Painted in Peel
The Group of Seven found much to inspire them in the hills and villages of Caledon. This fall, the Peel Heritage Complex mounts a major exhibition of works by the Group and their contemporaries.
Come autumn, local artists throw open their studios to the public. Like farmers celebrating the harvest, local artists have come to view fall as the time to celebrate the fruits of their year’s toil.
There are now well over 300 visual artists at work in the hills, according to Cheryl Russel, chair of the region’s annual Festival Art Show & Sale. They are drawn to the region for it landscape, either as their subject, or for the quiet and solitude it affords them in their labour.
In fact, they are heirs to a long tradition of painters who have come to the hills for inspiration. This fall, an exhibition at the Peel Heritage Complex in Brampton pays tribute to some of the most famous Canadian artists who ever set up easels in the hills and valleys and villages of Caledon.
Painted in Peel: Landscapes of the Group of Seven and their Contemporaries includes works by F.H. Varley, Franklin Carmichael, A.J. Casson, A.Y. Jackson, David Milne and other artists from the early to mid twentieth century.
The show was conceived by Judy Daley, assistant curator of the Peel Heritage Complex. Judy had been doing some research on the Canadian Heritage Information Network, an on-line catalogue of cultural resources, when she idly began keying in Peel place names. Names such as Palgrave, Alton and Meadowvale. The number of references that popped up astonished her. She tried a few more – Belfountain, Cheltenham, Terra Cotta. Not only was the list of references a long one, it included many of Canada’s most celebrated artists.
Judy presented her findings to curator David Somers, and an idea was born. The rest was just hard work. Tracking down works, securing permissions for loans, preparing the background material.
The result is the most ambitious show ever mounted by the Peel Art Gallery, featuring works on loan from the National Gallery of Canada, the McMichael Canadian Art Collection, the Art Gallery of Ontario and other institutions, as well as works from the Peel gallery’s own collection. In all, some 55 paintings will be on display, along with an intriguing assortment of letters, sketches and other artifacts related to the artists’ work.
The Group of Seven is most widely known for their depictions of the north: Algonquin Park and Georgian Bay, Algoma and the Superior coast, northern Quebec and the Arctic. In the Canadian vernacular, the Group has become synonymous with iconic images of windswept pines (asked to name a member of the Group of the Seven, an eager schoolchild once responded, “Jack Pine.”)
And certainly it was the north that infused the group’s idea of themselves and their search for a truly Canadian artistic voice. “We live on the fringe of the great North,” wrote Lawren Harris in 1928, “and its spiritual flow, its clarity, its replenishing power passes through us to the teeming people south of us.”
Again and again, members of the Group referred to the role of sweeping landscapes and elemental nature as the defining forces that shaped the distinctive Canadian character, and the central role of art in articulating that character. As Arthur Lismer described it:
“The typical qualities of such places as the Georgian Bay, Lake Superior, the Laurentians, the Northwest prairies, Rocky Mountains and the foothills: what grand pictures these call to mind, and what a background for the elemental forces of nature to sport in. The aspect of winter and the fall; the green riot of spring, storm and sunshine, against and on such a setting, are truly of epic grandeur – no timid play of subtleties, but bold and massive design.”
Still, the group members were mostly based in their studio on Severn Street in Toronto – and some of them, notably Harris and J.E.H. MacDonald, found considerable inspiration in the city’s residential streets and work yards. While they did take excursions into the northern wilderness, such journeys were arduous and time-consuming, even for dedicated lovers of the outdoors.
They discovered the nearer destinations in Peel were suitable for day outings, and proved a happy compromise. Besides, the combination of bucolic farmland, small villages and rugged escarpment had its own inspirational charms. In fact, most of the Group found much aesthetic appeal in the simple architectural shapes of the farming villages that spoke so eloquently of the rural Canadian experience.
David Milne, a contemporary closely associated with the Group, was so taken with this region that he rented a house off the main street of Palgrave where he lived with his wife, Patsy, from 1930 to 1933. Milne had spent several years in the U.S., but had found his arrangements there not conducive to pursuing his art. On their return to Canada, after a brief stay in Weston, he and his wife settled in Palgrave in the hope that low rent and a vegetable garden would help them keep their expenses down. Milne was attracted to the hilly terrain around the village, with its often dramatic play of light and shadow and its many artistic vantage points. And the location had the benefit of easy proximity by train or car to the cultural activity in Toronto.
Christine Boyanoski has written an essay on Milne’s stay in Palgrave that will appear in the Painted in Peel catalogue. In it she describes Milne’s Palgrave as a well-known tourist spot, popular for hunting and fishing on the Humber River in summer and for skiing in the winter. Milne is reported to have taught cross-country skiing to local villagers.
The Palgrave period was a productive one for Milne, allowing him the time to develop his painting and his own invented technique of colour drypoint etching. The Maple Bloom on Hiram’s Farm, Palgrave, one of several works by Milne in the Peel show, is an example of his distinctive technique.
Still, the pastoral hills of Caledon, however modest in comparison to the mountains of the Superior coast or the Laurentians, were not immune to the Group’s search for the elemental grandeur of nature. The little cluster of houses in A.J. Casson’s Credit Forks, for example, looks cosy enough, but it is dwarfed by the majestic escarpment that gleams in radiant autumn gold above them.
In her essay in the show catalogue, Joan Murray, former director of the Robert McLaughlin Gallery in Oshawa, says Casson, who had grown up in the country, described Credit Forks as the beginning of his “Alton period.” She points out the painting’s reference to Cubist methods, such as “geometric simplification of form, strong formal relationships, and a flattening of the picture plane. The result is a stylized modernist blend, solid and precise shapes, and clear colour areas.”
Bolton Hills by Franklin Carmichael, renders the autumn hills with a similarly dramatic boldness that may be barely recognizable to current residents of a village whose hills are now largely defined by suburban rooftops. Has the landscape changed, or is the seeming exaggeration of scale an artistic extraction of its intrinsic grandeur. So deeply has the Group’s vision of the Canadian landscape been absorbed into the national psyche that it is now hard to know whether the artists simply channelled the true character of Canada into their art, as they would have us believe, or whether we now see the landscape through the familiar lens of their interpretation.
Whether the former or the latter, their impact on Canadian art was not due so much to any rigid homogeneity in style but to the common impulse at the root of their inspiration.
“The source of our art, then, is not in the achievements of other artists in other days and lands, although it has learned a great deal from these,” said Lawren Harris. “Our art is founded on a long and growing love and understanding of the North in an ever clearer experience of oneness with the informing spirit of the whole land and a strange brooding sense of Mother Nature fostering a new race and a new age.”
By the time the seven original members formally founded the Group in 1920, most of them were in their mid to late thirties, and all were well-established and recognized for their work. Although they were strongly influenced by Impressionism and the modern movements in European art, their various styles were distinctive and unique. They were committed to experimentation, but less for its own sake than in order to remain open to the influence of their subject matter. True Canadians, their style was progressive, but not revolutionary; their attitudes inclusive rather than confrontational. And with rare exceptions their work received appreciative reviews.
In spite of the setbacks of the war, and in part because of Canada’s recognized role in the British victory, Canadians were still confident in Sir Wilfred Laurier’s prediction that the “twentieth century belonged to Canada.” In general, an optimistic and nationalistic public was receptive to the idea of a made-in-Canada artistic style. The Group’s enthusiasm for making art central to Canadian life, for extending it into the commercial spheres of publishing and industrial design, and into other artistic disciplines, including music, stage and literature, brought them into contact with many other working artists and the Group itself became increasingly loosely defined. (By the time it officially disbanded in 1933, it had 10 formal members and several other artists had come to be recognized as ‘unofficial’ members. They included Tom Thomson, who had disappeared in Algonquin Park in 1917, but was considered one of the group’s spiritual founders.)
The Group’s extraordinary influence is evident in the work of many of the other artists of the period who made their way to Caledon. Like the members of the Group, many of those artists took day trips to the countryside or kept summer studios in the villages.
George Broomfield, who grew up in Parkdale, painted and studied with the Group of Seven. After he located to Port Credit, he frequently painted in the region north of his home. His painting, Inglewood Road, Caledon Mountain, no doubt depicts a scene with which Broomfield had become intimately familiar in his excursions, especially those to visit his friend and fellow painter Tom Stone, who lived north of Inglewood near the Forks of the Credit.
Stone, who was older than Broomfield, came to Toronto from England as a young man and studied at the Ontario College of Art under Group of Seven artists Arthur Lismer and Frederick Varley. He moved to Caledon in the 1940s and lived and worked there until his death in 1978. In addition to painting the landscape, Stone was a diligent recorder of the architecture, industry and social life of the community. Many of his paintings are in the Peel gallery’s permanent collection. Three of them, Early Days at the Forks of the Credit, The Old Mill – Cataract, and Old Mill, Meadowvale are included in the Painted in Peel exhibition.
The exhibition also includes seven paintings set in the literally ‘picturesque’ village of Belfountain. One of them is Owen Staples’ Belfountain. Painted in 1931, it looks north past the Bush Street intersection, with the old Trimble gas station the clearly recognizable landmark it remains today.
During his prolific career, English-born Staples worked as a cartoonist and illustrator for the Toronto Evening Telegram and was a founder of the Toronto Arts and Letters Club. Although his subjects were primarily landscapes, he also had an interest in historical illustration. (By coincidence, one of his historical works will be exhibited this fall at the Traces: Art & History exhibition at Dufferin County Museum & Archives. It is descriptively titled, The Muster of the Thirty-sixth Peel Regiment at Orangeville on the Eve of the Departure against the Fenian Raid.)
Yet another Belfountain in the Peel Exhibition is by Alexander Fleming. Although it was completed just five years earlier than Staples’ painting, its classical style offers a counterpoint to the modernist influence of the Group of Seven.
Fleming lived in Belfountain from 1922 to 1929. Although he was a prolific and celebrated artist of his day, much of Fleming’s work has faded into obscurity. With large-scale landscapes, rendered in the classical style of Britain’s Royal Academy, Fleming “didn’t ever get the credit he deserved in the mad rush for the Group of Seven,” as one critic put it.
During his stay in Belfountain, Fleming attempted with some limited success to adapt to the changing times and develop a more impressionistic style. Gordon Spragge, an Erin resident who has collected many of Fleming’s works, including several Belfountain scenes, believes that, with the perspective of history, Fleming will be restored to a rightful place in the pantheon of Canadian art.
Other artists represented at the Peel exhibition include Curtis Williamson, Jack Bush, Barker Fairley and Bertram Brooker, among others.
In her introduction to the show catalogue, Judy Daley describes the Peel that inspired those early artists. “In 1946,” she says, “Peel’s total population numbered about 33,000, an increase of only 13,000 over what it had been in 1870. The post Second World War boom saw figures rise by over 400 per cent in just 20 years, with Peel’s population recently surpassing one million.”
Judy quotes Tom Stone’s “prescient observation” in 1972: “Toronto is expanding and expanding. Where’s it going to go? I think it will swamp this area in a few years.”
Indeed, many of Peel’s small villages, farms and wilderness areas have long-since been swallowed up by urban expansion, but in much of Caledon and further north in Dufferin, there are more artists than ever finding inspiration in the hills.