Lawren Harris, "Cottages," circa 1916, oil on panel, 10.8” x 13.8”.
Lawren Harris (1885 – 1970)
By Portia Priegert
With its horizontal brushstrokes and rich complementary colours, Cottages is a gorgeous painting from a pivotal era that saw the emergence of one of Canada’s most influential art movements. The blithe autumn scene bears none of the weight of the war years although it was likely painted in Toronto in 1916, when Lawren Harris, soon to become famous as a member of the Group of Seven, was on a two-week leave from Camp Borden, a military training centre north of the city.
Cottages had languished in the relative obscurity of a private collection for nine decades when Calgary art dealer Rod Green received a call from a friend of the family that owned it. When Green, a partner at Masters Gallery, saw what was on offer, he was stunned. “The hair on the back of my neck went up,” he says.
Green, who consulted a curator at the National Gallery of Canada, says Cottages, valued at $500,000, can be traced to a 1922 art show in Sarnia, Ont. A local lawyer who knew James MacCallum, a Toronto eye doctor with close ties to the Group of Seven, helped organize a series of art sales in the early 1920s to raise money for Sarnia’s library. This led to an unlikely cache of the group’s early paintings – then considered quite radical – in the small industrial city on Lake Huron. Cottages sold for $35, a substantial sum in 1922. Nothing is known about the building in the painting – what we now call a duplex – or how Harris came to paint it.
Harris, who came from a wealthy family and is considered the intellectual leader of the group, eventually moved to the stark, spiritually infused landscapes for which he’s best known. His paintings, which have sold for more than $2 million, are receiving renewed critical attention. Canadian Visionary, the Vancouver Art Gallery’s retrospective, ends May 4. Another major show, which will be launched in Los Angeles in 2015, finishes its tour in Toronto at the Art Gallery of Ontario.