Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Artist of the age of rail

Bill Hobbs's meticulous paintings chronicle a bygone era

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THERE'S a little Rembrandt in paintings by Bill Hobbs and spectators always look for it.

Rembrandt is the nickname of the little Jack Russell terrier that often appears in Hobb's art. It's a nod to the master Rembrandt who placed a similar dog, darkly lit, in his most famous painting, The Night Watch.

But in Hobbs's case, the dog doesn't scurry around musketeers in plumed hats and sashed waists but around old steam engine trains and train stations.

Some say Hobbs, a British-trained medical doctor and surgeon in an earlier life, is a master artist himself, although not well known outside the rural Prairies. Critics note his excruciating precision and how his paintings preserve Canadian history.

"Once Bill is gone, his paintings are going to be like those of the Group of Seven," maintains Winnipeg art collector and dealer John Sogi, who also deals some of Hobbs's paintings. "Right now his paintings are going for $2,000 to $3,000 in Canada, but his daughter is selling a lot of his paintings in the United States for $10,000 to $15,000."

"Once Bill is gone, his paintings are going to be like those of the Group of Seven," maintains Winnipeg art collector and dealer John Sogi, who also deals some of Hobbs's paintings. "Right now his paintings are going for $2,000 to $3,000 in Canada, but his daughter is selling a lot of his paintings in the United States for $10,000 to $15,000."

Hobbs's paintings also touch a deep chord in the Prairie psyche, says Jennifer Woodbury, curator of the Art Gallery of Southwestern Manitoba in Brandon. Hobbs donates prints every year to help the gallery with fundraising, and the public snaps them up.

That is, Prairie folk may have cursed the CNR and CPR for over a century but it's love, not hate, they feel for the old railway icons that Hobbs depicts. One can almost smell the smoke and grease coming off his great beastly steam engines, and his trains stations are from a era when they looked more like pavillions, many designed by famous Winnipeg architect Ralph Benjamin Pratt (1878-1950).

"People love trains here," Woodbury said she learned when she moved to Brandon from Winnipeg. "Trains are very much a part of Manitoba, so much so that people build big expensive houses right next to railway tracks and no one seems to mind."

Hobbs, now 79, may not be a household name in urban centres but he's had his moments. One came in the early 1980s as the Bronfman family was celebrating an anniversary of Seagrams in Regina, where the family's booze empire began. The company held a cross-Canada art contest and the entries filled the posh Assiniboia Club. But Edgar Bronfman Sr. couldn't find a single painting to his liking. Finally, he looked up on the wall and spotted a Hobbs paintiing (a school bus in small town Esterhazy) that Hobbs had loaned to the club but was not entered in the contest. Who was this artist? Bronfman wanted to know. Why, that was just a painting by Dr. Hobbs whose medical office was down the street, someone said. (Hobbs originally immigrated to Saskatchewan.)

Bronfman promptly walked out of the Assiniboia Club, strode down the street with half a dozen staffers in pursuit, and into Hobbs office, demanding to see the doctor. Bronfman gave Hobbs first prize and $25,000, which included the rights to the print that Seagrams then distributed with every purchase of a bottle of Seagrams whisky during the anniversary celebration.

Beat out

Another Hobbs painting is the famous "40 Below Zero," which shows cars parked diagonally outside the local cafe in Gainsborough, Saskatchewan. It beat out over 2,000 other entries to win a national contest in 1978.

More recently, Internet pharmacist Daren Jorgenson of Winnipeg bought 10 Hobbs originals, and five were purchased by Lorne Isfeld, who owns Autowest car dealership on McPhillips Street and Gimli Motors in Gimli.

But it's not all about the money for Hobbs. Locally, he has sold paintings to local heritage groups at prices ranging from $800 to $1,500, "whatever they could afford," he said, to help them preserve their history. Those sales included the rights to the prints so heritage groups could sell them to raise funds.

In fact, so many of his train stations are on display in rural town offices and museums that you could do a driving tour of them--if Hobbs could remember where they all are. Carberry and Neepawa town offices each have one, Hartney town office has two, and if you feel like a coffee, stop at Country Corner Cafe in Ninga to see another painting. A Hobbs painting also hangs in the Westoba Credit Union in Rivers, the Dauphin Rail Museum and the Beckoning Hills Museum in Boissevain.

The artist's love of trains goes back to his childhood in England. He became a keen model railroader as an adult. On his arrival in Canada in 1959, he even delivered a baby aboard the CPR passenger train that carried him to his first posting in Saskatchewan.

Hobbs was born in 1927 in Alderney in the Channel Islands. He was at the top of his class scholasticaly all through school, a level of scholarship that ran in the family. His brother John Hobbs was once nominated for a Nobel Prize for performing a new method of bone marrow transplant in the late 1990s, and John later joined the Nobel judging committee.

Hobbs, the painter, studied fine art for four years at West of England Academy of Art but then came a bizarre career switch. Two weeks into the school year a student at Bristol University medical school was expelled for using heroin. The school knew Hobbs because he frequently visited to draw corpses for the medical students. School officials began pushing Hobbs to fill the opening because of his high marks, and he eventually consented.

He settled in Canada in 1959 as part of the great "brain drain" of medical graduates leaving England due to their unhappiness with socialized medicine. He set up practise as a physician and surgeon in Saskatchewan near the Manitoba border, and slowly began returning to his first love, painting. He moved to Ninga, south of Brandon which happened to be his wife Lois Washington's home town, in the early 1990s, and to Brandon in 2002.

He displayed his Britishness during a recent visit by the paisley ascot he wore around his neck. "They're sensible wearing. They keep the chest warm," he said.

Besides 'Rembrandt,' another of Hobbs's stock characters is a First Nation man wrapped in Hudson Bay blanket standing on the railway platform. That was not an uncommon site on the Prairies, his research informed him.

"I have a tremendous love of railways. It keeps me going. And I'm especially into the time period. I can feel the atmosphere of what it must have been like in the 1920s and 30s."

bill.redekop@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 27, 2006 $sourceSection$sourcePage

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