A tale of two Gil Reid paintings

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Tuesday, June 22, 2021

Kevin Keefe (left) and Denny Hamilton (third from left) present two Gil Reid paintings to Center for Railroad Photography & Art Archivist Adrienne Evans and Executive Director Scott Lothes at CRPA's offices on June 17.
“A work of art which did not begin in emotion is not art.” — Paul Cezanne

My old friend Gil Reid would smack me upside the head if he knew I was using the great French post-Impressionist to make a point about his railroad paintings, but it strikes me that Cezanne could have been talking about Gil and the wonderful body of work he created over a 60-year career. Always self-effacing, I can hear Gil saying, “Keefe! Knock that off!”

Sorry, Gil, but I decided the quote was apt last week as I made my way to the Madison offices of the Center for Railroad Photography & Art, there to participate in the donation of two terrific Reid paintings. The Center is known for its hundreds of thousands of archived photographs, but it also has a small but growing collection of original art. I was there to give the Center a painting from my own collection, along with my friend Denny Hamilton, who brought another Gil Reid donated by our late friend and colleague, former Trains Editor J. David Ingles. 

The thing about Gil’s paintings is that so often they seem to vibrate with emotion. I’ve known countless people who have dedicated their lives in one way or the other to portraying or celebrating railroading, but none could top Gil for revealing the sheer joy of the undertaking. 

While it’s true that Gil’s paintings lacked some of the precision of those of his contemporary (and lifelong pal) Howard Fogg, his work is of equal power. Just look at all the great book covers Gil did over the years, mostly for Kalmbach. Long before I met him in 1974, I’d become attached to his work as it appeared on the dusk jackets of The Nickel Plate StoryThe Interurban Era, and The Hiawatha Story.

Artwork by Gil Reid graces the dust jackets of four landmark books from the 1960s and early '70s.
My favorite was a masterful night painting for the jacket of William D. Middleton’s South Shore: The Last Interurban, first published by Golden West in 1970. As with all Gil’s paintings, you can smell the creosote, feel the drenching rain, and hear the snap of an arcing pantograph. He really knew how to engage the viewer.

The two paintings we presented in Madison are cases in point. As so often happens with original art, mine made a circuitous journey. Gil painted it in 1976 for Hugh Stephens, a former vice president of sales at Kalmbach Publishing, where all of us worked at one time or another. Hugh was known as “The Chief,” and was the father of one of my closest friends, Michael R. Stephens, himself an ex-Kalmbach VP. Hugh died in 2004 at age 93 and bequeathed it to Michael, who in turn gave it to me shortly before his untimely early death in 2015 at age 62.

The painting of a Ps-4 Pacific on the Crescent was right out of the Chief’s early life. Hugh Stephens spent much of his youth attending Hargrave Military Academy in Chatham, Va., and never lost that euphonious Virginia accent. He loved the Southern Railway, which grazed the Hargrave campus, and presumably approved of the exacting way Gil executed not only the colors of No. 1396 but also its valve gear and elegant Georgian lines. After 1976, the painting was displayed prominently in the Chief’s living room for 20 years. When Michael handed it to me in his last weeks (along with another Reid original for my editor, Rob McGonigal), it was one of the most touching moments of my life.

Reid's love of steam locomotives is evident in many of his paintings, such as this watercolor of a Southern Ps-4 on the Crescent Limited.
Dave Ingles’ painting is, in some ways, even more appealing to me. I never witnessed the steam-powered Crescent, as the Chief surely did countless times. But I’ve been to Homewood, Ill., and I know how fascinating the always-busy Illinois Central can be, even today in the era of Canadian National, Amtrak, and Metra. And while, sadly, I never witnessed an IC 4-8-2, I saw my share of IC brown-and-orange streamliners and heavyweight M.U. cars. 

Gil painted the Homewood scene in 1992 for J.D.I.’s dad, John S. Ingles, himself a veteran railroader who was once on the IC payroll. John was a sparkplug of a guy who kept doing railroad research almost up to his death in 2003 at age 95. The painting then went to Dave, who was able to enjoy it for many more years.

Gil’s depiction of Homewood certainly hit a nerve with my former boss. “Looking at the scene,” J.D.I. wrote, “I can reflect on my thousands of miles aboard those old 1926 M.U.s between Homewood and Randolph Street, Chicago. (Such things as clothes shopping and dentists were ‘downtown’ in the Loop in those days, for there were no suburban shopping centers or big clinics yet.) And while I never rode the true Panama out of Homewood, I can reflect on ‘my’ IC streamliners, the Green Diamond, and its stubbed successor, the Governor’s Special, to and from Springfield.”

Gil Reid and Kevin Keefe share a light moment during a 2002 road trip in Pennsylvania. Robert S. McGonigal
Dave was chary with his praise for just about anything, but I know the painting meant a lot to him. There’s no question in my mind that in researching the painting, Gil went beyond simply studying the lines and colors of a 4-8-2 or an observation car. He knew the subject was dear to a father and son and set about capturing that attachment on paper.

I saw Gil Reid nearly every working day for two years, 1974–76, and look back on those times as a privilege. Gil designed dozens of promotions for me when I worked in Kalmbach’s Sales Department. Later, when I was editor of Trains, he was eager to take on the occasional commission, especially when it involved the hell-raising stories of longtime PRR engineer John R. Crosby. The finished painting was always perfect.

Perhaps another close friend of Gil’s, retired railroader and Classic Trains contributor Chris Burger, reflecting on Gil’s death in 2007 at age 88, said it best: “I’ve always thought that Gil’s artwork reflects his personality — positive, generous, outgoing, and enthusiastic. No one loved railroading more than he did.”

The proof is in those paintings.

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