David Blackwood, iconic Newfoundland artist, dies at 80

David Blackwood was one of Newfoundland’s top artists and a legendary print-maker. Here, he is inside his Port Hope, Ont., studio – where he has worked since graduating from the Ontario College of Art and Design. ((John Rieti/CBC))

World-renowned artist, teacher, and Newfoundlander David Blackwood has died.

Blackwood passed away Saturday at his home in Port Hope, Ontario, surrounded by family after a long illness.

His work presented working life in outport Newfoundland as something vast and dark, with mysterious depths beneath every surface.

Blackwood’s death comes not even a month after the loss of another equally legendary artist from Newfoundland and Labrador, Christopher Pratt.

Etching and aquatint on wove paper 67.2 x 82.8 cm. Gift of David and Anita Blackwood, Port Hope, Ontario. (David Blackwood/Art Gallery of Ontario)

A mythology for Newfoundland

Born in 1941 in Wesleyville, Blackwood was raised among people working on the sea who would continue to inspire his work throughout his life. 

An artistic prodigy from a young age, Blackwood was awarded a Government of Newfoundland Centennial scholarship to train at the Ontario College of Art. By age 23, his work was being displayed in the National Gallery.

Blackwood is perhaps best known for his blue-black etchings and prints, which often portray scenes from outport life, mummers, icebergs, whales, and men at sea, all formed of contrasting dark shadows and bright white light. 

“David Blackwood created a mythology for Newfoundland,” says Emma Butler, gallery owner and friend of the Blackwoods.

The Emma Butler Gallery opened in 1987 featuring David Blackwood’s work.

“People know about those amazing stories of the shipwrecks and sealing disasters, stories of mummering and images of splitting tables and flakes and all these things.”

“People know about Newfoundland through the images of David Blackwood,” she said.

Etching and aquatint on wove paper 62 x 92.3 cm. Gift of David and Anita Blackwood, Port Hope, Ontario. (David Blackwood/Art Gallery of Ontario)

Some of his most recognizable works are the series of prints made in the 1960s and 1970s, The Lost Party, detailing the 1914 Newfoundland sealing disaster with harrowing scenes of sealers in boats, a dark, rich world around them. 

With over 50 etchings in the series, it remains one of the largest thematically linked series of prints in Canadian history.

Blackwood’s work has been exhibited internationally, with over 90 solo shows, and two major retrospective exhibitions. 

His work is featured in almost every major public gallery and collection across Canada, from the The Rooms Provincial Art Gallery to the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy, and even in the Royal Collection of Queen Elizabeth II at Windsor Castle.

In 2000, the Art Gallery of Ontario created the Blackwood Research Centre based around a major collection of his works.

He was the subject of the 1976 National Film Board documentary Blackwood, which ranked the artist’s etchings alongside those of Rembrandt, Goya, and Dürer. The film was nominated for an Academy Award.

Blackwood was appointed to the Order of Canada in 1993 and the Order of Ontario in 2003.

Etching and aquatint on wove paper 43.9 x 88 cm. Gift of David and Anita Blackwood, Port Hope, Ontario. (David Blackwood/Art Gallery of Ontario) (David Blackwood/Art Gallery of Ontario)

First and foremost a Newfoundlander

Emma Butler, who had spoken with Blackwood a short while before his death, says he was still speaking of Newfoundland and aspects of the land he wanted to portray in his art.

“He was a complex man. He was well educated. He was well read. A vast, vast library. He was, I’d say, first and foremost, a Newfoundlander even in his last days. All he would speak of when he would speak would be about this place.”

“It was all about his work. And he was very ill for a long time, but was determined to get better, because he had more work to do.”

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

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