The Ever-Disappearing Roy M. Mason

roy mason
Roy Martell Mason (1886–1972)

by Brooke Chilvers

I can think of no sadder words for an artist, whether living or dead, in an online reference “book” than “The page for such-and-such has been moved or removed.”  Yet in spite of his popularity with the public and the impact of his work on a future generation of sporting artists, outdoor watercolorist Roy Martell Mason (1886–1972) has disappeared once again. 

In 1974, two years after his death, two notable collectors dedicated an attractive book to Mason’s “working sketches and watercolors.”  But by 1987 Sports Afield featured an article on Roy Mason (that I could not track down) entitled, “America’s Forgotten Outdoor Artist.” And he was.  Although the slim and rare The Masons of Batavia: Artists All was published in 2000, there were no further peeps on Mason until art historian Victoria Schmitt’s 2009 piece in American Art Review.  Despite the sale of several hundred works over the years, the ring on Mason’s bell since then is silent.  

Carlton Island by Roy M. Mason

Mason achieved real success in the 1940s and ‘50s with his “ducks and geese, wild turkeys, fishing boats, hunters with their dogs, old buildings, and rugged shorelines,” as one author put it.  Still, it seems as if his talent to also paint California seascapes and even caricature portraits has somehow diminished his standing. It’s true that his clammy wildfowler hiding in the reeds or bringing home the decoys is not necessarily “suitable” for museum walls.  But his bold, distinctly American colorist landscapes belong everywhere. There is great appeal in quiet works like Geese in a Pond; and Off Hatteras was “fine art” enough to hang in the American Watercolor Society’s 1946 Members’ Exhibition. 

In the 1950s, Mason did a few covers for Collier’s magazine, the ducks flying around the Reader’s Digest’s distinctive table-of-contents layout, and the canoe scene on True magazine is unmistakably his.  But unlike just about every other sporting artist, it seems Mason never depended on magazine illustration to pay the bills.  And although an avid outdoorsman who sought sport on the Gaspé Peninsula, the Great Smokies, and as far south as the Carolinas, there is no mention of his seeking out commissions in the hunting clubs and fishing lodges of millionaires.   

Cover for Collier’s magazine (1950)

It looks like the artist just painted what he wanted, sold his watercolors through good galleries such as Manhattan’s Macbeth and Grand Central Art Galleries, at exhibitions at the National Academy of Design and the Salmagundi Club, and art associations from Buffalo to Laguna.  He also gave numerous works to friends and neighbors, as well as to clubs, libraries and hospitals.  They also hang in banks and boardrooms. 

Cover for Reader’s Digest (1952)

Roy Martell Mason could do this because for most of his life, he worked a fulltime job as both art director and sales manager for the family business, F. E. Mason and Sons, Makers of Embossed Seals & Labels, established in 1907 by his father, Frank, in Batavia, New York.  In fact, other than a brief spell in Philadelphia, where he mostly worked for Ketterlinus Lithographic Company, from 1917 to 1946 Roy had a job.  As did his artist siblings, older sister and portrait artist Nina Mason Booth, and younger brother, the landscape artist, Max.  Everybody in the family worked for the family.