Artwork by Philip Henry Howard Surrey,  Unisex Shop

Philip Surrey
Unisex Shop

oil on canvas
signed lower left
24 x 32 ins ( 61 x 81.3 cms )

Auction Estimate: $60,000.00$50,000.00 - $60,000.00

Price Realized $48,000.00
Sale date: December 6th 2023

Galerie Valentin, Montreal
Private Collection, Toronto
“Philip Surrey Retrospective Exhibition”, Walter Klinkhoff Gallery, Montreal, 18 September -20 October 2004, no. 8
“Surrey, Little, Tanobe: Les Rues de Montréal”, Galerie Valentin, Montreal, 26 April-10 May 2014
Born in 1910 to globe-trotting parents, Philip Henry Howard Surrey spent the first ten years of his life travelling the world. Back in Canada, he settled in northern Manitoba with his mother, who worked as a teacher. The young Surrey apprenticed at the Brigden printmaking studio in Winnipeg in the late 1920s and, while working in commercial art, in the evenings, he studied at the Winnipeg School of Art with Lionel LeMoine FitzGerald. His training continued with Frederick Varley in Vancouver, then at the Art Students’ League in New York, where he took lessons from Alexander Abels on the techniques of the classical masters. A man from the West, Surrey became an adopted Montrealer in 1937. He began a career in the press, first at the “Montreal Standard”, then became one of the founders at “Weekend Magazine”. At the same time, Surrey pursued his painting career, and dedicated himself exclusively to it as of 1964, thanks to the financial support of his employer, John McConnell. Having become almost blind, McConnell tragically took his own life in 1990.

Upon his arrival in Montreal, Philip Surrey mingled with the city's progressive artists and writers. He joined the Eastern Painters Group, founded by his friend John Lyman. He met Margaret Day, a close friend of Norman Bethune; he married her in 1939. The same year, Surrey was a founding member of the Société d'art contemporain de Montréal and participated in all of the group’s exhibitions until its dissolution in 1948. Surrey was present at the “Première exposition des Indépendants” organized by Father M.A. Couturier in Quebec in 1941 with Alfred Pellan, Paul-Émile Borduas, Jori Smith and Goodridge Roberts. The painter won First Prize at the Spring Salon of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts in 1953. He received the Centennial Medal in 1967 and an honorary degree from Concordia University in 1981. The following year, he was named a member of the Order of Canada. His successful solo exhibitions in 1965 and 1967 were followed by the publication of Jacques de Roussan's monographic work in 1968. In 1971, the Montreal Museum of Contemporary Art held a retrospective exhibition of his work, “Philip Surrey, le peintre dans la ville”, which was presented at the Canadian Cultural Center in Paris at the beginning of 1972. The event paid tribute to his contribution as an attentive and sincere interpreter of urban Montreal, its lively streets, the comings and goings of passers- by: “Surrey has recorded the human comedy in Montreal's streets, taverns, cafes and homes. No other Canadian artist has painted life in the city with such constancy and authority [...] Philip Surrey’s paintings are as much Montreal as Wyeth’s are Pennsylvania or Vermont and Colville’s are New Brunswick.”

When he painted “Unisex Shop” in 1974, Philip Surrey was at the peak of his career. That year, in November and December, the dealer Gilles Corbeil, his exclusive representative since 1970, devoted a solo exhibition to his recent works. “Unisex Shop” may have had a hand in this, as did “Crépuscule bleu” and other gouaches, which attracted the attention of critics George Bogardi and Henry Lehman at the time. Remaining in the shadows, the work reappeared thirty years later in the stunning 2004 retrospective organized by the Walter Klinkhoff Gallery. The exhibition is accompanied by an enlightening text in the catalogue, signed by the writer, literary critic at “The Globe and Mail” and friend of the artist, T.F. Rigelkhof. The work would only be exhibited publicly once again in 2014, in a group exhibition organized by the Galerie Jean-Pierre Valentin, alongside the work of painters John Little and Miyuki Tanobe, who also dedicated themselves to scenes of daily life and streets of Montreal.

“Unisex Shop” demonstrates the thoughtful art of Philip Surrey and is a continuation of the group scenes that “The Underpass” began in 1963. Here, the painter captures the atmosphere of a commercial area at the intersection of Bishop and Sainte-Catherine Street West. There are numerous allusions to the realm of sex in this painting of urban social norms of the 1970s. The shop gives its name to the title of the work, on the left, whose red sign only reveals the three last letters “sex”. The artificial and diffused lighting allows a clear reading of the urban setting and the fourteen pedestrians that Surrey has depicted. Painstakingly organized, the triangular composition causes the convergence of all the elements at the red light. With Philip Surrey, geometry underpins the excitement of the place with its garish notes of white, red, pink, orange and yellow, and the arabesques created by the figures in motion.

We extend our thanks to Dr. Michèle Grandbois, Canadian art historian, for her assistance in researching this artwork and for contributing the preceding essay.

Share this item with your friends

Philip Henry Howard Surrey
(1910 - 1990) RCA, CAS, Order of Canada

"Each individual is alone, cut off. Each wonders how others cope with life. A work of art is a particularly complex statement, valuable because packed with meaning... Like icebergs, four-fifths of our personalities lie below the surface; of the fifth that shows, only part can be expressed in conversation. The only effective outlet for all deeper feelings and thoughts is art." (Philip Surrey, c. 1949)

Philip Surrey, a founding member of the Contemporary Arts Society, was a figurative painter with an enduring interest in human subjects within urban nightscapes. For most of his career, Surrey used Montreal as his stage, arranging lighting and figures - most often pedestrians - in compositions that revealed both the gregarious nature and the solitude of humanity. A friend and student of Frederick Varley, Surrey was also closely tied to many of the most important Montreal artists and writers of the 1930s and 1940s.

Philip Surrey began his art training in Winnipeg at age sixteen, when he took an apprenticeship at Brigdens commercial art firm. There, he met Fritz Brandtner. In the evenings, he took classes at the Winnipeg School of Art under LeMoine FitzGerald and George Overton. It was at this time that he started painting the streets and people of Winnipeg after dark, by the light of streetlamps and restaurants. He moved to Vancouver in 1929 and took a job as a commercial artist at Cleland-Kent Engraving. In night classes at the Vancouver School of Decorative and Applied Arts, he studied with Frederick Varley and Jock Macdonald. Surrey left Vancouver in 1936 and spent three months at New York's Art Students League, studying under Frank Vincent Dumond. The following year, he settled in Montreal and found work at the Standard newspaper. He continued to paint in evenings and on weekends and became immersed in the art scene, rekindling his friendship with Brandtner and befriending John Lyman, Goodridge Roberts, Jori Smith and Jean Palardy.

Philip Surrey was awarded the Centennial Medal (1967). He held an honorary doctorate form Concordia University (1981), and was a member of the Order of Canada (1982).