After receiving a sheaf of artworks in August 2011, Richard Rodriguez, the American journalist, author and essayist, sent a message to the artist: ‘Your gift – the magnificent Nova Cantabrigiensis – arrived today … This is a “naïve” art that only the holy can aspire to … I am envious. I am in awe. The angels would draw this way, if they could.’
For the sender, the visionary artist John Devlin, Nova Cantabrigiensis – ‘New Cambridge’, the imaginary city depicted in the artwork – has become an enchanted alternative to Nova Scotia (originally ‘New Scotland’), the real province of Canada in which he lives today.
Intending to join the priesthood, in 1979 Devlin left his native Canada at the age of 25 to travel to England, where he began to study theology at St Edmund’s College of the University of Cambridge. It was there, after less than a year, that he simultaneously underwent an epiphany and suffered a breakdown, the first of many psychotic episodes that forced him back to Canada for hospital treatment followed by a long drawn-out convalescence.
During the decades that followed, working on the back of found documents, on notepaper and pages from exercise books, John laboured to produce hundreds of images inspired by the architecture of the medieval city in which he had briefly been content. His New Cambridge is a cityscape, a utopia, recreated, he imagines, on an artificial island in the muddy tides of the Minas Basin on the North Atlantic coast of Canada. Though it resembles the real English city of colleges with its juxtaposed classical and gothic building styles, its ornamental gardens and carefully delineated pathways, the artist has added embellishments of his own invention: rotating fountains, islets, pyramids, flags, even lasers. Here and there a pair or a trio of tiny figures, Devlin himself and his friends, walking with a dog between the colonnades and across the parks. Above the little figures’ heads are haloes.