The Corner Store by Lawren Harris

The Corner Store by Lawren Harris (c.1920)

A few weeks ago I visited family in London and as usual I just had time to take in one art gallery as recompense for a crowded, although fast, rail journey.  The problem I faced was which gallery to visit.  I suppose logically I should go for the Leonardo exhibition on at the National Gallery which is receiving such rave reviews.  However as I thought it would be too crowded I postponed that delight until next January.  In the end I plumped for the Dulwich Gallery which lies south of the Thames and went to see a Canadian art exhibition entitled Painting Canada, Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven.  Over the next few weeks I will give you a taste of some of the works by Thomson himself and some of the other artists who were part of The Group of Seven.

The Group of Seven, also sometimes known as the Alonquin School, were a group of Canadian landscape painters from 1920-1933.  The seven members of the group were Franklin Carmichael, Lawren Harris, Alexander Young (A.Y.) Jackson, Franz Johnston, Arthur Lismer, James Edward Hervey (J.E.H.) MacDonald and Frederick Varley.   Tom Thomson who was part of the movement died in 1917 before the official formation and naming of the Group of Seven but has always been considered one of the group’s founders.  This group of artists was to become noted for its works, which were inspired by the landscape of their country and in some ways are looked upon as being part of the first Canadian national art movement.

Many of the movement, namely Thomson, Varley, Lismer, MacDonald, Johnston and Carmichael had met when they all worked at Grip Limited, which was the name of the Toronto design firm and which was home to many of Canada’s foremost designers and painters during the first half of the 20th century.  Later the final two members of the group, Jackson and Harris would join the firm.  The Group was financially sound due, in the main, to the financial support from one of its members, Lawren Harris, whose parents owned the Massey Harris farm machinery company which would be later known as Massey Ferguson.

My choice for the first featured artist of the Group of Seven is Lawren Harris.  Lawren was born in Brantford, Ontario in 1885. He was the first born of two sons.   Lawren had a radically different background from that of the other artists of the Group of Seven.  As I said earlier, Lawren came from a wealthy conservative family of industrialists as the Harris family was co-owners of the Massey-Harris agricultural equipment conglomerate.  Harris had the luxury every aspiring artist could only dream of and he was able to pursue a career in the arts without ever having to worry about holding down a regular job.

He was privately educated and received his initial education at the Central Technical School and later the independent St Andrew’s College at Rosedale.  At the age of nineteen he went to Berlin to study where he remained for three years.  There he studied philosophy and became interested in theosophy, which in its modern presentation, is a spiritual philosophy which has developed since the late 19th century.

He returned to Canada in 1908 and once again settled in Toronto and became a founder member of the Arts and Letters Club, which was a club whose sole purpose was to be a rendezvous where people of diverse interests might meet for mutual fellowship and artistic creativity.

One may have thought that Harris, with his wealthy background, would concentrate on the wealthy aspects of life in Toronto for the subjects of his art but in fact his first subject after returning from Berlin was a series of six paintings of houses in what was known as the Ward, an area where much of the Toronto immigrants lived.  My featured painting in My Daily Art Display today is one Harris completed in 1920, entitled The Corner Store and is housed at the Art Gallery of Ontario and is in complete contrast to his later paintings which I will feature in a forthcoming blog along with the rest of his life story.  The painting is not of one of the beautiful mansions of his home area of Rosedale but of a simple building which housed the local grocery store.   Lawren Harris appreciated the simplicity of its structure which contrasted with the complicated and erratic patterns of the shadows cast by the trees on the shop’s frontage.  I love the way the bright winter sunlight illuminates the shop’s façade.  I love the colours of the pale green wooden window shutters which contrast beautifully with the terracotta- red trim of the window surrounds.  Look at the tranquil and cloudless blue sky above the building.  This is a beautiful portrayal of a winter’s scene.

In a few months time a number of us will be overwhelmed by snow and curse winter so maybe snow is a beautiful thing if it is reserved for postcards, Christmas cards and paintings like this one.