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Biography

DONALD MORRIS KIRKPATRICK (1887-1966) was an award-winning, early twentieth century American architect and professor who transitioned in mid-life to a notable career as an artist on the island of Bermuda. 

Kirkpatrick was born in Easton, Pennsylvania on March 7, 1887, the son of Pennsylvania’s Attorney General William S. Kirkpatrick and Elizabeth H. Jones Kirkpatrick. In 1908 he earned the degree of Bachelor of Arts from Lafayette College, then went on to study architecture at the University of Pennsylvania, where he studied under Paul Philippe Cret, a renowned, French-born professor who was one of the most influential forces in Philadelphia architecture during the first years of the twentieth century. While at Penn, Kirkpatrick received the Arthur Spayd Brooke Medal, awarded for distinguished work in architectural design, and graduated with Honors in 1911 with a Bachelor of Science degree in Architecture. Following graduation, Kirkpatrick served a brief apprenticeship with the prestigious architectural firm of Thomas, Churchman, and Monitor. In 1912, he had just formed a partnership with fellow Penn alumnus Sydney Martin when it was announced that he had won the William Harkness Prize in Architecture, a national competition affording the winner two years of architectural study at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris. Upon his return to Philadelphia in 1914, Kirkpatrick resumed his architectural partnership with Sydney Martin, but when World War 1 intervened, he enlisted in the U.S. Army, initially assigned the rank of Lieutenant in the First Division. Whilst overseas, positioned with a front-line machine-gun unit, he earned the rank of Captain and was awarded numerous decorations and citations for gallantry in action, including the Silver Star (with two Oak Leaf clusters), the Purple Heart, and the French Fourragere. In 1919, Kirkpatrick and Martin reunited, this time joined by older architect (and Penn alumnus) Walter Thomas, creating the firm of Thomas, Martin, and Kirkpatrick, thus reaping the benefits of several of the projects begun under the aegis of Thomas, Churchman, and Molitor (where Kirkpatrick had briefly apprenticed); the new firm was responsible for designing a number of residences in the Philadelphia area, as well as the design and construction of the Christian Association, built on the Penn campus between the years 1927-1929. During this time period Kirkpatrick served on the Pennsylvania State Art Commission, an organization that passed judgment on all state-sponsored art work. He was also selected to be an Assistant Professor of Design at the University of Pennsylvania, a position he held from 1931 to 1934. Desirous of turning more of his attention to artistic pursuits, Kirkpatrick held two one-man shows in Philadelphia to showcase his painting ability and subsequently departed again for Paris in 1931 with his wife Renee (a fellow artist whom he married in 1920 and with whom he had settled in Haverford, Pennsylvania) to study etching and watercolours under the tutelege of Edouard Leon; Kirkpatrick’s natural talents quickly emerged with his being awarded an Honorable Mention in Etching at the 1931 Paris Salon. 

Kirkpatrick and his wife moved to the island of Bermuda full-time in 1934, following visits in 1920 (for their honeymoon), 1929, and 1933. He took a position with the local architectural firm Onions and Bouchard, where he designed many noteworthy homes and estates, including his own, “Landfall,” overlooking Crawl Point in Hamilton Parish. Other residences designed by Kirkpatrick include “Troon,” the home of Mrs. M.A. Dunne, in Tucker’s Town; “Commonland Point,” the home of Mrs. G.B. Hollister, in Shelly Bay; and homes for Terry Mowbray, Lady Williams, and Dr. Harry Curtis. Also, in collaboration with others, he helped design the Pink Beach Cottage Colony and the Bank of Butterfield Building. Dating back to his visit in 1929 (when he was presumably on the island for a holiday with his wife, whose uncle, a Mr. Despard, lived in Bailey’s Bay), early examples of his artistry are in clear evidence: his watercolour, Red House (now in the Masterworks Museum of Bermuda Art), was executed that year; Local Chat, a ca. 1940 watercolour showing three black ladies outside a store, is also highly regarded, as is Bermuda Moon, which was exhibited in 1936 at the Art Institute of Chicago; another work from that period, an atmospheric genre-piece titled Seaview Bar, is known to exist, and a number of later, mostly undated watercolours reside in the collection of the Masterworks Museum. In addition to his more conventional Works of Art, Kirkpatrick also published what are considered to be attractive pictorial maps of the island in 1934 and 1947. In 1945, he taught art at the Saltus Grammar School in Pembroke, while in 1946 he became a vice-president of the (new) Art Association (which was a more formally-organized version of the pre-war exhibition group). His watercolours and etchings which were displayed at the Association’s “Art Week” (at the former Hamilton Hotel) in April 1946 were highly praised in the April 11, 1946 edition of the Royal Gazette. Though the great majority of his Bermuda Works of Art were watercolours, his etchings also constitute an important core segment of his island ouevre. A notable example is his 1931 St. George scene The Hurricane, which may very well have been included in his March 1937 exhibition, The Bermuda Etchings, which took place at the Oxford Book Shop Gallery. 

As time passed Kirkpatrick’s devotion to his artistic career continued to grow, to the point where, in the late 1940s, he elected to retire from Onions and Bouchard and pursue his passion full-time, which included an extensive travel itinerary undertaken in order to sketch and record scenes in a variety of locales, such as Dominica, Trinidad, Ireland, Scotland, Scandinavia, and France. In January 1952 he held a solo exhibition of about 50 pictures (watercolours, drawings, aquatints, etchings, and drypoints) at the Fine Arts Gallery on Parliament Street, Hamilton. (The February, 1952 edition of The Bermudian stated that “he takes everyday reality as an alchemist takes dross, and turns it into something more imperishable than gold.”) That same year, along with Emile Antoine Verpilleux and several other artists, he helped to found the Bermuda Society of Artists. When this organization was superseded by the Bermuda Society of Arts in 1956, Kirkpatrick served as its first president, remaining active in other offices for many years afterward and frequently exhibiting his artwork there (including a watercolour titled Rock of Ages that was displayed at their 1959 show and favorably reviewed in the July 25,1959 edition of the Royal Gazette). In 1962 he held a large, diverse-media solo show at the Society; in this exhibition were 36 oil paintings, 14 watercolours, 10 pen, ink, and watercolour drawings, 12 lithographic crayon drawings, and 35 prints, which included etchings, aquatints, and drypoints. These works depicted the many countries Kirkpatrick had visited, and included about 12 etchings of Bermuda. Shortly before the show opened, Kirkpatrick was quoted in the Royal Gazette as saying, “Since my retirement, painting has occupied nearly all my time. If I had my life over again I would certainly consider the role of painter for a career...Architecture has helped me in two distinct ways: in draughtsmanship and composition.” Indeed, his skill in draughtsmanship and composition are very much apparent in the street-scenes, buildings, and landscapes of Bermuda which he conceived and depicted, and one of the crucial reasons for his historical significance lies in his being one of the first artists since Charles Beresford and Edward James (in the 1870s) to have made a habit of recording actual scenes of Bermuda life, as opposed to conventional views of the island’s natural beauty. It is also noteworthy in the eyes of art historians that his works often evidenced the condition of the island’s black community, and to some extent may thus be said to have foreshadowed the works of the black Bermudian artist Sharon Wilson.

Donald Kirkpatrick died on April 8, 1966, after having been ill for nearly a year. At the time of his death he had completed 16 new watercolours in preparation for a one-man show that was scheduled to debut at the Society of Arts that upcoming autumn. These watercolors were probably included in the memorial exhibition that was held in his honor from August 13 to September 2, 1966. David L. White, in a Royal Gazette review dated August 15, 1966, commented that “(Kirkpatrick) died in full control of his talents, as some of the best works on show were painted in the last four months of his life.”

Written November 2015 by Brian Flon, author of "Hell's Kitchen Requiem" (2014), available as an e-book at Amazon, ITunes, and Barnes & Noble.

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