Artwork by Lawren Stewart Harris,  Algoma (Algoma Sketch 48)

Lawren Harris
Algoma (Algoma Sketch 48)

oil on panel
inscribed “Lawren Harris” and “Algoma Sketches XL VIII” by Doris Mills on a label on the reverse
10.5 x 14 ins ( 26.7 x 35.6 cms )

Auction Estimate: $600,000.00$400,000.00 - $600,000.00

Price Realized $977,500.00
Sale date: May 31st 2016

Mellors-Laing Galleries, Toronto, circa 1940
Ian S. Waldie, Toronto
By descent to the current Private Collection, Australia
“The Paintings of Lawren Harris Compiled by Mrs. Gordon Mills July-Dec. 1936”, Algoma Sketches (typescript, Library and Archives of the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa)
Lawren Harris first travelled to Algoma with Dr. James MacCallum, patron of Tom Thomson and co-financier of the Studio Building, in May 1918. Enchanted by what he saw, Harris returned in August with fellow artists J.E.H. MacDonald and Frank Johnston. Following his discharge from the army and return to Toronto, A.Y. Jackson would join Harris and the other artists on trips along the Algoma Central Railway in September 1919, and in May and fall of 1920. As Jackson noted in his autobiography, “A Painter’s Country” (1958), “Since this country was on the height of land, there were dozens of lakes, many of them not on the map. For identification purposes we gave them names. The bright sparkling lakes we named after people we admired like Thomson and MacCallum; to the swampy ones, all messed up with moose tracks, we gave the names of the critics who disparaged us.”

This lovely autumn sketch of an island on a sparkling lake was painted in Algoma in the fall of 1919 or 1920 and served as the basis of the magnificent canvas “Island, MacCallum Lake” (Vancouver Art Gallery) that Harris exhibited in the second Group of Seven exhibition in May 1921. All of the basic elements are found in the sketch, but in the canvas the rocks and trees are more stylized, the colour hotter and more acid and the sky less lyrical and more dramatic and moody.

The new expressive element in Harris’ art was not welcomed by Group associate Barker Fairley of the University of Toronto. In an article on Harris in the June 1921 issue of “The Canadian Forum,” Fairley wrote, “his pictures as a whole have seemed disturbingly arbitrary, perspicuous enough in outward fact but in mental attitude provocative and even abnormal. The extremist example of his present work is “Island, MacCallum Lake”…It is a smallish canvas almost completely filled by a bizarre little island in Algoma completely covered by a grotesque clump of trees which are quite possibly true in outline to the actual vegetation… It expresses to the intelligence the weirdness of the North Country, but it does not evoke the feeling of nature nor even place one out-of-doors. The point of view seems to have been dictated by the intellect and directed towards the curious and the occult…One misses the organic sense of all-round growth…When compared with some of his contemporaries he is not a landscape artist at all; he does not penetrate nature.”

In spite of Fairley’s reticence, the subject was one that Harris would return to in at least three subsequent canvases, two of which were inventoried by Doris Mills in 1936 when numerical titles were given to the various subjects in Harris’ art. “Northern Island, Northern Painting XXV” of 1924 (offered at Joyner Fine Art, Toronto, 25-26 November 1986, lot 105) was reworked in another canvas sold at Sotheby’s, Toronto, 17 May 1989, lot 170) in which the background foliage was reduced to silhouetted islands and white stratus clouds recede into the distance. Mills’ inventory includes a third unfinished canvas, “Island, Northern Painting XXI” in which Harris retained the silhouetted forms however the central island is framed by billowing cumulus clouds. There are at least three drawings for this latter work, two reproduced in Bess Harris and P.G. Colgrove’s book on Lawren Harris (1969) p. 40 and one with Yaneff Gallery, Toronto, (reproduced in “artmagazine,” X:41 November-December 1978, p. 3) all incorrectly identified as having been drawn in Algonquin Park in 1912.

We extend our thanks to Charles Hill, Canadian art historian, former Curator of Canadian Art with the National Gallery of Canada and author of “The Group of Seven - Art for a Nation,” for his assistance in researching this artwork and for contributing the preceding essay.
Consignor Canadian Art specialists travelled to Australia during the winter of 2016 and personally collected “Algoma Sketch 48” from the owner, transporting the important artwork more than 15,000 kilometers back to its country of origin for inclusion in the May 2016 live auction, the painting and its journey capturing headlines nationally.

Nearly doubling its auction estimate, “Algoma Sketch 48” tripled the previous auction record for an Algoma oil sketch by Lawren Harris.

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Lawren Stewart Harris
(1885 - 1970) Group of Seven, Canadian Group of Painters

Lawren Harris was born in Brantford, Ontario and at the age of 19 went to Berlin for academic training. His first two years included study in pencil, charcoal and watercolours. He took instruction in the studio mornings, out-of-doors sketching in the slums of Berlin afternoons, and sketching figures in the studio evenings in watercolour and drawing media. His last two years were spent in the study of portraits and figures in oils. Two of his teachers were Mr. Wille and Mr. Schlabitz. Schlabitz accompanied him in the summer on a walking tour of the Austrian Tyrol where Harris did some sketching. After his study in Germany Harris travelled in Palestine and Arabia with Norman Duncan where he did illustrations. He then visited lumber camps in Minnesota where he made illustrations for Harper’s magazine.

By 1910 Harris was back in Toronto where he saw everything with fresh eyes. His work had more vigour and sensitivity to colour and form. His first studio was located over Giles grocery store, north of Bloor and Yonge Streets. His attraction for the poorer areas of town gained him the reputation of socialist painter. His “house portraits” brought a storm of criticism against him. In Toronto the Arts and Letters Club had been formed only two years before Harris’ return and it was not long before he was an active member. It was at the Arts and Letters Club that Harris first saw the attractive sketches of J.E.H. MacDonald in 1911. Harris and MacDonald became good friends and shared an appreciation of the arts in depth. They visited Buffalo together in January of 1913 to see the exhibition of Scandinavian art which had been reviewed in art magazines. This exhibition made a deep impression on both artists. Harris took sketching trips with MacDonald in 1912 at Mattawa and Timiskaming and in 1913 they went to the Laurentians. Harris met other artists at the Arts and Letters Club. Many of them like MacDonald were working for the Grip Engraving Company as commercial artists.

In 1914 Harris and Dr. James MacCallum conceived the idea of building a studio building which could accommodate Canadian artists of ability who could devote their full attentions to painting, free from the pressures of commercialism. Many Canadian artists were drifting south to the U.S. and it was Harris’ and MacCallum’s hope that such a plan would prevent the loss of all of Canada’s most talented painters. Harris was well off through his connection with Massey-Harris (his grandfather was a founder of the firm) and so was Dr. MacCallum. They realized their plan and the Studio Building was erected on Severn Street in Toronto.

Harris became the driving force behind the Group of Seven. A.Y. Jackson claimed: "Without Harris there would have been no Group of Seven. He provided the stimulus; it was he who encouraged us always to take the bolder course, to find new trails." By 1918 Lawren Harris had travelled to the Algoma region in the company of MacDonald and Johnston. In 1920 they held an exhibition at the Art Museum of Toronto (Art Gallery of Ontario). Harris wrote “The group of seven artists whose pictures are here exhibited have for several years held a like vision concerning art in Canada. They are all imbued with the idea that an art must grow and flower in the land before the country will be a real home for its people…” Harris made his first trip to the North Shore of Lake Superior in 1921.

His search for a deeper spiritual meaning eventually took him to the stark landscapes of the far north. By the late 1920s the artist's work strove to capture the spiritual essence of the bold landforms of the Rockies and the Arctic. Throughout the ensuing decade Harris continued to simplify and abstract his landscapes until his subjects became non-representational. Lawren Harris worked as a member of the Transcendental Group of Painters in Santa Fe, New Mexico for two years, returning to Canada in 1940 and settling in Vancouver for the remainder of his lifetime.

Source: "A Dictionary of Canadian Artists, Volume II”, compiled by Colin S. MacDonald, Canadian Paperbacks Publishing Ltd, Ottawa, 1979