Historic Art | Philip Surrey R.C.A.


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Nox Nocti Indicat Scientiam c.1936

Technique: oil on canvas

Dimensions: 24 x 30 in.


ex. Private Collection, Toronto

Exhibited: Concordia University, June 1981

The title of this work, Nox Nocti Indicat Scientiam, refers to two different works of literature, the Bible in Latin and a poem by William Habington of the same name. In Pslam 19 (18 in the Greek notation) it is part of the translated lines:

  The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.

  Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they reveal knowledge.

The poem "Nox Nocti Indicat Scientiam" expands on the relationship between the heavens and nightly sky:

  No unregarded star

  Contracts its light

  Into so small a character,

  Removed far from our human sight,

  But if we steadfast look

  We shall discern

  In it, as in some holy book,

  How man may heavenly knowledge learn.

Nox Nocti Indicat Scientiam was painted in 1936 but references September of 1933. In 1936 Surrey was preparing to leave Vancouver and reminisced of his glory days. He spent September of 1933 with Sheila, his mistress whom he loved dearly. They were quickly torn apart by Sheila's husband in spite of the couple's fight to stay together. Surrey was living in West Point Grey with his mother at the time of this affair, where the scene of the painting is located.

The style of this work reveals F.H. Varley's influence on Surrey, particularly in the composition and framing of the windowsill. Surrey often elicited advice and critiques from Varley, a notable suggestion being that he should try framing his compositions with the areas of interest on the edges instead of at the centre. Nox Nocti Indicat Scientiam also references two notable works by Varley: View from the Artist's Bedroom Window, Jericho Beach, 1929 and Open Window, 1932.

Overall this painting is a great example of Surrey's transition between Vancouver and Montreal. The composition and palette show influence from Varley and represent his time in Vancouver. The focus on the effect of light in the dark, as seen in the neon red spotlight and streetlight, foreshadows Surrey's quintessential Montreal street scenes.

About the Artist

Philip Surrey, a founding member of the Contemporary Arts Society, was a figurative painter with an enduring interest in human subjects within urban nightscapes. For most of his career, Surrey used Montreal as his stage, arranging lighting and figures – most often pedestrians – in compositions that revealed both the gregarious nature and the solitude of humanity. A friend and student of Frederick Varley, Surrey was also closely tied to many of the most important Montreal artists and writers of the 1930s and 1940s.

Philip Surrey began his art training in Winnipeg at age sixteen, when he took an apprenticeship at Brigdens commercial art firm. There, he met Fritz Brandtner. In the evenings, he took classes at the Winnipeg School of Art under LeMoine FitzGerald and George Overton. It was at this time that he started painting the streets and people of Winnipeg after dark, by the light of streetlamps and restaurants. He moved to Vancouver in 1929 and took a job as a commercial artist at Cleland-Kent Engraving. In night classes at the Vancouver School of Decorative and Applied Arts, he studied with Frederick Varley and Jock Macdonald. Surrey left Vancouver in 1936 and spent three months at New York’s Art Students League, studying under Frank Vincent Dumond. The following year, he settled in Montreal and found work at the Standard newspaper. He continued to paint in evenings and on weekends and became immersed in the art scene, rekindling his friendship with Brandtner and befriending John Lyman, Goodridge Roberts, Jori Smith and Jean Palardy.

Surrey built a successful 25-year career at the Standard and its successor, Weekend Magazine. Then, in 1964, publisher John McConnell offered Surrey the opportunity to paint full-time under salary. Surrey accepted, and continued to work as a salaried artist for twelve years, mounting numerous solo shows and signing an exclusive contract with Galerie Gilles Corbeil.

Surrey’s earliest work shows the influence of Varley, with its lyrical, sensuous form and colour, as seen in Going to Work (1935). Later in the 1930s, his approach showed a greater concern with society and human realities, especially the effects of the Depression. This is evident in The Red Portrait (1939), with its image of a solitary sitter and tense mood. The Young Ladies of the Village (after Courbet) (1966) reveals Surrey’s lifelong interest in classical painting.

Philip Surrey was awarded the Centennial Medal (1967). He held an honorary doctorate form Concordia University (1981), and was a member of the Order of Canada (1982).

Source: National Gallery of Canada Archive

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