The Thomas Merton Center at Bellarmine University

Owen Merton

Owen Merton - 1887-1931


Owen Heathcote Grierson Merton was born in Christchurch, New Zealand, in 1887, a member of a family active in the Anglican church, in education and in the musical life of the community. He was educated at Christ's College, where he had his first formal art lessons, and continued those studies at the Canterbury College School of Art (1903) and in London (1905-6).

During a return visit to New Zealand in 1907-9, he held solo exhibitions in Wellington and Christchurch, and participated in art society shows. He met Dorothy Kate Richmond, the doyenne of the Wellington art scene, and her nephew Esmond Atkinson, who was also a painter. Merton re-enrolled briefly at the Canterbury College School of Art in 1908.


In 1909 he returned to London, where he studied with the Flemish-born painter Charles van Havermaet in 1909-10, and made extended working visits to the Netherlands, Cornwall and Brittany. On this last occasion he participated in a sketching class at Concarneau, taught by Frances Hodgkins. He also travelled in other parts of western France in the summer of 1910.


Merton was elected to membership of the Royal Society of British Artists in 1910, and showed works in their 1910 and 1911 exhibitions. He continued to exhibit works in New Zealand until the late 1920s and was represented in several group shows in England and France between 1910 and 1926.


During an extended period in which he was based in Paris (1910-3) he studied first at the Académie Colarossi, then in the studio of Percyval Tudor-Hart where fellow-New Zealander Maud Sherwood was also studying. It is there that he met Ruth Calvert Jenkins, an American art student whom he married in London in 1914. In these years he made excursions to Northern Spain, England and Italy.


Ruth and Owen Merton lived from mid-1914 to mid-1916 in Prades, southern France, where their first son, Tom, was born in 1915. Owen played the piano in charity concerts and perhaps in the local cinema and refused to enlist after war was declared.


The family moved to New York in 1916, and Owen was based there until 1923. Their second son, John Paul, was born in 1918 and Ruth Merton died in 1921. Owen may have lived for a time as a farm worker and he certainly worked as a professional landscape- and garden-designer, church organist and cinema pianist. He exhibited in numerous group and solo shows, including some important curated exhibitions, in New York and Philadelphia in the period 1917-1925 and was clearly considered by his peers to be a serious member of the New York avant-garde.


In the years 1921-3, after his wife's death, he visited Bermuda (twice) and Cape Cod (once). He was given a solo exhibition in the prestigious Daniel Gallery, New York, in 1923.


Meanwhile he had met the American writer Evelyn Scott in Bermuda, in late 1921 or early 1922, and lived with her until 1925. He became the basis for characters in several of her novels.


He made an extended visit to Europe (Italy, France, England) in 1923-5, and also spent some months of the winter of 1923-4 in Algeria. He had a solo exhibition at the Leicester Gallery, London, in 1925, and a second solo exhibition in New York (Daniel Gallery) also in 1925.


After a brief visit to New York in the summer of 1925, he returned to Europe for the last time, accompanied by Tom.


They settled in Saint-Antonin, south-western France, where he bought land and built a house. Owen travelled widely in southern France to paint, he played the piano in the Saint-Antonin cinema and was president of the local rugby club.


His second solo exhibition in London was held in 1928 and he was based in England thereafter (with at least three short visits to France), although his house would not be sold until 1930. Owen Merton died in London in 1931 after a prolonged illness.

 by Roger Collins

A Gallery of Paintings by Owen Merton

"Steamers, London."
Watercolor. 1906
14 x 24 cm.
Watercolor. 1909.
17 x 35 cm.
"Dutch Windmill Near Amsterdam."
Watercolor. 1909.
Watercolor. 1909.

48 x 54 cm.
"St. Ives."
Watercolor. 1910.
16 x 11 cm.
"Fontarabie, Church and Town."
Drawing. 1911.
"Fontarabie, Church and Town."
Watercolor. 1911.
"Fontarabie, Church and Town."
Watercolor. 1911.
30 x 35 cm.
Drawing. 17th November, 1913.
"Amalfi." Watercolor. 1913.
Watercolor. 1913.
Watercolor. 1916.
17 x 22 cm.
Watercolor. 191?
15 x 20 cm.
"City Skyline."
Watercolor. 1916.
"Long Island Shoreline."
Watercolor. 1916.
"Long Island Landscape."
"Snow Scene, Long Island."
Watercolor. 1919.
20 x 30 cm.
"Snow-Buffeted House, Flushing, New York."
"Somerset Bridge, Bermuda."
Watercolor. January 14th, 1922.
"Ruined Houses, Bermuda."
Watercolor. January 29th, 1922.
24 x 27 cm.
Watercolor. 1922.
"St. Georges, Bermuda."
Watercolor. February 8th, 1922.
25 x 35 cm.
"St. Georges, Bermuda."
Watercolor. February 9th, 1922.
Watercolor. February 12th, 1922.
21 x 35 cm.
"Harbor, Bermuda."
Watercolor. February 22nd, 1922.
22 x 33 cm.
"Bermuda House."
Watercolor. 1922.
29 x 33 cm.
Watercolor. 1922.
22 x 38 cm.
Watercolor. 1923.
35 x 45 cm.
"Noon Heat, A North African Village Pool."
Watercolor. 1923.
Watercolor. 1923.
38 x 48 cm.
"Algerian Landscape with Trees."
Watercolor. 1923.
53 x 50 cm.
"Bare Hillside and Bridge."
Watercolor. 1923.
46 x 63 cm.
Watercolor. 1924.
33 x 48 cm.
"Desert Village."
Watercolor. 1924.
Watercolor. 1924.
35 x 40 cm.
Watercolor. "Desert Oasis."
Watercolor. February 24th, 1924.
30 x 38 cm.
"St. Antonin."
43 x 40 cm.
"Artists Residence, France."
"Hillside, France."
35 x 58 cm.
"Street, Beziers."
Watercolor. March 17, 1924.
40 x 25 cm.
"Street, Beziers."
Watercolor. December 27, 1924.
38 x 50 cm.
"Street with the Bull-ring, Beziers."
Watercolor. 1924.
"Street, Beziers."
Watercolor. 1924.
53 x 33 cm.
"Cathedral, Beziers."
48 x 48 cm.
"Street, Beziers."
Watercolor. 1924.
"Street, Beziers."
Watercolor. Unfinished.
48 x 38 cm.
Watercolor. 1924.
50 x 30 cm.
"Street, Beziers."
Watercolor. 1925.
50 x 35 cm.
"Village Scene."
Watercolor. February 3rd, 1925.
35 x 50 cm.
"Sete Harbor."
38 x 40 cm.
"Sete Harbor."
43 x 43 cm.
"Ships Drying Sails."
38 x 27 cm.
43 x 53 cm.
43 x 50 cm.
"Canterbury Cathedral."
Watercolor. Easter 1929.
66 x 53 cm.
"Mont Saint Michel."
Oil Painting
Owen Merton, 1887 - 1931. Owen and Ruth Merton. Standing, from left:
John Llewellyn Charles Merton (Llyn), Alfred James Merton, Beatrice Katherine Merton (Ka), Sybil Mary Merton.
Seated, from left:
Owen Heathcote Grierson Merton, Gertrude Hannah Merton, Agnes Gertrude Stonehewer Merton (Kit), Gwynnedd Fanny Merton (Gwyn). [c.1909].

In a 1966 letter to one of his aunts, Gwynedd Merton Trier, Thomas Merton wrote asking about her knowledge of Owen Merton’s paintings:

“Have you any notion where his paintings are? . . . do you think there is any possibility of finding Father's pictures, if they survived the war, and doing something about them? Perhaps an exhibition could be arranged in this country and then those not sold could be placed somewhere where they could be seen."


And then, writing to his Aunt Kit on December 12, 1966:  

“Once again that brings back to mind the question of his paintings. At a nearby college [Bellarmine College] here they are collecting my manuscripts and so on, and I am sure they would also want any of the paintings that have no special place of their own. Instead of someone keeping them in storage, this might be a good idea. I remember speaking to you about it, and yet we do not seem to have decided anything. Have you any idea where I might find those that were not sold and were simply left in the care of Tudor-Hart or someone like that?”


Although Thomas Merton never got to see his Father’s work again before his death the Thomas Merton Center at Bellarmine University has, over the years, acquired a number of paintings by Owen Merton thus fulfilling Merton’s desire to see his Father’s work once more available to the public.


The Merton Center is hoping to find the funding to purchase further paintings by Owen Merton for the archives. If you are able to assist financially with this project please contact the director and archivist Paul M. Pearson or on 502 272 8177.

  © All images are copyright of the
 Thomas Merton Center
 at Bellarmine University

Links to Other Owen Merton Resources