LOT 028

1941 - 2022

Fire Down on the Labrador
etching and aquatint on paper
signed, titled, editioned 30/50 and dated 1980
31 1/2 x 19 3/4 in, 80 x 50.2 cm

Estimate: $60,000 - $80,000 CAD

Sold for: $133,250

Preview at:

Acquired directly from the Artist by the present Private Collection, Ontario, circa 1980

Patricia Grattan and Michael Burtch, David Blackwood: Prints, 1962 - 1984, Art Gallery, Memorial University of Newfoundland, 1985, reproduced and listed, unpaginated
William Gough, The Art of David Blackwood, 1988, reproduced front cover and in “Down on the Labrador” section as plate 4 and listed, unpaginated
William Gough, David Blackwood, Master Printmaker, 2001, reproduced page 108
Katharine Lochnan, editor, Black Ice: David Blackwood Prints of Newfoundland, Art Gallery of Ontario, 2011, reproduced front cover (detail), as frontispiece and page 199, preparatory works reproduced pages 190 - 198, all works listed page 205

Art Gallery, Memorial University of Newfoundland, St. John’s, David Blackwood: Prints, 1962 – 1984, traveling in 1984 – 1987 to the Art Gallery of Algoma, Sault Ste. Marie; Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, Halifax; Confederation Centre Art Gallery, Charlottetown; Robert McLaughlin Gallery, Oshawa; Canada House Cultural Centre Gallery, London, UK; Royal West of England Academy, Bristol; and other European and western Canadian venues, same image, catalogue #47
Blackwood Gallery, Erindale College, University of Toronto, Mississauga, David Blackwood: Prints, 1980 – 1990, traveling in 1993 – 1999 to over 25 venues nationally and to the Canadian Embassy, Tokyo, 1997, same image
Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, Fire Down on the Labrador: The Creative Process, 2002, same image
Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, Black Ice: David Blackwood Prints of Newfoundland, February 5 – May 15, 2011, same image, catalogue #63 - #71, including preparatory works and various proofs

Fire Down on the Labrador is a work so well known, so beloved, it is altogether likely that more people know of this work than know of its title, or even the name of its creator. David Blackwood, in his more than 60-year career, created a sprawling, towering monument to his childhood home, the coastal community of Wesleyville, Newfoundland. He rendered it in paint, watercolour, sculpture, and here in his most renowned medium, copperplate etching.

While his technical virtuosities with etching and aquatint are on unequivocal display, it is also important to understand that Blackwood not only produced the copper plates from which his works were printed, he also inked and printed each impression himself. He likened the process to music: if the plate as it was etched was the sheet music, the inking and printing were its interpretation and performance. Some works with multiple colours have an element of hand-colouring after printing, but the colours of this particular work are entirely “in-plate,” with all colours applied to the plate. Close examination of his application of the fire’s red ink, for instance, sees it extend into the inky black of the night sky, resulting in an emanating glow that subtly varies from impression to impression.

The whale shown is the bowhead whale. Its scientific name is Balaena mysticetus, which loosely translates to “mystical whale.” Bowhead whales live in some of the ocean’s coldest waters and are amongst the longest-living mammals on earth, some with lifespans of over 200 years. The whale’s presence overwhelms the composition, dwarfing the human figures engulfed in catastrophe. Fire at sea is the worst of all fates that can befall a ship under sail, but when viewed in relation to this ancient being, it is rendered a seemingly minuscule theatre of human tragedy.

When contextualized in this way, this work can be viewed as a memento mori or vanitas. This long and rich artistic genre is meant to instill an Ecclesiastical humility in the face of the fragility and brevity of human life, over which true control is always illusory. One may interpret Blackwood’s choices not only as allegorical, however, but also as elemental. A preparatory drawing for this work (in the collection of the Edwin P. Taylor Library & Archives, Art Gallery of Ontario) notes the inclusion of each of the four cardinal elements. Water’s inclusion is self-evident, as is fire’s. Less evident, however, is earth, manifested in the ship and its crew, and air, in the current of wind carrying smoke across the composition, a solitary seabird drifting at its tail. Although Blackwood’s upbringing was Methodist, always present in his tone is the swirling elemental paganism of William Blake and his visionary manifestations of the natural world. Here, the mystical whale can be seen as a great grinning god of nature, silently separate from the fickle fates of humanity.

When asked, Blackwood himself was somewhat unsure as to why so many people gravitated to this image over his many compositions featuring whales, sailors, midwives, ships, and homes hauled across the water. One possible explanation might be found in that rare occurrence that can bestow itself upon exceptional artists at the pinnacle of their practice. As a means of comparison, each of the prints in Katsushika Hokusai’s series Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji are exceptional, but it is The Great Wave Off Kanagawa that has captured the imagination of the world. There are rare times—sometimes singular instances—in a great artist’s life when they are graced with the capacity to express a profound resonance and to create an artwork that exists beyond intention.

Estimate: $60,000 - $80,000 CAD

All prices are in Canadian Dollars

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