Posted: 25th June 2021
b.1848 – d.1907
A Mexican Mountain Scene 1900
A Mexican Village 1890s
Oil on panel
Hung as a duo in the Monet in Mind exhibition at Ferens Art Gallery 917 May – 4 July 2021), Townley Benson’s landscapes are thought to be set in the Mexican city of Saltillo, where he spent the final years of his life.
Muted colours and soft brush strokes evoke a stillness and peace. The composition gives a place to reflect on life and ponder what lay beyond the mountains.
Born in Ontario, Canada, Benson was drawn to the opposite climes of rural Mexico after the deaths of his wife and children.
Does the lone horse rider in A Mexican Mountain Scene resemble his own solitude?
Benson found solace in painting until his life was cut short. The wandering artist either took his own life or was assassinated by Mexican revolutionaries. Though it remains a mystery, his death reflected the way he lived – by his easel.
“But Scant Recompense”: William Townley Benson and Itinerant Painting by August McGregor, Future Ferens
Image 1: William Townley Benson, A Mexican Mountain Scene, 1900
From as early as the 1750s all the way to the early 1900s, there was an established tradition in North America of the “itinerant painter”. Coming from the Latin “iter”, meaning journey, they would travel between towns, accumulating a body of work along the way to sell in the next settlement along. In the towns, they would often be commissioned for portraits, or even to paint houses. This continued until and beyond the development of commercial photography and lithography, with the tradition moving further west alongside the frontier.
One such artist was William Townley Benson (1848-1907). Canadian by birth, he spent the second half of his life pursuing a career as a travelling artist in California and northern Mexico. His path there wasn’t straightforward, however. Growing up in a small village in New Brunswick, Ontario, he started his adult life working as a logger before travelling around Canada- records show him married as a banker in Ontario and having children whilst attending art school in Quebec. The school he attended was run by William Raphael (1833-1914), a fellow Canadian artist whose works at the time are largely of city scenes in Montreal, such as the 1880 Bonsecours Market.
Reasons as to why Townley Benson decided to set off for the frontier remain unclear, however he’s first recorded as being in California in the early 1890s, at which point his earliest artworks start to appear. This Sunlit Village from 1891 is painted in oil, on a board, and is just 10 by 8 inches. This small size of surface and the portability of the recently invented paint tube was ideal for itinerant artists, who could now even more easily carry their work with them.
Image 2: William Townley Benson, A Mexican Village, 1890s
The two paintings in the Ferens Collection both come from around the middle of his career as an itinerant, with the Mexican Village undated but estimated to the late 1890s, and the Mexican Mountain Scene coming from 1900. Comparing them to his earliest work, and to that of William Raphael, we see that as his style developed, it became more stylized, with the Mountain Scene almost reminiscent of impressionist painting. Townley Benson and late itinerant artists had a lot in common with the far more famous impressionist painters, with both groups often painting outside in plein air, and showing similar holistic works full of visible brushstrokes, movement and light.
The Mexican Village is one of his few pieces about which you can draw more conclusions. The village in the painting is Saltillo, now a major city in the north of Mexico, identifiable by the distinctive spires of the Cathedral of Santiago in the skyline. Townley Benson spent a lot of time around Saltillo, and painted it a number of times. His repeated presence there is shown by his appearance in a handful of Mexican books on the time period, quoted as praising the climate. Tragically, it was also in Saltillo that he was shot dead in 1907, allegedly by a group of revolutionaries. His paintings, though (perhaps fittingly) widely dispersed, survive to the present day and have allowed us to uncover his story and draw attention to him, and the fascinating lives of itinerant painters.
Students from Hull College were inspired by paintings in the Monet in Mind exhibition to compose their own soundscapes. Listen here to “The Canadian that went to Mexico” composed by Andrew Hardy
Hardy explained that ‘Townley’s art immediately resonated with me. Particularly the mountains and the wide-open spaces. I have a massive love for the Americas and Mexico and would love to explore them further.
Having personally travelled across the border from the U.S. into Mexico, the idea of exploring this country on horseback must have been an incredible experience.
The song itself is designed to be empowering. I tried to focus the theme on Townley’s life experiences. Using a sad but determined theme all whilst trying to capture a flavour of Mexican sounds.
Towards the end of the song, it has a brighter happier feel. This represents the final chapter of Townley’s journey. Maybe he was happy for a period of time? His art certainly makes me feel happy and free (which right now, having been locked away for so long with Covid restrictions is just lovely).’
Andrew Thomas Hardy – Hull College Level 5 Foundation Degree Student