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JOAN SULLIVAN: Unauthorized bio of Mary and Christopher Pratt both rewards and rankles

The cover of Art and Rivalry: The Marriage of Mary and Christopher Pratt - CONTRIBUTED
The cover of Art and Rivalry: The Marriage of Mary and Christopher Pratt - CONTRIBUTED - Contributed

Making art, together and apart

“Art and Rivalry: The Marriage of Mary and Christopher Pratt”
By Carol Bishop-Gwyn
Knopf Canada
$34.95 254 pages 

As the title indicates, Carol Bishop-Gwyn’s book is a detailed excavation of the marriage of Mary (née West) and Christopher Pratt, primarily through the lens of their impressive bodies of work, with attentiveness to their respective prominent family backgrounds and traditions.  

It is Bishop-Gwyn’s thesis that what started as two artists in a traditional marriage (for the time — they both agreed Christopher’s work came first; Mary handled everything at home) became a fierce, decades-spanning competition for achievements and fame fought through canvas, accolades and imagery. 

They met in 1954 as students at Mount Allison University in Sackville, N.B., married in 1957, and between 1958 and 1964 had four children.

They first lived in Glasgow, when he was studying, and spent a little time in St. John’s, where he was the first curator of the Memorial University of Newfoundland Art Gallery, but by the early 1960s were in St. Catherine’s, St. Mary’s Bay, where they raised their family and launched their careers.

He worked long regular shifts in his studio, she snatched half hours in the house during her busy days (she was a phenomenal homemaker).  

From his student days, Christopher was a steadily rising star, championed by such figures as Lawren P. Harris, Edythe Goodridge and Mira Goddard; by the late 1960s she was steadily embarked on a course of local, national, and international respect and acclaim, whilst buoyed and framed by discourse of second wave feminism. 

There’s a strong undercurrent of judgment for the way the Pratts, Mary in particular, handled the troubles that roiled and eventually broke their marriage, in other words with no public comment even as a significant affair became (through their own work) public knowledge. Well, I guess Mary could have gone full Courtney Love and publicly punched her husband in the face before toppling down the main staircase of The Rooms in a vintage slip dress, but if she chose instead to put her emotions, repressed or otherwise, in her work, aren’t we all the better for it? 

Bishop-Gwyn is exemplary with her description of works and exhibitions, and their public and critical response. She has built an engrossing and thorough documentation of two prolific careers. 

Which is maybe not why people will pick up this book. Readers will want the personal story, the subtitled “marriage of” the Pratts. To that, it’s not a hatchet job. It’s not super-gossipy. Mary and Christopher Pratt are given full due respect as visual artists, and ranked with (and compared to) other artist-couples like Joyce Wieland and Michael Snow or Frieda Kahlo and Diego Rivera. (That’s the real value here I think, the serious assessment, description, decoding and placement of their work in the national and international art world.) 

But that’s somewhat in contrast to the tenor of the prose — because the author doesn’t seem to like her subjects, or think that we do either. 

Bishop-Gwyn says the late Gerald Squires was loved, and she got that right, but people give a couple of hoots about the Pratts, too. And she really overlooks Mary Pratt’s deep and continuous generosity. (As just one example, a friend of mine went to a fundraising auction for her child’s grammar school — and there was a Mary Pratt painting. A man who had done some work on her house or garden had a grandchild at the school, and he had happened to mention they were raising money for school supplies or a project or whatever, and she gave him a painting. And I won’t get started on what a cultural advocate Christopher Pratt is for this province.) 

There’s a strong undercurrent of judgment for the way the Pratts, Mary in particular, handled the troubles that roiled and eventually broke their marriage, in other words with no public comment even as a significant affair became (through their own work) public knowledge. Well, I guess Mary could have gone full Courtney Love and publicly punched her husband in the face before toppling down the main staircase of The Rooms in a vintage slip dress, but if she chose instead to put her emotions, repressed or otherwise, in her work, aren’t we all the better for it? 

And I’m not sure what to make of this point Bishop-Gwyn makes in relation to some of Christopher Pratt’s publications: “While certainly not a vanity press, Breakwater Books, a regional publisher, has given many a Newfoundlander an opportunity to see their book in print after they had exhausted all attempts with mainstream publishing companies.” What? Not even “Newfoundland writers” but “Newfoundlanders.” Full disclosure re: my umbrage — I am a Breakwater author — but comments like these underscore how peripheral Bishop-Gwyn perceives the Newfoundland and Labrador cultural sector to be. 

While she’s clear this is not an authorized biography, she notes that both “Mary and Christopher welcomed me into their homes and studios, knowing full well I was writing a book about them.” Both Pratts have published private, if curated, journals, and have been the subject of many, many interviews, reviews, and documentaries. Bishop-Gwyn also talked with three of their four children, friends, gallery owners and other colleagues.  

Still, there are some minor errors: “Top Sail” is not two words, “the Batteries” is not plural, and Resettlement was partly driven by the modernization of the cod fishery, not its collapse. These are all the more jarring because she has amassed an extensive bibliography and scripted chapter notes which further illuminate the compelling story. 

 Joan Sullivan is editor of Newfoundland Quarterly magazine. She reviews both fiction and non-fiction for The Telegram.   

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