Toronto one hundred years ago was a thriving commercial city in the midst of the boom Canada had enjoyed since the turn of the century. Attracted by the promise of opportunities in the new country that contrasted with the bleak prospects he faced in his native North of England, Arthur Lismer emigrated there in 1911 and soon found a position in Toronto at the prestigious commercial design firm of Grip Ltd.
There he met J.E.H. MacDonald, by then the firm’s head designer, as well as Tom Thomson, also an accomplished commercial artist if still a novice as a painter, and the ebullient Frank Johnston, who Lismer would later depict with customary good humour in a series of cartoons. Lismer was excited by his adopted country, in particular by the beauty of wilderness areas such as Bon Echo Provincial Park in Southern Ontario, with its ancient native pictographs carved into the massive Mazinaw Rock as well as huge inscriptions from Lismer’s beloved Walt Whitman, whose writings were held dear by several of the future members of the Group of Seven.
What Toronto still lacked in those boom years was a public art gallery; these days, of course, it can boast the world-class Art Gallery of Ontario, designed by Toronto-born architect Frank Gehry and home to a superb collection of paintings by Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven, many of which have been loaned to the exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery, as well as several rooms devoted to David Milne, a singular Canadian genius whose work has been a major revelation for me on this trip.
One hundred years ago, there was little appetite for the visual arts. Even the National Gallery of Canada (NGC) in Ottawa was a poorly funded body whose budget for new paintings still strongly favoured older, more conservative European work.
Today the NGC is a magnificent institution with a substantial collection of art from all periods, including a significant holding of contemporary work and several rooms given to works by Thomson and the Group of Seven. What impressed me most about these paintings, which include Canadian classics such as MacDonald’s The Tangled Garden and The Solemn Land and Lawren Harris’s North Shore, Lake Superior, as well as several of the masterpieces leant to the show at Dulwich, was both their ambitious scale – many of these paintings are big – and their consistent clarity of design.
The aesthetics of commercial design was something these painters learned from and also something they had to get over, according to Charles Hill, Curator of Canadian Art at the NGC, who met me at the gallery. The sinuous naturalism and simplified colours of Art Nouveau would continue to surface periodically in MacDonald’s work throughout his life, while some of Thomson’s best early canvases are clearly informed by the style. However, the need to earn a living often left little time for painting, with only the most conservative painters guaranteed an income from selling their work. Still, though the climate for young Canadian artists with something new to say was undeniably hard, gradually some of the future members of the Group of Seven felt sufficiently confident to tackle the modern urban themes that other art movements, such as New York’s Ash Can School, were beginning to establish in the public consciousness as valid subjects for serious art.
Lawren Harris had studied in Berlin in the middle years of the previous decade, where his teacher, Franz Skarbina, had also made a name for himself as a painter of grimly realistic urban scenes. Harris returned to Toronto determined to achieve something entirely independent of the European painting styles he had spent so much time learning, but it was not until he saw an exhibition of paintings by J.E.H. MacDonald at Toronto’s recently formed Arts and Letters Club that he realised he was not alone in that ambition.
The famous photograph of The Group of Seven, minus Carmichael (see blog post from 02.09.11), was taken at the Arts and Letters Club in 1920, the year the Group formed and the year the Club moved into its permanent home at 14 Elm Street. I was given privileged access to the Arts and Letters Club archives during my visit there, for which I’m greatly indebted to the current president, Margaret McBurney, and my aunt, Jane Beecroft, who has long campaigned for Toronto’s heritage. The Club’s current members still sit and talk around the same solid oak tables seen in the photo.
Harris and MacDonald struck up a great friendship and, as well as painting a number of Toronto’s own gritty urban subjects, made several trips to places in the northern part of Southern Ontario and the Laurentian Mountains in Southern Quebec, where MacDonald sketched the study for Laurentian Hillside, October, a breakthrough work for the artist. Crucially for what they would later go on to achieve, in 1913 the two painters took a trip to the US city of Buffalo, just across the border at Niagara Falls, to see an exhibition of Scandinavian art including images by Harald Sohlberg and Gustaf Fjaestad. These painters’ decorative snowscapes were a revelation, reminding the young Canadians of their own landscape and suggesting a way forward that seemed to owe very little to mainstream European traditions.
Harris quickly realised that the new art movement needed a hub of activity. The heir to the massive Massey-Harris fortune, he not only had no need to earn a living, but was able to contribute substantial resources at significant moments toward the success of the new art movement. In 1913, sensing such a moment, he and Dr James MacCallum, the new movement’s first patron, advanced funds toward the construction of what would be called, with typical modernist functionality, The Studio Building.
Toronto is home to half of my extended family, and this project is in part an ancestral journey through a land where the Beecrofts have lived since the mid-19th century. With the help of another beloved aunt, the composer Norma Beecroft, and, in particular, David Silcox, President of Sotheby’s Canada and a renowned authority on Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven, I was shown around the Studio Building by current resident Abe Avraamides. Now a private home, albeit one with national significance, its three floors once housed six studios between them, each capaciously proportioned with broad, high windows, as video clip 18 on the CBC’s Painters in the Wilderness site makes clear.
Of the later members of the Group of Seven, only MacDonald, in addition to Harris himself, could afford to take sole possession of a studio in the new building, while Thomson and Jackson shared a studio between them. Jackson went off to war soon afterwards and Thomson, unable to afford the rent, moved into a shack behind the building. This dwelling, which is to Canadians what Dove Cottage is to the English, now sits in the grounds of the McMichael Canadian Art Collection in Kleinburg, north of Toronto.
It was at the McMichael that I finally met Jim and Sue Waddington, with whom I’d been exchanging emails for months before setting off on this journey. Jim and Sue have been seeking out Group of Seven painting sites for some 30 years and, by their own admission, have had a lot of fun in doing so. They now give talks all over the country and have helped enormously with some of the places I’m trying to find. Last year the McMichael staged an exhibition of their photographs displayed alongside the paintings whose views they record. The Footprints site that accompanied the show is probably the best resource on the Group of Seven anywhere on the web.
Dr James MacCallum was a leading ophthalmologist and a professor at the University of Toronto. Never an artist himself, he came to his love of painting through his passion for the Canadian wilderness.
His cottage on an island at the southern end of Georgian Bay became a haven to which most of the artists from the new movement were gradually invited to come and paint for extended periods during the summer months. Between 1912 and 1916, first MacDonald, then Lismer, Jackson, Thomson and Varley would all spend time there. It is perhaps remarkable that such a small geographical area would inspire so many of these painters’ early masterpieces, several of which, such as Varley’s Stormy Weather, Georgian Bay, Lismer’s September Gale, and Jackson’s Night, Pine Island and March Storm, Georgian Bay, are featured in the exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery.
For the next few weeks, as far as Thunder Bay on the west side of Lake Superior, I will be travelling with another Canadian relative, my uncle, the film-maker Stuart Beecroft, who, in addition to driving the two of us into some of Ontario’s more far-flung wilderness areas, will be shooting and editing two short films for the blog, the first of which will feature in the next post. My uncle and I were invited out to the islands in the southern part of Georgian Bay by George and Kittie Fells, who have spent many summers in their cottage in this otherworldly landscape. In fact, the wind that is such a constant hazard on Georgian Bay made the water too rough on the day we had planned to go even for the Fells’s motorboat to venture out. Lismer, his wife and young child encountered similar conditions the first time they tried to come out to MacCallum’s island and were forced to spend a night on another, more sheltered island before they could reach the MacCallum place.
We also tried again the following day, when the wind had eased, and eventually found the site of Varley’s Stormy Weather, Georgian Bay, also in the exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery, though not until it had dawned on us that the water level in the bay, as elsewhere in the Great Lakes, had dropped by several feet since this painting was done. Thus the wide channel of Varley’s image is considerably narrower today, and the white pine in the picture, though still standing (a remarkable feat in this hostile environment), is now wizened by age and weather and has a younger tree for close company.
A mile or so further out into the bay lie the Pine Islands, painted by both Jackson and Thomson, which both men reached by canoe where in less than ideal weather even going by motorboat can be a hazardous enterprise. Landing on South Pine Island, we quickly found the sites of two images loaned to the Dulwich exhibition: Thomson’s Pine Island, looking almost exactly like the sketch; and Jackson’s canvas Night, Pine Island (depicting the same trees as in Thomson’s picture, but across an inlet), a magical painting in which the artist has clearly compressed the natural dimensions of the island to fit neatly within the frame. Intriguingly, Jackson has also altered the direction of the wind-sculpting of the trees in his picture, as if the prevailing wind were from the east, not the west.
Such changes may illustrate nothing more than the difference between a sketch done in situ and a more considered studio work, or they may point to a fundamental difference in working methods between the two artists, as I hope to discover in exploring Algonquin Park, the area most associated with Tom Thomson, and the subject of my next blog post.
Julian’s Beecroft’s trans-Canada blog is exclusively available to DOV readers. Please do not hesitate to leave your comment in the box below. Julian will try to answer any questions during his journey. His next entry ‘ Algonquin Park’ will be available on 14 October.
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