Artwork by Bertram Richard Brooker,  Delta Ice House

Bertram Brooker
Delta Ice House

oil on canvas
signed lower right; titled and inscribed “Hart House ‘42” on the stretcher
24 x 30 ins ( 61 x 76.2 cms )

Sold for $82,600.00
Sale date: November 20th 2018

Provenance:
Private Collection, Ontario
Exhibited:
Bertram Brooker, Hart House Art Gallery, University of Toronto, January 1942
Bertram Brooker (1888-1955), The Morris Gallery, Toronto, October 23 - November 6, 1971, no. 14
Literature:
Bertram Brooker (1888-1955), exhibition catalogue, The Morris Gallery, Toronto, October 23 - November 6, 1971, cat. no.14, reproduced plate 10
James King, Bertram Brooker: Life & Work, Art Canada Institute [online publication], Toronto, 2018
Dennis Reid, Bertram Brooker (1888-1955), National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, 1979, pages 16-17
Joyce Zemans, “First Fruits: The World and Spirit Paintings [Bertram Brooker]”, Provincial Essays, no. 7, 1989
As Dennis Reid notes, though Bertram Brooker lived in Toronto for much of his life, the artist always considered himself a “Winnipegger” at heart. Brooker’s affinity for his adopted hometown ran deep: after emigrating to Canada from Croydon, England with his family in 1905, Brooker settled for a time in Portage la Prairie and Neepawa, Manitoba, before finding work at local newspapers in Winnipeg. Long after he moved to Toronto in 1921 to pursue a career in advertising, the polymath’s strong ties to Manitoba continued to be reflected in many of his subjects throughout the 1930s and 1940s; of those ties, his life-long friendship with the artist Lionel LeMoine Fitzgerald would have the most profound impact on his growth as a painter.

A self-taught painter and graphic artist, Brooker was among the first artists in Canada to champion abstract art in the 1920s, though his groundbreaking experimental works at first failed to captivate contemporary audiences. After meeting Fitzgerald on a visit to Winnipeg in the summer of 1929, Brooker largely abandoned pure abstraction. Joyce Zemans suggests a reason for this ambivalence, writing that the artist “came to realize that most people could not respond to his abstract ‘world and spirit paintings’ and turned from his early experiments in abstraction.” Influenced and inspired by Fitzgerald’s subtle handling of form and sensitive depictions of his urban surroundings, Brooker instead began to explore the potential of abstraction as a means of representing the inner life of figural and organic structures.

With its dynamic synthesis of abstract and representational forms, “Delta Ice House” depicts a building on the property of a Brooker family cottage on Lake Manitoba at Delta, north of Portage la Prairie. In its subject matter alone, the work most closely resembles Fitzgerald’s landscapes of the 1930s; however, the energetic diagonal lines within the natural structures; the delicate, muted colours applied with a soft touch; and the reduction of familiar organic forms to their most essential, symbolic states is emblematic of Brooker’s singular, harmonious approach to painting. Though the artist would return to abstraction in his career, hybrid works such as “Delta Ice House” are important documents of Brooker’s significant shift to a more representational idiom.
Fetching more than three times its opening bid, this exceptional work by Brooker set a new auction record for the painter during the Fall 2018 Live Auction of Important Canadian Art.

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Bertram Richard Brooker
(1888 - 1955) Canadian Group of Painters, RCA

Born in 1888 in London, England, Bertram Brooker was one of Canada’s first abstract painters. Brooker attended school until age twelve when he went to work as a domestic servant at Fuller’s Dairy. Brooker had an early interest in art and music. His first painting was a watercolour from 1899 featuring exultant Christ. Unfortunately, this work does not survive. Brooker was a choirboy at the St. James Anglican Church in Croydon. In 1905, Brooker’s family immigrated to Portage la Prairie, Manitoba. Here, Brooker worked with his father at the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway.

In his early twenties, Brooker traveled to England and New York City. On this trip he probably encountered modern theatre and contemporary art, such as the first Post-Impressionist exhibition organized by Roger Fry in 1910. From 1911-14 he was active in the local theatre community and directed a play called Much Ado About Something. In 1914, Brooker became the editor of the Portage Review. He would later work as a designer, music and drama editor, and director for various newspapers in Winnipeg and Regina. In 1920, Brooker and his brother moved to Brandon, Manitoba, and opened a cinema in the Neepawa Opera House. Brooker wrote and sold several scripts about a detective, Lambert Chace, while in Brandon. Three of these films survive.

In 1921, Brooker moved to Toronto to work at the Globe and at Marketing. Three years later, Brooker purchased Marketing and became the publisher and editor. In 1927, Brooker sold the company back to its original owner. In 1929, Brooker began working at J.J. Gibbons Advertising Agency. He worked there until 1936 where he was hired at MacLaren Advertising, where he worked until 1955, and eventually became the Vice-President of the company.

While visiting a Presbyterian church in Dwight at the Lake of Bays in Ontario, Brooker experienced a moment of awakening and came to understand that the role of artists was to instruct society on getting in touch with their spiritual values. He began creating nonfigurative paintings in tempera that were inspired by his enlightenment at the church. The style adopted by Brooker was indebted to a group of English artists who were inspired by the Futurists known as the Vorticists, and Brooker used abstract shapes to suggest violence and movement. Painting in this way allowed Brooker to express the spirituality that he was trying to understand.

In 1923, Brooker met Lawren Harris and was sympathetic to the Group of Seven’s nationalist agenda, but he thought their view of the wilderness was too limited and that there were countless other ways for creating Canadian art. Both Harris and Brooker were interested in infusing spiritual values into paintings. Sponsored by Harris and Arthur Lismer in 1927, Brooker’s abstracts were given their first solo show at the Arts and Letters Club. Brooker’s radical paintings did not resonate with the viewers and was widely criticized. Until 1931, Brooker showed his art with the Group of Seven due to his compatibility with their aims.

Despite his artistic accomplishments, Brooker saw himself as a writer. However, Brooker continued to paint regularly and had an in-home studio. During the summer of 1929 Brooker met representational artist Lionel LeMoine FitzGerald. Inspired by FitzGerald and his own long-established passion for abstract art Brooker began expanding his style. It was at this time that he explored various genres, such as the nude and still lifes. Brooker never promoted his work to museums or dealers, and much of his work remained unsold during his lifetime.

Literature Source:
James King, “Bertram Brooker: Life & Work”, Art Canada Institute, Toronto, 2018 (https://aci-iac.ca/art-books/bertram-brooker)

We extend our thanks to Danie Klein, York University graduate student in art history, for writing and contributing this artist biography.