Artwork by Frederick Arthur Verner,  Elk Browsing
Thumbnail of Artwork by Frederick Arthur Verner,  Elk Browsing Thumbnail of Artwork by Frederick Arthur Verner,  Elk Browsing Thumbnail of Artwork by Frederick Arthur Verner,  Elk Browsing

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Cowley Abbott
326 Dundas St West
Toronto ON M5T 1G5
Ph. 1(416)479-9703

F.A. Verner
Elk Browsing

oil on canvas
signed and dated 1888 lower right
24 x 36 in ( 61 x 91.4 cm )

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Henry Winnett (b. Killaloe, Ireland 1846-d. Toronto, Canada 1926), and Jessie Anna Winnett (1850-1919)
By descent to Ellen North Winnett Holmes (married to Alfred Bertam Holmes)
By descent to Jessianna Louise Holmes Johnston (d. 1994)
By descent to a Private Collection, California
Cowley Abbott, auction, Toronto, November 22, 2021, lot 53
Private Collection, Ontario
In 1888, when Frederick Arthur Verner painted “Elk Browsing”, he was at the height of his career, renowned in Canada for his paintings of First Nations people and for his Buffalo paintings. In 1880, he had relocated to live in London, England, and there achieved fame and acceptance, showing his work in the Royal Academy and elsewhere, and receiving praise in the “London Daily News” and other publications.

“Elk Browsing” reflects his confidence in broadening his range of both his home and his art. Elk would have seemed to him a noble game animal, worthy of interest on both sides of the Atlantic. What the viewer sees in the picture are elk with spirit and even majesty, pictured sympathetically in their habitat. Like the buffalo Verner liked to paint, these elk are painted in their free state in nature, at peace with the universe and themselves. The landscape in which the elk browse with its fallen tree trunks lying horizontally across the grassy hillside convincingly conveys the “atmosphere, poetry and subtle characteristics” of western Canada, as the secretary of the Ontario Society of Artists, painter R. F. Gagen, wrote about Verner in his “Ontario Arts Chronicle” (Toronto, typescript, [around 1918], page 58).

Verner chose elk as a subject in the fall of 1888, when he returned to Canada on a trip. He had gone first to Montreal to hold a sale of his pictures at Hicks Auction (as was mentioned in “The Dominion Illustrated”, Vol. 1, no. 17 (Oct. 27, 1888), p. 159), then to Sandwich, near Windsor (the two towns were incorporated in 1935), Ontario to visit his family home. He made the trip because his mother was ill: she died that October. In 1889, Verner travelled to British Columbia to paint the Selkirk Mountains and then stayed in Canada because his father, Arthur Cole Verner, a former school principal and mayor of Sandwich, was ill, dying in 1890. That year, Verner visited relatives in Victoria, British Columbia. He remained in Canada till the summer of 1892, when he returned to England.

Where he sketched Canadian elk from life is unknown but it must have occurred shortly after he arrived in 1888, between the auction in Montreal and his trip to Sandwich, perhaps in a zoo. He painted them on canvas that fall. Elk were a new subject for him but a congenial one. He made elk the subject of a painting titled “The Alarm” that he showed at the Royal Academy in London in 1889. He must have been proud of it as he illustrated a sketch of it in “The Dominion Illustrated”, in November 1890. It showed the male elk with the impressively large antlers that appears in “Elk Browsing” but in reverse so that he seems to face an unseen danger in the depths of the picture.

Verner probably would have saved this imposing painting for the Ontario Society of Artists Twentieth Exhibition in 1892, since he would have wanted to show the other members that he was still producing work worthy of their attention, having shown in every exhibition since the Society had been founded in 1872. It may be the oil titled “Elk Browsing” exhibited in the 1892 show, no. 177, and then again in the Toronto Industrial Exhibition, 1892, no. 99, as “Canadian Elk Browsing”.

Study of the animals and people as well as the sources of his paintings was a key to his success, as he well knew. He often had been judged “admirable for his mellow atmospheric canvases” and “mellow tone”. In this painting, the browsing elk echo the mood established by the tranquil scene. More than that, by stressing the family aspect of the group – there is a male elk, a female elk and two younger members of the elk family – Verner approximated in his own way, through his pictures of animals or the First Nations, the nineteenth century`s version of the genre picture, known as the conversation piece, informal domestic portraits of families sitting about their ideal homes. Verner as an artist respected a tranquil family life, regarding it with approval. After all, he was not only on a trip to see his family, but he had married his former Toronto landlady, Mary Chilcott, in England in October 1882, when he was aged forty-six.

Henry Winnett, who originally purchased the painting, was known as the “Queen`s Hotelier” and during his career, was the proprietor of the Queen’s Hotel in Toronto which was closed in 1927 and demolished to build the Fairmont Royal York Hotel. In 1874, he purchased the Queen`s Hotel with a partner, Thomas McGaw, and after McGaw`s death, he purchased the partnership from the estate and formed a company to own it with himself as president in 1920. He was the sole proprietor until his death in 1926. Winnett also was involved with other hotels, such as the Tecumseh House in London, Ontario where he learned his trade, and the Queen`s Royal Hotel in Niagara-on-the- Lake. In his obituary in the “London Advertiser”, July 9, 1927, in London, Ontario, he was called not only a millionaire but “one of the best- known hotelmen on the continent”. An article in the Toronto Telegram rounds out this picture, telling the story of the hotel, and adding that Henry Winnett was widely-known and well-liked (Mary Dawson Snider, “A glimpse into the early days of the Queen’s Hotel”, “Toronto Telegram”, Jan. 5, 2013 which republishes text from an article on Henry Winnett of May 3, 1924).

We extend our thanks to Joan Murray, Canadian art historian, for contributing the preceding essay.

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Frederick Arthur Verner
(1836 - 1928) OSA, ARCA

Born in Ontario, Frederick Arthur Verner enrolled at London's Heatherley's Academy in 1856. He served in the British military, first in 1858 in the Yorkshire militia and then in the British Legion in 1860. Two years later, Verner returned to Canada and worked as a photograph colourist, but spent the majority of his time sketching the wilderness and Indian tribal communities in his area. He co-founded the Ontario Society of Artists in 1872 and exhibited regularly with the group until he moved to England in 1880. His romantic Native American genre scenes had gained tremendous popularity overseas. Verner continued to paint in this style, returning to Canada every so often to gain source material.