Workingman’s Art
The Quiet Brilliance of Townsend Howe
By John Walters

The artist is sitting in front of his easel. He’s not painting; he’s talking about painting. But he chose to sit here, even without a brush in hand, because it’s clearly the one place in the world where he feels most comfortable. “It’s what I like to do best,” he says, in a gentle, barely audible voice. Wherever he has been, whatever else he has done, Townsend Howe has always painted.

He is perched on a chair that combines the height of a barstool and the support of an office chair — the perfect combination for his work. “I used to stand when I painted,” he explains, “but I can’t do that anymore.”

The 79-year-old Howe moves slowly these days. His body is thin and frail, the result of chronic lung disease caused by a lifetime of heavy smoking, “especially when I was painting.” And he’s done a whole lot of painting — even through the many years when art, by necessity, was only a spare time activity. Today, he is an established artist with a devoted following. But there remains a profound humility about the man, a humility born of his decades of struggle.

Real life on canvas
A yellowed newspaper clipping from 1946 provides a sample of the young Townsend Howe’s work: a street scene in his hometown of Rahway, N.J. It’s not a pretty scene; some undistinguished buildings, a parked car at the center, a bare tree off to the right, some power lines in the background. The painting won a national award for teen artists.

His technique has improved immeasurably since then, but the hallmarks of his work remain essentially unchanged. He likes to paint outdoor scenes, but he doesn’t go for the conventionally beautiful; he prefers to take life as it comes. If there’s a phone booth, a utility pole or a gas station in the scene, it’s in the painting as well. “I’ve always been reluctant to redesign or alter the composition,” he says.

His style is Impressionistic. If you step back from a Townsend Howe, it looks realistic; step closer, and the images dissolve into brush strokes. His palette is generally subdued — although he lives in an area noted for bright fall colors, he’s best known for winter scenes. He often paints on oversized canvases; many of his works are 4 by 6 feet or even larger.

Howe specializes in landscapes, but he’s never been one to head for Skowhegan or Giverny or Tahiti. He’s painted wherever he has been, from the decks of a battleship to the garden outside his studio. Since 1970, his inspiration has been the Kearsarge-Sunapee area. He has painted hundreds of scenes. If you could gather them all in one place, you’d have an impressive visual record of the area’s towns and countryside.

Locally, Howe’s work can be seen at the New London Gallery. Indeed, they occupy the most prominent place in the store: right up front. “We’ve had people walk by, and then stop, and come back,” says co-owner Sonia Garre. “Especially the large paintings — from far away they make a huge impression.”

An artist’s journey
Several paintings hang on the walls of Howe’s studio. One is particularly striking: an image from memory of his childhood home in Rahway. The colors are muted, the windows dark, the house is obscured behind seven bare trees. A single isolated figure sits on the front porch. All in all, it seems a forbidding place.

Townsend Howe was born on May 20, 1929. He was the youngest of three children; his siblings were 12 and 15 years older. His father was a partner in a major New York City construction firm, whose life and livelihood were shattered by the Depression. “He was very energetic, always on the go,” Howe recalls. “Then the Depression came, and there was no work. My sister said that’s what killed him.” Howe’s father died of heart failure in 1934.

Howe’s mother struggled to make ends meet. She sold used books and knickknacks, she took in boarders, she did laundry. Eventually the family house had to be sold; perhaps the darkened windows of the painting are a memory of leaving the empty house for the last time.

His childhood offered two respites. One was summer camp at Ragged Lake Camp in Andover. How did a New Jersey kid wind up at a Granite State camp? “The son of the owner lived in Rahway,” he says. “The place was well known around town.” Howe’s future wife Margaret, also a Rahway native, spent her summers at the nearby girls’ camp.

The other, and more enduring, respite was art. His affection for painting was sparked by an eighth-grade teacher. “She was enthralled with something I did,” he says. “I was never a real student; this came naturally, so I didn’t have to read a book or something.”

He continued to paint through his teen years, and won multiple prizes in art competitions. One of his paintings was published in a national magazine. After high school, he got a scholarship to study at the Art Students’ League, an art school in New York City. But the experience discouraged him; he says he discovered “what I didn’t know” and “how good the other guy was.”

Howe shows no emotion, but it must have been a shattering experience. It certainly forced his artistic ambitions to the sideline, as he turned to other ways of making a living. He spent four years in the Navy, five years as a commercial illustrator and more than a decade as an art instructor for a correspondence school. All the while, he devoted his spare time to painting. “He did 40 to 50 paintings a year,” says his son Paul. “He was always trying to make it better.”

In 1970, Howe moved to New London, and opened the Townsend Studio and Gallery on Main Street. He thought he would have lots of time to paint, but the business was too successful. He was working harder than ever.

Finally, after eight years of framing other people’s art, he closed the shop, moved to Wilmot and became a full-time artist. But he had no idea how to market himself, and struggled to make ends meet. “After about five years, I was almost ready to give up,” he says. “Then I put an ad in the Shopper: ‘Paintings for sale.’”

It was the turning point. “People hadn’t realized I was still around,” he says. “They came out, and bought quite a few paintings. It got me going.”

For the first time, at the age of 56, Howe was not only painting — he was selling his work. Today, Howe is well known throughout the Northeast, and his paintings sell for thousands of dollars apiece. He is grateful for his success; not because he wants to be rich or famous, but simply because it allows him to go on painting.

The colors of twilight
An unfinished canvas sits on Howe’s easel. To his left, on a smaller easel, is the photograph he is working from: a flowerpot full of bright red blossoms and green leaves. Look out the studio door, and you’ll see the flowerpot sitting on the deck of his home.

The great Impressionist Claude Monet spent his later years painting the gardens and ponds of his home. Howe is doing likewise, although his garden is not nearly as grand as Monet’s. No ponds, lily pads or Japanese bridges; just shrubs and bright flowers, a white picket fence and a rambunctious little Shih Tzu named Charlie.

This narrowing focus is not a matter of choice; it’s dictated by Howe’s infirmity. His days of traveling around the area looking for inspiration have come to an end. There’s a sense of regret, of loss, in his words and manner. But still, he paints. And while it may be true that art “came naturally” to him, it’s also true that he has refined his talent through a relentless devotion to painting.

John Walters is a freelance writer; his articles have appeared in numerous magazines and newspapers in the area. He is a former host and anchor at New Hampshire Public Radio. John and his wife own a home in Elkins.
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