Lost Art of Fitz Roy Dixon

A chance discovery on an internet auction led to the discovery of a substantial body of work by Canadian painter Francis Fitz Roy Dixon.

Written by Jon Dellandrea

January 13, 2017

The newly discovered paintings by Francis Fitz Roy Dixon (1856–1914) number more than seventy. They have never been exhibited and have been stored away, literally out of the light of day, for the past century or so.

While Dixon’s work is not totally unknown, so little of it is in the public domain that scholars and collectors have paid it scant attention.

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Fifteen or so of Dixon’s paintings can be found in the collections of the Royal Ontario Museum, the Library and Archives of Canada, the Manitoba Provincial Archives, the Winnipeg Art Gallery and a private collection or two.

There are records of a small number of works being offered for public sale over the years and there has been one public presentation of note of Dixon’s work. In April 1973, Fitz Roy’s grandson, Leo Hay Murphy of Ottawa, presented a talk on the subject to the Gatineau Valley Historical Society. He illustrated his talk with “a number of paintings never seen in public.”

As a result of the Internet offering and through subsequent fortuitous circumstances, and contact with descendants in three countries, Dixon’s art, sketch books and related archival materials have come to light and research is underway for a book on Dixon’s remarkable life and art.

Born in Batticaloa, Ceylon, in July 1856, Dixon was the son of Charles Dixon a “landed proprietor” and Emily Sarah Gray. His father, Charles Dixon died when Francis was only five.

His grandfather Colonel Charles George Dixon, the founder of the town of Beawar in India, was an officer in the British Colonial Administration who died during the “Indian Uprising of 1857” when Francis was a baby.

It is likely that Dixon’s childhood memories included family stories of the tragic events of 1857 in India and the death of his grandfather.

Trained as a painter and an engineer in England in the late 1860s, Dixon returned to Ceylon and began his artistic career in Ceylon in the early 1870s. He painted the landscape of Ceylon as he saw it with particular attention to the interplay of people and place.

In 1880 Dixon, his wife Sophie and their baby daughter Marguerite left Ceylon and journeyed through the Suez Canal. After a two month stop in the south of France at L’Estaque near Marseilles where he painted extensively, the Dixon family made the journey to North America and ultimately to Manitoba.

The Dixon’s first home in North America was built near Millford, Manitoba, (now a ghost town) in 1881. His images of the area may convey a sense of peaceful pioneer life, but the events of the time in the area were far from peaceful. In September of 1884 he was appointed a justice of the peace for Manitoba. A year later, the North West Rebellion broke out. Dixon was therefore more than a casual observer of the upheaval of the times.

Curiously, F. Fitz Roy Dixon, having been born during the time of one uprising in India, found himself less than thirty years later on the fringe of another in North America. Big Bear, the powerful Cree chief, had signed Treaty 6 in 1882, but by 1885 the Frog Lake area which he occupied was in turmoil. The history of this period has been well-documented by eye-witnesses, participants and subsequent historians.

By all accounts it was a troubling time of broken promises, violated treaties, starving First Nations people and a resulting bubbling cauldron of discontent. At the depth of this discontent was a contentious struggle over land and land dealings.

The 29-year-old Dixon, whose family experiences and tragedies had been shaped by remarkably similar forces in colonial India, found himself on the edge of a festering conflict which was tearing apart his new homeland.

The years following the period of the rebellion for Dixon were filled with travel across the country as his position with the Department of Dominion Lands required him to inspect the Dominion Lands Offices in their various locations.

He painted the landscapes as he saw them from Manitoba and the North West Territories, to Ontario and the Gatineau hills and rivers of Quebec.

In the late 1890s when the Dominion Lands Office in Winnipeg relocated to Ottawa, Dixon and his wife and family moved to Ottawa where his professional life and his painting career flourished.

A version of this story appeared in the February-March 2017 issue of Canada's History magazine.

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