supreme Court Metropolitan Museum of Art State Hermitage Museum BaileyTHE CANADIAN PRESS

Geographic location: Newfoundland, America, Greenland Alaska Russia Ireland.The Brigus Burin New York City St. Petersburg

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Recent comments

  • Ode to Joy Division of Nation and State
    June 10, 2014 - 02:56

    Dead-ringer for Tom Osborne!, yes, or a young Vic Toews...Vic knocked up the babysitter, and produced NO art while keeping us safe from everything except corruption of the nation via state manouverings. We must remember that the state is not the nation, and it is little suprise that an anti-war statement is, even 100 years hence, seen as anti-national, where it is merely anti-state, and Pro-National. The United States was in war with Germany in 1917. During these times ABSOLUTE MORONS wanted to get rid of all German culture in America. Beethoven and Bach were two German composers that influenced the United States, and THESE MORONS hated that so they banned their music from the United States. This is the insanity of the State. Sounds like the dregs of history, but the very fact that this made it into the paper is indicative of our path to War with Russia based on OIL AND METALS. Look for GMC and other oil&metal-eaters to put Vets in new cars as Tely-State-Industry Propaganda for Democratic War: the preferred profit machine of Oxy-Morons.

  • Mack Hall
    June 09, 2014 - 21:51

    Sometimes one appreciates a little frivolity, but given the reality that there was a war, and that Newfoundland lost a generation of its young men, he was something of an *ss. / He should have been grateful that he was in Newfoundland and not in one of the conquered nations; the Germans would have shot him. - Mack in Texas

  • Doc. Rabbit
    June 09, 2014 - 18:26

    Looks he got the NL'er friendly CFA welcome. How times have not changed a bit eh?

  • Gerry
    June 09, 2014 - 10:16

    I dunno, maybe I'm reading this wrong, but Kent sounds like he was a royal a-hole to me...but hey, I could be wrong....

    • concerned
      June 09, 2014 - 14:00

      Kents resemblence to Tom Osbourne is uncanny