Studio Building (Toronto)
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|The Studio Building|
|National Historic Site of Canada|
|Designated as a NHSC||2005|
|Other designations||Designated by the City of Toronto under the Ontario Heritage Act by By-law 115-2003|
The Studio Building in Toronto, Ontario, Canada was the home and working studio of several of the Group of Seven painters, their predecessors, and their artistic descendants, and is of enormous significance in the history of Canadian art. The building was designated a National Historic Site of Canada in 2005.
Situated at 25 Severn Street, it is located in the Rosedale ravine immediately east of the above-ground Ellis portal that brings subway trains into and out of the north end of the Bloor-Yonge subway station. The site and positioning takes advantage of the northern exposure that illuminates the artist's canvas with very even, neutral light.
Financed by Lawren Harris, heir to the Massey-Harris farm machinery fortune, and Dr James MacCallum, it was a nonprofit facility (the rents were pegged at a level that would cover only expenses). The building was designed by Arts and Crafts architect Eden Smith, and completed in 1914.
Harris and MacCallum intended the building to be a living, meeting, socializing and, most importantly, a working facility for artists to foster and promote a uniquely Canadian art movement based largely on portraying the landscape of the country. The European styles then in vogue were seen as too subtle for the largely untamed Canadian wilderness.
Harris, overseeing construction of the building, was too busy to concentrate on his own artistic endeavours and loaned his own studio space, over the Commerce Bank branch at the northwest corner of Yonge and Bloor streets, to a newly arrived Montrealer, A.Y. Jackson. The spot is now occupied by the 34-storey 2 Bloor West. Jackson was a welcome addition to the Toronto art scene, having travelled in Europe and bringing with him a respected - though as yet not particularly successful - talent. The canvas taking shape while he waited to move into the Studio Building, "Terre Sauvage," became one of his most famous. In January 1914 the Studio Building was ready for occupation.
Tom Thomson was another of the first residents of the building. The epitome of the starving artist, he had been persuaded to quit the Grip Ltd art design agency, take up residence in the Studio Building, and devote his energies, full-time, to his art. MacCallum financially supported Thomson, who initially shared studio 1 with A. Y. Jackson, for the first twelve months. When Jackson left to work for the government documenting Canadians fighting World War I and Harris departed to be a gunnery instructor, Thomson moved in to share a studio with Franklin Carmichael. When Carmichael married and left a few months later Thomson, still commercially unsuccessful (he would never, in his lifetime, earn enough to make a living from painting alone) could not afford the $22 monthly studio rental fee. There was another factor: Thomson had never really enjoyed working in the city, felt that a studio was "pretentious," and wanted to work in an environment closer to his beloved wilderness settings. His obvious talent was a great inspiration to the other, older artists, and they were unwilling to see their friend move away. MacCallum spent $176 (a considerable sum in those days) to refurbish a workmen's shed on the east side of the building; it was there, for $1 a month, that Thomson spent his last winters. (Thomson would spend the summers in Algonquin Park as a ranger and fire-fighter and then decamp, during the winter, to Toronto and the Studio Building to work oil sketches made during the summer and fall into full canvases.)
Though his influence on their work is undeniable, Thomson was never a member of the Group of Seven. He died young in July 1917, in mysterious circumstances, while canoeing on Canoe Lake in Algonquin Park. Executors of his will discovered the easel on which he had made his last and greatest masterpiece, The West Wind, standing in the shack. "The West Wind" is now displayed at the Art Gallery of Ontario, in Toronto.
On his return from WWI, Jackson again took up residence, but this time on the top floor, in Studio 6. He removed Thomson's easel, made by Thomson's own hand, from the shed and used it for all the subsequent pictures he produced in the Studio Building. Shortly after he returned from wintering on Georgian Bay, he learned that in his absence he had been included in an informal group of Studio Building artists, exhibiting for the first time, called the Group of Seven. The resulting show had mixed results, but the Group was able to capitalize on the criticism they received; they were seen as vanguards of a new art style that was uniquely Canadian and challenging dated tastes.
When in November 1927 the West Coast artist Emily Carr took part in a show of western native art at the National Gallery in Ottawa, the government provided her with the train fare to help open the exhibit. The conservative colonial art scene on the coast found her work too avant-garde, preferring their paintings to be in the older Romantic style of British artists like Constable, and Carr was feeling dispirited.
On the way to Ottawa she stopped in Toronto and visited the Studio Building, the first time to see A. Y. Jackson's work. He had made his way, as had she, up British Columbia's Skeena River, and Jackson showed her the work he had done there. She wrote in her diary, later, about feeling "a little as if beaten at my own game," but that her versions, she believed, "had more love in them of the people and the country."
Three days later, on the 17th, after making her way up the stairs to Lawren Harris's studio, she had what she and her critics agree was the creative epiphany of her career. As she sat on the couch in his studio, Harris brought out one painting after another; Carr was mesmerized "like a dumbfounded fool," and inspired. She wrote that no other artwork she had ever seen, even in Europe, had so affected her "right to the very core." Back in her room at the Tuxedo Hotel on Sherbourne Street she was unable to sleep, and that meeting on the third floor of the Studio Building was to leave a permanent impression. His ascetic yet dynamic depictions of the Canadian landscape would greatly influence her own work on her return to her native province. The spare depictions and sweeping wind-blown trees and clouds of her post-1927 paintings, considered her best work, are products of that late autumn meeting in the Studio Building. Some say that if she hadn't been a woman, there would have been a Group of Eight with a representative on the West Coast. Her continuing relationship with the Group was a tremendous source of support in the following years.
As much as the creative influence lingered, the personal friendship suffered enormously when, in 1934, Harris left his own wife and three children. He had fallen in love with Bess, the wife of another painter, Fred Housser. The couple moved to New Hampshire, partly to escape the resulting scandal and outrage in Toronto. The move caused a permanent rupture in Harris's friendship with Carr, who considered the act immoral.
Harris's art had drifted away from the landscape works of the original group, and influenced by his interest in theosophy, had turned more to the abstract. By 1940 he was living in Vancouver, and his ties to the Studio Building, except emotional, were for all intents and purposes severed. In 1948 he sold the Studio Building to lawyer-turned-artist Gordon MacNamara and a partner for $20,000.
The Studio Building was well beyond its heyday. A.Y. Jackson, who by now was the only remaining member of the original tenants and even of the Group of Seven still living in the building, said in his autobiography "A Painter's Country", that MacNamara slipped notes under the door of his studio complaining about the noise of his hammering while stretching canvases - MacNamara was a watercolourist working on paper - and mandating that Jackson would have to do his prep work in the basement. He left other notes, admonishing Jackson for walking about in his studio, insisting that he wear felt-soled shoes to muffle the noise. An unhappy Jackson left the building in 1955 with Lawren Harris mourning, in a letter from Vancouver:
Your moving from the Studio Building marks the end of an era, the one era of creative art that has the greatest significance for Canada... You were the real force and inspiration that led all of us into a modern conception that suited this country, and the last to leave the home base of operations.
It was only after lengthy negotiations with MacNamara that art collector Robert McMichael, in 1962, was able to purchase Tom Thomson's old shack and have it removed for exhibit at the McMichael gallery in Kleinberg, northwest of the city. MacNamara was concerned that locals, who were well aware of the shed's historic significance, might think him too eager to dispose of it. The terms, when finalized, stipulated that McMichael would pay MacNamara $800 and landscape the resulting vacant spot so as to remove any trace of the shed's presence.
MacNamara himself faced challenges near the end of his long life when the City of Toronto approved a proposal by Canadian Tire in 2003 to construct 18- and 25-storey condominium towers on the western side of the ravine. As the condominium buildings threatened to destroy the quality of light that artist tenants had enjoyed for nine decades, MacNamara appealed the approval to the Ontario Municipal Board. MacNamara eventually withdrew his appeals, and the condominium approvals came into full force and effect. As a condition of his withdrawal, he received a $75,000 settlement from Canadian Tire.
Backed by endorsements from the National Gallery of Canada, the Art Gallery of Ontario, and the Architectural Conservancy of Ontario, MacNamara applied for — and won — National Historic Site status for the building.
Gordon MacNamara died in 2006, leaving the future of the building in some question. His son has expressed interest in selling the building, appraised for $1.37 million. While its designation as an historic site protects only the outside of the building, many hope that a new owner will do as much as possible to protect its legacy as a Canadian art treasure.
- 25 Severn Street, City of Toronto Inventory of Heritage Properties
- The Studio Building, Directory of Designations of National Historic Significance of Canada
- The Studio Building, National Register of Historic Places
- Nasmith, Catherine. "Studio Building-Post Script". Built Heritage News. Issue no. 39. 2004-09-03. Retrieved 2008-07-01.
- Jackson, A.Y.: A Painter's Country: The Autobiography of A.Y. Jackson, Clarke Irwin & Company Ltd.; Toronto, 1958. ISBN 0772011028
- Larsen, Wayne: A.Y. Jackson: A Love for the Land, XYZ Publishing; Lantzville, B.C., 2003. ISBN 1-894852-06-0
- McMichael, Robert: One Man's Obsession, Prentice-Hall Canada Inc.;Scarborough Ontario, 1986. ISBN 0-13-566944-8
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Studio Building, Toronto.|
- Art News Canada, "Group of Seven's Legendary Studio Up for Grabs?"
- CBC News report about Gordon MacNamara's fight against Canadian Tire's condo development (includes video footage)