Artwork by Lawren Stewart Harris,  North Shore, Lake Superior

Lawren Harris
North Shore, Lake Superior

oil on beaverboard
signed on the reverse
11.75 x 14.75 ins ( 29.8 x 37.5 cms )

Auction Estimate: $500,000.00$300,000.00 - $500,000.00

Price Realized $1,032,000.00
Sale date: December 1st 2022

The Artist
Dr. John D. Robins, Toronto
Mrs. John D. Robins, Toronto, 1952
Acquired by the present Private Collection, circa 1966
“Lawren S. Harris, Urban Scenes and Wilderness Landscapes 1906‒1930”, Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, 14 January‒26 February 1978, no. 131
“Collector’s Canada: Selections from a Toronto Private Collection”, Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto; travelling to Musée du Québec, Quebec City; Vancouver Art Gallery; Mendel Art Gallery, Saskatoon, 14 May 1988‒7 May 1989, no. 63
“Annual Group of Seven Dinner, featuring works of art by Lawren S. Harris”, York Club, Toronto, 18 February 1998
“Embracing Canada: Landscapes from Krieghoff to the Group of Seven”, Vancouver Art Gallery; travelling to the Glenbow Museum, Calgary; Art Gallery of Hamilton, 30 October 2015‒25 September 2016
Jeremy Adamson, “Lawren S. Harris: Urban Scenes and Wilderness Landscapes 1906-1930”, Toronto, 1978, page 158, reproduced page 159, undated
Larry Pfaff, ‘Portraits by Lawren Harris: Salem Bland and Others’, “RCAR”, V:1 (1978), pages 21-27
Dennis Reid, “Collector’s Canada: Selections from a Toronto Private Collection”, Toronto, 1988, no. 63, reproduced page 62 as circa 1923 Megan Bice, “Light & Shadow: The Work of Franklin Carmichael”, Kleinburg, 1990, page 53
Paul Duval, “Lawren Harris: Where the Universe Sings”, Toronto, 2011, reproduced page 218, 411 as circa 1923
C. Hill, ‘No Timid Play of Subtleties, but Bold and Massive Design: the Group of Seven and the Canadian Landscape’, in Ian Thom, et al., “Embracing Canada: Landscapes from Krieghoff to the Group of Seven”, Vancouver/London, 2015, pages 87-88, 201, reproduced page 130
Lawren Harris had a long career, his work evolving from a naturalist style in the years prior to World War I to abstraction in the 1930s. He is perhaps best known for the geometric Lake Superior landscapes that he painted in the 1920s; yet these same paintings have frequently been misdated. Harris’ practice of recycling the same titles for different paintings and ultimately abandoning descriptive titles for numerical appellations (e.g. Lake Superior I, II, III, etc.), hasn’t helped in identifying which works were exhibited when. One clue helps to at least identify oil sketches painted in the early and late twenties. In response to an enquiry from the Montreal artist Prudence Heward about purchasing one of his Lake Superior sketches from the Annual Exhibition of Canadian Art at the National Gallery of Canada, Harris wrote to the gallery’s director, Eric Brown, on 15 February 1927, “Will you tell the lady she can have a sketch for $60.00 including frame. This is less than I have been selling the recent sketches for. They are considerably larger than the sketches of two years ago and earlier and in some cases have received as much attention as large canvases.” From this we know that in 1925 Harris’ vision of this austere landscape demanded a larger support and that he switched from panels approximately 10 1⁄2 x 13 1⁄2 inches (26.6 x 34.6 cms) to panels about 12 x 15 inches (30.5 x 38.1 cms), the size of this sketch.

The exploration of Canada’s many landscapes saw the artist members of the Group of Seven travel from Toronto to Georgian Bay and from Algonquin Park to Algoma. Following their regular practice they painted their canvases in their Toronto studios from oil sketches and drawings realized in front of the motifs. Lawren Harris first painted on the north shore of Lake Superior in the fall of 1921, when he spent a few days at Rossport with A.Y. Jackson. He would return to the north shore almost every autumn for the next six years, exploring its various landscapes, especially the region near Port Coldwell and Pic Island. Yet on 7 October 1925, A.Y. Jackson wrote from Coldwell, where he was sketching with Harris and Frank Carmichael, to Norah Thomson, book buyer for the T. Eaton Company stores: “We are back in our old haunts, and it is pretty good stuff. It is three years since we did any work here and it all looks new. ... The Coles chocolates were eaten on my birthday on Slate Island.” In 1926 Harris returned to Lake Superior with Franklin Carmichael, in 1927 with Arthur Lismer, and in 1928 with Carmichael and A.J. Casson.

Harris painted numerous sketches of this region, framing the high foreground with bare stumps overlooking the vast expanse of the lake. In contrast to many other north shore sketches, the palette is predominantly brown, orange and mauve, not the blues so commonly found in his works of the late twenties. Nor is Pic Island the central motif of the composition. Here the barren shore extends towards three small rocky islands just emerging from the water. If Coldwell was their base, Franklin Carmichael’s map of their camping and painting sites shows they worked around Foster Island in 1925 and Jackson’s letter to Norah Thomson confirms they painted on Slate Island that year. Harris’ paintings show him ranging from Port Coldwell and Detention Island, to Foster and Pic islands and Jackfish Bay, with numerous rocky islets in between.

This oil sketch belonged to John Robins, professor of English at Victoria College in Toronto. He met Harris at the Arts and Letters Club and wrote articles for “The Canadian Forum”, a publication with which the members of the Group of Seven were also involved. Around 1920 and in the mid-twenties Harris painted a number of portraits, all of people with whom he had personal connections, not clients. In 1925 he painted Robins’ portrait. It was probably around this time that Robins acquired this painting of Lake Superior.

This oil sketch became the source for an undated canvas, merely titled “Lake Superior”, now in the Art Gallery of Ontario (76/145). When Harris and his new wife, Bess, moved to New Hampshire in 1934, Bess’ friend Doris Mills offered to inventory the oil sketches and
canvases Harris had left in storage in Toronto. This sketch was not included in the Mills inventory (Library and Archives of the National Gallery of Canada) as it had already been acquired by John Robins. The canvas was inventoried as “Lake Superior Painting 6” and titled “Lake Superior No. IV”. It is possible that Mills derived the title from an inscription on the stretcher. Harris had exhibited five canvases in the February 1928 Group of Seven exhibition at the Art Gallery of Toronto: “Lake Superior I, II, III, IV and V”. The AGO canvas is most likely catalogue number 21, “Lake Superior IV” in that exhibition, in which case the canvas was probably painted around 1927. As was usual with Harris when working up a canvas from a sketch, few changes were made in the enlargement though painted in a lighter tonality.

We extend our thanks to Charles Hill, Canadian art historian, former Curator of Canadian Art at 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.
Debuting in the Live Auction of An Important Private Collection of Canadian Art on December 1st, 2022, Lawren Harris’ study for a canvas in the collection of the Art Gallery of Ontario, ”North Shore, Lake Superior’, doubled expectations, selling for $1.03 million.

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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