Beaver Hall Group - Montreal 1920
“Although considered a Montreal counterpart to Toronto’s Group of Seven, the group stood apart through their work: rather than offering an image of Canadian identify through depictions of the untamed landscapes of a northern country, the Montreal artists imbued the inhabited landscapes of northern culture with the colours of modernity.” (Glenbow Museum, 2016, 1920s Modernism in Montreal: The Beaver Hall Group)
Have you heard of the Beaver Hall Group of Canadian painters? The artists in that group painted pictures that have been described as “rich in colours, bold in statement, powerful Canadian talent.” They were celebrated in their day during an era when “…women who painted were largely regarded as amateurs rather than as professional artists.” (Skelly, Julia, 2016, Beaver Hall Group). Consult The Canadian Encyclopedia for an account of the origins of the group.
The Beaver Hall Group provided a chance for painters in Montreal from 1920 to 1922 to meet and exchange interests in painting, to save money renting a place where members could do their work. Significant among the membership were Anne Savage, Prudence Heward, Kathleen Moir Morris and Ethel Seath. A. Y. Jackson (1882-1974), known as a founding member of the Group of Seven, was the first president of the Beaver Hall Group. Jackson was a strong personality in the Canadian art world from his youth in Montreal through his long career as an artist. Jackson set the tone for the Beaver Hall group by suggesting, “the primary objective of the Group’s members was ‘to give the artist the assurance that he can paint what he feels, with utter disregard for what has hitherto been considered requisite to the acceptance of the work at the recognized art exhibitions in Canadian centres. Schools and ‘isms’ do not trouble us; individual expression is our chief concern’” (Montreal Gazette, January 1921). This philosophy encouraged opportunities for women painters and others both in Canada and beyond, both then and for all time.
The bold art of the members in the Beaver Hall Group is what is striking about their contributions to Canadian art. While the Group of Seven favored vivid natural scenes in landscapes of wilderness subjects, the members of the Montreal group were more eclectic creating both urban and natural scenery and outstanding portraiture. The stunning art they created was considered ultra-modern, inspired, some say, by the Jazz Age modernism of the 1920s. If we consider the art of two of the group this will provide examples enough to help us understand the importance of this contribution to Canadian art and why it ought to be remembered by more of us.
Let’s consider the work of Prudence Heward (1896-1947), and Kathleen Moir Morris (1893-1986). For me the discovery of the Beaver Hall Group has generated much excitement at the quality of painting and what it gave to the Canadian art world and beyond.
Two paintings by Prudence Heward (1896-1947) as examples of Canadian art that stand up to competition with artists the world over and from every time period are:
Girl on a Hill (1928) was a first-place winner in a competition held by the National Gallery of Canada. The model for the painting was Louise McLea, a Montreal dancer. The model’s “short hair and athletic body...[her] bare limbs, convey a new ideal of freedom for women of the 1920s era....The painting presents the friction between traditional, rural space and the independent progressive woman who fills it.” (Bellows, Sierra, 2019, Women Who Look Out from the Canvas: The Paintings of Prudence Heward)
Just like Heward herself, the other painting, Rollande (1929), is that of a Quebecois farm worker “with her hands on her hips, dressed in an acid-pink pinafore, her expression one of impassive strength.” (Bellows, 2019).
While Heward was best known for her portraiture, Kathleen Moir Morris (1893-1986) created urban scenes, unusual for that time. She sat at a window in an office building in Montreal and painted the street scene below her—a winter day with traffic, including a streetcar, negotiating snow covered streets. The painting is named Looking up Cote-des-Neiges, painted around 1930. No pedestrians are walking the streets, perhaps too cold. The colours are warm brown, beige, reds. Those colours add some warmth to the scene.
Alan Klinkhoff (AK), gallery owner, had a personal relationship with the artist Kathleen Moir Morris and calls her Kay. The Klinkhoff Gallery’s connection with Morris and her family had existed since early in her career. AK discusses Morris’ selection of subjects for her paintings of local urban scenes as due somewhat to her physical infirmities.
Morris’ paintings have been included in the most recent exhibitions of paintings by the Beaver Hall Group in 2015, 2016 and 2017. As with many paintings by professional artists, recognition of the value of their work is connected to the eventual selling price. At an art sale in 2006, the Morris oil painting, Study in White, Winter, Berthier, was given an estimated value of $100,000. It sold for $299,000 at a Heffel’s art sale. In 2004 a painting by Emily Carr sold for $322,000, as a point of comparison.
The legacy of the Beaver Hall Group is solid and secure in the pantheon of Canadian art. What can we learn from this essay aside from getting to know a group of Canadian painters better? When artists are part of a group the interests of the members are in focus. So—create a mission statement. Create an agenda. Make plans to be a force in the community to advance the interests of the members, of course. But at the grass roots level we can share experiences that make painting pictures, a solitary activity, more fulfilling. Members of the Beaver Hall Group joined forces to share a creative thrust among the members. We can share, learn, from one another.
Girl on a Hill
Looking up Cotes Des Neiges (1930 Morris)