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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.