Rivals in art: The marriage of Mary and Christopher Pratt

Detail from the book cover of the biography about Mary and Christopher Pratt

Some time in the late 1970s, Newfoundland artist Christopher Pratt inexplicably gave his wife, fellow artist Mary Pratt, slides of nude images of his favourite teenaged model and not-so-secret lover.

Mary knew of the affair, which started when Donna Meaney was only 16, but it was never officially acknowledged at the Pratts’ home in the rural Salmonier area of Newfoundland.

So, why did Christopher give the slides to Mary? And why did Mary decide to create a series of paintings of the nude teenager based on the slides? Was this part of a longstanding rivalry between two artists who happened to be married to each other — the husband personifying “ice” and the wife “fire?”

Those questions are posed in a revealing new book about the Pratts’ tempestuous marriage, Canada’s answer to the on-again, off-again love affair between two of Mexico’s greatest 20th century artists, Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. Art and Rivalry: The Marriage of Mary and Christopher Pratt (Knopf Canada) is authored by Carol Bishop-Gwyn, who penned a terrific biography of Ottawa dance maven Celia Franca in 2011. The Pursuit of Perfection: A Life of Celia Franca charmed the critics and was nominated for various awards. The Pratts constitute a far more complex story.

In discussing the slides of Donna, Bishop-Gwyn focuses on Mary’s intentions more than Christopher’s. Generally, in the book, we see things from Mary’s rather than Christopher’s point of view. Frequently, Christopher comes across as the villain in the piece. This could perhaps be partially explained by the fact that the author had full access to Mary’s diaries but not Christopher’s papers. Or maybe it was simply because Christopher was the villain who, much more than Mary, caused trouble in the marriage.

Carol Bishop-Gwyn. photo: Derek O’Donnell

According to Bishop-Gwyn, Mary saw herself as an artist in competition with her husband, whose art was better known and commanded higher prices. Painting Donna, the young mistress, thus became part of the competition.

The author quotes Mary telling art historian Tom Smart “that she wanted to discover what it was about Donna’s body that made her an erotic muse for her husband.” Bishop-Gwyn also speculates that “Mary wanted to show that she could paint the object of her husband’s desire better than her husband could.”

Critics generally loved Mary’s paintings of Donna better than Christopher’s. One of the more controversial paintings of Donna by Mary was called Girl in My Dressing Gown, showing the teenager in a negligee that belonged to Mary.

“She just visually ravaged Donna,” Bishop-Gwyn quotes Christopher as saying. “She makes Donna look wasted. Donna has on her dressing gown and Donna was my model.”

Bishop-Gwyn says Mary’s nudes were “visceral and organic, Christopher’s intellectualized and measured.” Simply put,

Mary’s nude paintings of Donna were “better” and “truer to life” than Christopher’s.

“With her superior ability to capture the complications of human flesh in paint, Mary had picked up her husband’s gauntlet,” says the author. “The artistic battlefield would be the body of the very woman who had usurped Mary in her husband’s erotic imagination.”

Christopher and Mary met at Mount Allison University in Sackville, NB. during the 1950s. Christopher came from Newfoundland’s well-to-do “merchant class.” Mary was from an establishment family in Fredericton. Both felt “entitled,” says Bishop-Gwyn.

The two were wed in 1957 and lived for two years in Glasgow, Scotland so Christopher could continue art studies. Then they settled in Newfoundland and, soon after, moved to a cottage in the rural Salmonier region, an hour west of St. John’s.

Mary had four children within six years and put her art career on hold, although she managed to scrape together a half-hour or so each day to paint. Christopher soon became very successful, becoming mainly known for his spare prints and paintings of architecture.

At age 32, Mary’s had her first show. It was in 1967 at Memorial University art gallery in St. John’s. All of the almost 60 works were sold.

Over the years, Mary became best known for her photo-realist paintings of everyday items in the kitchen – jars of jelly, salmon on tinfoil, chickens awaiting roasting. Generally, the public liked them but major art institutions did not embrace them the way they fawned over Christopher’s works. Mary, unlike Christopher, never had a solo show at the National Gallery of Canada nor the Art Gallery of Ontario. “I feel terrible about that,” Mary complained in a 2013 Globe and Mail interview. “Because Christopher’s work always goes to those places and I just can’t get in.”

Yet, some important galleries showed more interest in Mary’s work and she was generally perceived as one of Canada’s most successful artists.

Mary realized her success was hard on Christopher’s ego. “In fact,” she told Maclean’s in 1981, “in the last year I was almost pleased if something had happened to my work so I could say, ‘Well, everything isn’t coming up roses for me.’”

The Pratts were married for 47 years but did not always live together. Even when apart, they often appeared together in public. It was difficult for outsiders to know exactly what was the state of the marriage. They finally divorced in 2004. Afterwards, both married new partners but, after a few years, both were single again.

Mary died at home in St. John’s in 2018 at age 83 following years of ill health. During the last weeks of her life, Christopher drove in every day from Salmonier to be with Mary. “You’re still a good old broad,” Christopher would jokingly say to Mary, provoking gales of laughter.

Art and Rivalry is a great read and a vivid exploration of a complicated marriage. Sometimes one can feel like a voyeur, peering into forbidden spaces. Yet Bishop-Gwyn is never exploitative. She shows how the troubled marriage affected the artistic trajectory of two of the country’s most beloved artists and public figures.

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