Artwork by Lawren Stewart Harris,  Lake Superior (I.D. 463)

Lawren Harris
Lake Superior (I.D. 463)

pencil sketch
inscribed “39” (striked), “40” and “1925” in the upper left margin
8.5 x 10.75 ins ( 21.6 x 27.3 cms ) ( sheet )

Auction Estimate: $30,000.00$20,000.00 - $30,000.00

Price Realized $161,000.00
Sale date: November 23rd 2017

Collection of Bess Harris, wife of the artist, Vancouver
Mira Godard Gallery, Toronto
Private Collection, Toronto
Private Collection, Vancouver
The Canadian Forum, Volume 8 (April 1928), page 609 for an ink drawing of the subject titled "On the North Shore", reproduced
Paul Duval, Group of Seven Drawings, Toronto, 1965, plate 31 for an ink drawing of the subject titled "On The North Shore", reproduced
Emily Carr, Hundreds and Thousands, The Journals of Emily Carr, Toronto, 1966, page 16
Joan Murray and Robert Fulford, The Beginning of Vision: The Drawings of Lawren Harris, Mira Godard Gallery, Toronto, 1982, page 26; page 91 (plate 16), reproduced (as “Lake Superior” I.D. 469 c. 1925); also reproduced on front dust jacket
Jeremy Adamson, “Lawren Stewart Harris: Towards an Art of the Spiritual”, Canadian Art: The Thomson Collection at the Art Gallery of Ontario, Art Gallery of Ontario, 2008, pages 78-79; page 78 (plate 11) for the canvas of the subject titled "Lake Superior", reproduced
Paul Duval, Harris, Canada, 2011, page 177 for the ink drawing of the subject titled "On The North Shore"; page 228 for the oil sketch of the subject titled "Lake Superior Sketch XLVII"; and page 229 for the canvas of this subject titled "Lake Superior", reproduced
Ian A.C. Desjardin, Painting Canada: Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven, New York, 2011, page 187 (plate 110) for the oil sketch of the subject titled "Lake Superior Sketch", reproduced
Steve Martin, Cynthia Burlington, Andrew Hunter and Karen E. Quinn, The Idea of North: The Paintings of Lawren Harris, Art Gallery of Ontario, 2015, page 35 for the canvas of the subject titled "Lake Superior", reproduced
Lawren Harris made numerous drawings as he sketched along the north shore of Lake Superior but few were so skillfully elaborated in a subsequent ink drawing (“On The North Shore”), oil sketch (“Lake Superior Sketch XLVII”, Private Collection) and canvas (“Lake Superior”, Thomson Collection at the Art Gallery of Ontario). The cloud-laden sky, pierced by four light shafts that illuminate the rounded islands and calm waters, the foreground rocks and low horizon all remain key compositional elements from this initial drawing through to the painter’s final and celebrated canvas.

Visiting Lawren Harris’ Toronto studio on December 13, 1927, her birthday, Emily Carr witnessed Harris at work on the canvas, recalling in her diary: “A splendid birthday… I went to Mr. Harris’ studio. It’s so big and quiet and grey and very restful. He was painting and I hated to feel I was stopping him, but he wouldn’t hear of my going away for a bit. He said he had got to a good place to stop. He was working on a big canvas – rock forms in deep purples with three large rocks in the middle distance. The sky was wonderful – swirly ripples with exciting rhythms running through them. The right corner was in brilliant light and from under the cloud shafts of strong sun pierced down on the rocks in straight wide beams that made a glowing pool of pure light on the water that lay flat and still. Behind, was a deep, rich blue distance. To the right the shafts of light turned to paler green-blue. On the other side a blinding blue played richly with the purple rocks. Under the left side of the rippling, swirling grey cloud forms the water lay flat in blue-grey wonderfulness. The foreground was unfinished but would be dark rocks. There was a wonderful feeling of space.”

The canvas has been exhibited extensively since its completion, its title varying from “A Fantasy” (in the February 1928 Group of Seven Exhibition at the Art Gallery of Toronto), to “Lake Superior Fantasy” (a title which A.Y. Jackson recalled during preparation for Harris’ 1948 retrospective) to its present “Lake Superior”.

Describing the canvas, Jeremy Adamson writes: “‘Lake Superior’ is a landscape composition that deliberately gives form to Harris’s Theosophical beliefs. Based on a 1925 sketchbook drawing and a small oil-on-board study, it depicts crepuscular bands of sunlight – so-called ‘God’s rays’ – breaking out from a dramatic pattern of clouds over the lake, illuminating the waters and several purple-toned islands. An unnatural composition in appearance, it was doubtless based on real experience, for such crepuscular rays are commonplace phenomena.”

Joan Murray noted the importance of pencil sketching to Harris, the artist often carrying oil painting materials along with a pad of paper on his sketching trips. Murray quotes Harris’ fellow artist and close friend, Yvonne McKague Housser in discussion of the artist’s process in graphite: “His drawings are a key which open the door to what he was thinking and painting…The drawings were important as an introduction, to clarify his mind before he started a painting.”

While dated 1925 by the artist’s wife, Bess Harris, this drawing was most probably drawn in October 1927 when Harris and Arthur Lismer sketched on the north shore of Lake Superior. Having exhibited with the Société Anonyme in 1926, Harris was responsible for the presentation of the society’s exhibition at the Art Gallery of Toronto in April 1927. The most important exhibition of contemporary European and American art shown in North America since the Armory Show in 1913, the work shown in the Société Anonyme exhibition was an enormous stimulus to Harris’ own art as evidenced in the dramatic composition and increased abstraction of the natural elements.

Originally part of the collection of Bess Harris, this drawing was intended to be included in a collection of Lawren Harris’ work to be donated to the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa. The donation never occurred, the drawing passing from the collection of Mira Godard Gallery through private collections to this first offering at auction. The original label, signed by Bess, remains on the reverse of the framing, noting “Lawren Harris Collection of Sketches and Drawings (Selected by Bess Harris).”

The light impression of handwriting is visible, mainly on the left side of the composition (although present throughout), a short letter or note appearing to have been composed on a sheet laid on top of the drawing while it was turned clockwise. The writing appears to be in the hand of the artist but is not clearly legible.

We extend our thanks to the Estate of Lawren Harris for assistance in researching this artwork and 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 his contributions to the preceding essay.
Attracting fierce bidding during the Fall 2017 Live Auction of Important Canadian Art, Lake Superior (I.D. 463) achieved a new record for a pencil sketch by any member of the Group of Seven.

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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