Industrial on the Outside; Glorious within. The Studio Building

IMG_0902IMG_0905IMG_0903355722_2“Well,” I comment to Louis,” all the detective work it took to get us here was well-worth it wasn’t it?” He agrees and like me regrets time-traveling back into the bustling world of present-day Toronto.

We’ve spent the last 90 minutes poking into the nooks and crannies of the National Historic Site  “The Studio Building” in mid-town Toronto. Designed and built by Group of Seven founder Lawren Harris and his friend, art patron Dr. James McCallum  in 1914 , the Studio Building’s intent was to provide studio space for the builders’ artist friends including Group of Seven painters Tom Thomson, A.Y. Jackson,  Franklin Carmichael and JEH MacDonald.

Now a private residence, the public is not welcomed to this historic site without permission. A long and winding trail led me to the present owner and an invitation to tour the building, located on the edge of the Rosedale Ravine at 25 Severn Street.

“The exterior of the building is pretty unremarkable,” I suggest to Louis as we approach the door. “It looks like it could be an office building or even a factory.” “Industrial design pretty-well describes it,” he counters.  “I hope the inside is more remarkable.”

We need not have worried.

Tag along with the art-loving Silcoxes  as we explore Canada’s first “purpose-built artistic studio and residence in Canada.” The Studio Building’s  live-in caretaker Abe will show us around.


“As you probably know, Lawren Harris and his friend Dr. James McCallum were the brains, and the money behind the Building,” offers Abe. “Harris came from a wealthy family and was generous with it, especially when it came to helping his artist friends.” The builders’ plan saw six apartments providing living accommodation for artists who planned to work in the Studio for some time.

“At the time it was constructed, it was big news in Toronto,” continues our guide. “Not because of its purpose but that people thought it was ugly.  Critics in 1914 called it a ‘factory-looking building.'”

“I know that Tom Thomson lived here for a time, but he didn’t paint inside,” I question Abe. “Yes it’s true,” he answers and points out the area at the back of the building where Tom Thomson’s  “shack” sat. (see photo of area and of shack) -“Thomson much preferred the outdoors to the inside and felt his creativity was stifled in the modern and comfortable environment of the Studio Building.”

So, Group of Seven lore tells us that Harris and McCallum (the patron of a number of artists) located a suitable one- room shack and moved it to the back of the property for Thomson’s convenience. Lore tells that “renter” paid “landlord” $1 a month rent.

“And when spring came, Thomson cleared out for Algonquin Park where he spent the summer,”says Abe.


Thomson’s shack “explored,” we climb the stairs to the Studio Building’s main floor and enter a studio.  I’m stopped in my tracks by the effect of the strong January sun shining on the rich wood floors and furniture. “I’ve admired the huge windows from the outside,” I offer to Abe, “but they can’t even begin to convey the effect of light from the inside.”

“Light,” says Abe “was the whole purpose.” Harris left much of the design of the building to his architects, but he was firm about one feature–the windows. They had to be big, allowing the maximum light into the rooms.”  Six massive north-facing windows over the 3 floors of the building measure 3 meters (approx 10 feet) high by 4.5 meters wide (approximately 15 feet). On this sparkling January day, the effect is magical.

I close my eyes and images of A. Y. Jackson, Franklin Carmichael, J.E.H. MacDonald and Harris himself filter by. “I can’t believe I’m standing in the very spot where members of the Group of Seven painted,” I say, with reverence,  as a shiver runs up and down my spine. Abe laughs. “I live here and I still feel that way.”

Passing out of the first studio,  my eye is drawn to the numerous paintings on the walls. A fan of artist David Milne, Louis stops to admire several of his works. I’m an A.Y. Jackson fan and am not disappointed either as I move on.

“It’s obvious that cooking and eating wasn’t tops on the artists’ list of priorities” says Louis, as he peruses the small utilitarian kitchen on the main floor.

In 1948, Harris sold the Studio Building to artist Gordon McNamara. On McNamara’s death in 2006, his son James Mathias inherited it. It was designated as a National Historic Site in 2004. Mathias, a successful underwater photographer spends most of his year in Fiji and resides in the historic Studio Building for only a few months a year.

I speculate to caretaker Abe that keeping up such a historic building surely cannot be inexpensive. He agrees, noting that all the windows and doors have undergone recent replacement. “And it was a huge expense.”

And what does the future hold for the historic Studio Building? “Maybe someone wealthy with a last name of Thompson will buy it?” I suggest. “Or maybe it’ll be turned into an office building?” Images of other proud historic buildings now neglected and crumbling  leave me troubled.

National Historic Site “The Studio Building” is not open to the public.





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


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.