“By Invitation Only” The Arts and Letters Club of Toronto

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You’ve seen the photo a hundred times and somehow never tire of scanning the faces again. Seen through the smoky haze of a dimly lit room, seven men–a cultured lot, in conservative dark suits with perky pocket handkerchiefs showing, are seated round a table. They’re clearly relaxed in each other’s presence, sharing a beverage or two in congenial conversation. 

On closer view, it’s plain that a few show discomfort, even hostility towards the intrusion of the camera into their social time. One, craggy-faced, with a “take no prisoners” attitude stares belligerently at the camera’s eye; two respond with faces cast downward; a fourth, of finer features adopts an embarrassed grin.

Taken in 1920 at Toronto’s  Arts & Letters Club, the photograph  captures the faces and personalities of six of the seven members of the Group of Seven.  It marks the only known photograph of A.Y. Jackson, Fred Varley, Lawren Harris, J.E.H. MacDonald, Franz Johnson  and Arthur Lismer together.

Over the next century, the venerable “members only” club, devoted to the artistic fellowship and promotion of Canadian literature, music, and the arts would welcome other icons including novelist Robertson Davies, eminent orchestra conductor Sir Ernest MacMillan, and Sir Edmund Walker, banker, patron of the arts and founder of the National Gallery of Canada.

Almost 100 years later, a walk through the National Historic Site Arts and Letters Club of Toronto continues to reverberate with Canadian artistic and creative history. Come on along; let’s discover more.

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Founded in 1908 by Toronto journalist Augustus Bridle,  the Arts & Letters Club, moved in 1920 to its present quarters at St. George’s Hall on Elm Street, Toronto. 

Founded with a mission to promote the Arts in Canada, the Arts & Letter Club quickly became the favoured meeting point for the aesthetically inclined of Toronto society.  They included journalists and writers, musicians, painters, poets and publishers.

The Club’s best known members remain the Group of Seven who, according to later Group member AJ Casson “luncheoned there daily.”

The collegial setting allowed these artistic pioneers to gain strength from each other, to strike out on their own artistic journey, rejecting the premise that Canadian art must copy the well-worn path tread by European painters. Instead this Group of Seven patriots would celebrate the distinct landscape of Canada.

Group member J.E.H. Macdonald served as Vice-President of the Club for four years and designed its crest. Madonald’s design, still the Club’s logo, shows a Viking ship with sails billowing against the rising sun. Macdonald’s artistic mission was to “remind members of the open seas and great adventure.”

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In the 1920’s and 1930’s, one of the Arts & Letter regulars would seem, at first glance, out of place in a meeting place devoted to the arts. He was Dr. (later Sir) Frederick Banting, co-discoverer of insulin and Nobel Prize winner.

But this scientist was a closet “Artsie” too, an amateur painter, on friendly terms with members of the Group of Seven, and  a frequent sketching companion of  A.Y. Jackson.

And while the eminent doctor was said not to participate in many of the songs and skits presented regularly by talented Arts & Letters Club members at lunchtime gatherings, Dr. Banting was  known to be “a good companion at table, for he loved the singing, the story telling and the good drinking of men relaxing .” (Michael Bliss, Banting: A Biography,  page 168).

A sketch of Banting by Group of Seven member Arthur Lismer reveals the affection by which the artists felt for their medical friend. The admiration was no doubt mutual. Banting biographer Michael Bliss speculates that that the time spent with friends at the Club was a pleasant change from the “stuffy formality of the University.”  

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And for artistic women? Sorry ladies. Women were not invited to become members of the Arts and Letters Club until 1985. Even then, outraged protests from male stalwarts were heard. One hardliner protested vigorously against the ground-breaking change, fearing that there was little doubt that “women’s superior acumen and intuition would in the end take over the club leaving the male members with no opportunities to develop their limited skills. “

When all was said and done, the vote saw 64 in favour of women; 38 opposed. Given its usual membership in the hundreds, clearly many men abstained from voting.

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In 2017, Arts and Letters Club membership hovers around 600. It includes both men and women of all ages, “for whom the arts are an essential part of life—a place to pursue creative expression, engage in the free and vigorous interchange of ideas and opinions, and enjoy good conversation and the companionship of kindred spirits.”

In addition to fellowship of kindred spirits, members use the venue to promote their own, and other artistic ventures.     

While the club is closed to the public, arrangements to visit are welcomed by calling Club Manger Fiona McKeown at 416-579-0223.
 

 

 

 

DR. FRED’S INSOMNIA

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At Banting House in London, Ontario, there’s a map of the world on the wall. Hundreds of push pins with brightly coloured tops are stuck into various countries of the world.

“These are the countries our visitors come from,” says Grant Maltman, Curator of Banting House. The National Historic Site honours the memory of Dr. Frederick Banting, the co-discoverer of insulin.

The biggest cluster of pins covers the map of Canada. It’s followed by the U.S and The United Kingdom. But the pins show visitors from the nations of Africa, the Middle East, South America, the Far East and Australia.

Many of the visitors are diabetics, says Grant, come to pay homage to the great man who saved their lives, and of others who went before them.

As visitors walk through the museum–once the home and medical office of Dr. Banting, they enter his small bedroom and immediately head for the bed. Some touch it reverently; others sit on it. For many, the experience brings tears to their eyes.

 “People who come to visit us, especially those with diabetes just feel a need to sit on the bed, to have that connection to Dr. Banting,” says Grant Maltman.

With no diabetes in my family, or friends, I still followed this ritual. And I was moved. Dr. Frederick Banting is my hero.

 

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For this was the very bed where Dr. Banting, an insomniac, worried about his unsuccessful medical practice and consumed by a burning desire to find the cure for the ravages of diabetes, had a blinding epiphany.

It was here in the dead of one sleepless night, pouring over his medical textbooks in bed, he unlocked the insulin secret, hitherto undiscovered.    

Visitors to Banting House can read Banting’s hand-written diary entry of October 31, 1920 that describes what transpired on that fateful night.

It was one of those nights when I was disturbed and could not sleep…Finally about two in the morning, the idea came to me…I got up and wrote down the idea and spent most of the night thinking about it.  

Banting’s idea was that extracting insulin from a dog’s pancreas might be useful in treating human diabetes. He scribbled down a 24 word formula and made plans to share it with the medical world.  

Photos and letters on the walls of Banting House tell other stories. A child, no more than five or six, little frame wasted, his face pinched and drawn stands before the camera. Diabetes has ravaged his body and taken away his boyish spirit.

A second image shows the child again. Robust, smiling and spirited, he rides his tricycle and looks confidently at the world.

Between the two photos is a letter from the boy to Dr. Banting.

Dear Dr. Banting:

I wish you could come to see me. I am a fat boy now and I can climb a tree. Margaret would like to see you.

Lots of love from

Teddy Ryder

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A stroll through Banting House will show you the examining room where the treated his patients. But there were so few of them. One week he counted one–a World War 1 veteran looking for alcohol.  

His medical tools—tweezers, needles, forceps and stethoscope–are there too. So seldom were they used, that the good doctor bought himself some oil paints, a few brushes and canvass to fill the long hours waiting for patients to come. His failure drove him to despair—and into debt.

Then one memorable night, the insulin epiphany came—and Dr. Fred Banting’s life irrevocably changed. So did the world’s…

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Many visitors to Banting House are surprised when they enter a second floor room to see an art gallery. The art displayed is Dr. Frederick Banting’s.

After Banting closed his London practice and moved to Toronto, he took up the hobby in earnest, rubbing shoulders with the Group of Seven. Group founder A.Y. Jackson became Banting’s friend and mentor. A photo of friends Alex and Fred draws many comments from visitors.

Dr. Frederick Banting’s War Medals, his Knighthood which made this shy country doctor from Allison, Ontario a “Sir,” and a replica of his Nobel Prize for Medicine are also on display.

Outside Banting House an eternal flame burns. It was lit by Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth, The Queen Mother when she visited London in 1989. The flame burns as a reminder that insulin is only a treatment, not a cure for diabetes. When a cure if found, the flame will be extinguished.

Banting House was designated a National Historic Site in 1997.

442 Adelaide Street N

London,  

Telephone: (519) 673-1752

E-mail: banting@diabetes.ca   

 

MIDNIGHT GRAVESTONE CAPERS, AND A HORSE NAMED BUCEPHALUS

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MOUNT PLEASANT CEMETERY, TORONTO

The news wasn’t promising for dying Baptists, Presbyterians or Jews in Toronto of the early 19th century. A city ordinance declared that only Roman Catholics and Church of England Anglicans could be buried in cemeteries within its borders.

Not until 1876, a full nine years after Confederation was the all-inclusive Mount Pleasant Cemetery opened. Laid out on the outskirts of the growing town, the cemetery then encompassed 200 acres of land, with over 12 miles of roadway. Scenic ponds and numerous trees dotted the landscape.

The Globe newspaper of November 4, 1876 called Mount Pleasant “a quiet resting place for the people’s dead.”

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Today, Mount Pleasant Cemetery, in the centre of the sprawling metropolis is the final resting place of more than 168,000 persons, of all faiths. With its winding roadways, gardens, arbours of shade, and water features, it’s an oasis of calm within a sea of hurry.

On a splendid June day with Mount Pleasant awash in splashes of early summer pinks, golds and scarlets, we found ourselves, cemetery map in hand, on a search for the final resting places of some of Canada’s history-makers.

The grave of Dr. Frederick Banting, discoverer of insulin, and artist extraordinaire was first on our list of visitations.

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Modest and understated, like the great man himself, the headstone of Frederick Banting identifies him only as “KBE,” Knight of the British Empire.  The medical insignia etched into the background is the only clue to this great Canadian’s outstanding legacy. He’s buried with his second wife, Henrietta whose modesty of accomplishments was less than her husband’s.

I pay silent homage to a man who heads the list of my personal heroes.

Winding our way through Mount Pleasant’s miles of walkways, we’re now on a search for the Massey family tomb. One of Canada’s “First Families,” the  Masseys counted industrialists, actors, politicians and a Governor-General in their midst.

The Massey tomb is hard not to spot. Designed in the Romanesque Revival Style, of massive limestone blocks, this mini-medieval castle comes with the requisite goddess on the top, resplendent in turrets, battlements and stained glass.

The ashes of a number of Massey family members, including Governor- General Vincent, and Hollywood actor Raymond  are interred within.

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Our walking tour is picking up steam—there’s a lot to cover at Mount Pleasant. We stop to pay our respects at the final resting places of Hockey Night in Canada’s Foster Hewitt; pianist Glenn Gould; Timothy Eaton;  actress Mary Pickford; Front Page Challenge’s Fred David; Toronto Maple Leaf’s coach Punch Imlach, and newspaper magnate Kenneth Thompson.

Little Allison Parrott, brutally murdered at age 11 is there too. We pass an extra moment of contemplation here.

The Silcox vote for biggest ego in death is saved for the tomb of Steve Stavro. Grocery magnate, onetime owner of the Toronto Maple Leafs and Toronto Raptors. Stavro’s monument to himself towers 20 feet in the air.

A stature of Alexander the Great, on his rearing horse Bucephalus looks down from the heights . Three snarling lions at the statue’s base guard its remains. Crests of Stavro’s legacy, including the Maples Leafs and Raptors encircle the tomb.

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And still, the best is still to come. Our final stop of the day is at the resting place of Canada’s 10th and longest-serving Prime Minister, William Lyon MacKenzie King. Oddities a-plenty are found at “Willie’s” modest grave.

An unadorned horizontal cement top bearing only the words William Lyon McKenzie King, his dates of birth and death greets us.

But the top is covered with loose change—primarily pennies and nickels. They’re rusty too so the money has been there awhile. They’re joined by a white wooden dowel, a bedraggled Christmas wreath and a polished stone with PEACE inscribed.

What goes on here?

A google search of “MacKenzie King’s grave” (www.valdodge.com/2011/11…/mackenzie-king-generates-some-capital) gives some answers.

Apparently the decorations atop King’s grave change regularly.  The money disappears, then it reappears–sometimes loose, sometimes stacked. A small flowerpot, rocks and polished stones have also made their appearance—and disappearance.

Given King’s passionate affair with the spirit life, one can only speculate the stories behind these artifacts. King’s resting place leaves me wanting to know more.

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We’re weary after our self-guided Mount Pleasant Cemetery walking tour. With so many stories yet uncovered, we plan to return to take in one of their guided visits at a later date. They’re held regularly on summer weekends and offer knowledgeable commentary and fascinating tales.

Mount Pleasant Cemetery was designated a National Historic Site in 2000.

It is open year-round.

375 Mount Pleasant Road,

Toronto, M4T 2V8

416-485-9120

Email: mountpleasantinfo@mountpleasantgroup.com