Clara Harris, July 2011 Tour
I’m from Toronto but have lived in the New York City vicinity for over 30 years. So there are lots of places in Canada that I’m no longer familiar with or never knew in the first place. And the idea of doing a research tour based on Clara’s work was the furthest thing from my mind. But while on a Toronto visit to my long-time friends Ann and Wayne the idea evolved. We were looking at various paintings of Clara’s when they remarked on the Nogies Creek and then the Buckhorn and Bobcaygeon scenes. Ann and her husband Wayne knew them intimately as they’d spent many summers there. They remarked on how much had changed from Clara’s day to this. Why not go to the sites and compare Clara’s “then” to the “now”? It was so obvious: part of understanding and appreciating the value of Clara Harris’ work is to visit the sites that she painted.
What seemed like a good idea became the first research tour and in July, 2011,
I left New York and arrived in Toronto, ready to embark on the first part of this discovery tour. Ann and I would do the trip together but first we had to plan the route.
The destinations were based on Clara’s precise documentation of the locations that she recorded on the backs of her paintings. We realized that Clara travelled and painted covering such a large area and over so many years, that our first research tour that we “dubbed” the “Clara Harris Trail” was just the beginning of what would become a series of tours. After all we were going by car not helicopter!
The “Clara Harris Trail 2011” was a seven-day, five hundred mile period of exploration. The areas outside of the city Ann and I did together. The Toronto section I completed myself. The accompanying map outlines the route and “Clara” stops.
Port Hope Summer Art School 2011
Port Hope Summer Art School
The art school was originally an old mill and surprisingly has changed very little. Clara’s painting has two out buildings which were attached to the main structure. One of these was the cookhouse and the other was the dormitory for the male art students.
Photos today show that these are no longer part of the building.
Port Hope Summer Art School and the Ganaraska River
Clara attended the Port Hope Summer Art School that was part of the Ontario College of Art’s summer program, operated under J.W. Beatty’s direction. There were specific assignments that each student was expected to complete and a depiction of the art school building was one of them:
Beatty also expected students to feature the Ganaraska River as the subject of their paintings.
The tranquility of the Ganaraska River as captured by Clara.
The Ganaraska River 2011:
With our first stop completed it was time to move on to another site representing Clara’s work: Belmont Lake near Havelock.
We located Belmont Lake which is near Havelock but our initial location didn’t resemble Clara’s painting site. It was a public access area, more developed and populated where boaters launch their boats and motor around the lake.
Our work was cut out for us. After driving around for some time we met a couple who were walking along the road. We showed them a copy of Clara’s Belmont Lake painting and they told us where to go: drive down Fire Route 34. As we rounded the curve in the dirt road we saw it: the exact location where Clara had erected her easel so many years ago. Not only was the resemblance uncanny but just as in Clara’s painting there was a man in a boat in the same location.
Clara's Belmont Lake
We had learned that Belmont Lake today has maintained much of its tranquility but is not what Clara the artist recorded so long ago.
Satisfied that we had visited the right location and achieved our mission we headed toward Buckhorn Road.
Belmont Lake 2011
A Contemporary View of Belmont Lake
Belmont Lake 2011
How beautiful was Clara’s Buckhorn Road. She painted the scene so many times and in different seasons. It was a favourite site of hers.
But things have changed on the road between Buckhorn and Bobcaygeon since Clara painted on this site 74 years ago. Some of its beauty still exists but the road is wider, busier, flatter and devoid of much of the natural growth and curvature it once had. The yellow painted line on the pavement, telephone wires, signs and increased traffic make it harder to appreciate.
Summer Road Between Buckhorn and Bobcaygeon
Road Between Buckhorn and Bobcaygeon 2011
Next on the research list was to locate Clara’s Henderson Farm.
Henderson Farm, Nogies Creek, Bobcaygeon
Henderson Log House
The Hendersons were an influential family in the area but we didn’t find the actual site as so much has changed. However we did find this log cabin on Bass Lake Road that belonged to the Hendersons. I’ve included this photo as the log house could be the subject of one of Clara’s sketches or paintings that is yet to be discovered.
Other buildings have been destroyed or moved and conserved at the Kawartha Settlers Village in Bobcaygeon. So we made our way to the Village and spoke to artifact manager, Carissa Ferguson. After seeing Clara’s painting of the farm, Carissa showed us this framed picture of the Henderson Barn. This might have been on the same site where Clara painted.
Painting of Henderson House in Its Original Bobcaygeon Location
Henderson House at Home in Kawartha Settlers Village
If you look closely at the fence in Clara’s painting there are parts that resemble this fence at the Village:
Bobcaygeon Today and the Original Location of Henderson House
Clara’s Henderson Farm has been dismantled but bits and pieces of it remain at the Village.
With so many of Clara’s works documented the urge to compare the “then” to the “now” is irresistable. And this is the painting that fostered the idea of the Clara research tours.
Nogies Creek wasn’t difficult to find and still has many elements of beauty.
Nogies Creek Mill
But locating the correct spot of the mill was quite another matter. Locals described the mill that’s active today, Savarin Mill which is in another location. However after more discussion someone knew the place.
Nogies Creek 2011
All that’s left are a few bulrushes, a bridge and a French fry shack which I passed by to get to the exact site. The mill was in the natural crescent in the right side of the photo. As recorded in Clara’s painting the mill, now long gone, was a place of industry.
Nogies Creek Mill Site 2011
Nogies Creek Mill Site 2011
Bala Falls: Muskoka
Bala Falls, Muskoka 2011
Bala Falls is a beautiful place that has long been a mecca for cottagers and tourists. Just as in Clara’s time people come to enjoy the amenities: sitting on the rocks and running through the water. Visiting the falls in the height of the summer season attests to its beauty but Clara’s painting reveals that winter has its own charm.
When Clara painted her Bala Falls, Muskoka she didn’t realize that it’s existence would one day be seriously threatened. Danger looms: a proposal to install a large power station is under consideration. “Save Bala Falls” signs are everywhere.
Like so many subjects of Clara’s other paintings modernization can outstrip nature leaving nothing recognizable in it place. There is so much to lose….
Bala Falls, Muskoka
Bala Falls 2011
Will Bala Falls Survive?
Having visited some of the sites outside of Toronto where Clara painted it was time to see where she’d lived as well as the area close to her home, 23 Valleyview Gardens:
Valleyview Gardens is a short, dead end street in the Baby Point area of Toronto’s west end. And number 23 was the home of Clara and Fred Harris for over 30 years.
The first house on the street was undergoing substantial renovations:
And I soon realized that with the increased number of cars and other human “conveniences” required for modern life, Valleyview Gardens is not the quiet little cul-de-sac of the 1930’s.
But number 23 has survived the test of time:
The lesson of visiting Clara’s street is universal: modern times mean change and the death of what once was. Original architecture, natural land and riverscapes are disappearing FAST! And the value of Clara’s art lies in the documented records she’s left. Her art is Toronto’s history.
Clara’s House 1973
Clara’s House 23 Valleyview Gardens 2011
The Humber River
After visiting Clara’s street it was evident why Clara spent so much time painting in the areas of the Humber River and Old Mill. She was within walking distance of this beautiful natural site. She painted the Humber and Old Mill area from so many vantage points and in all seasons.
But unfortunately like the majority of Clara’s painting sites, both proposed and actual changes are not always for the better. The Humber is not as pristine as it once was with its retaining walls, chain link fences and condominium construction.
Through paint and paper Clara has left colourful, visual snapshots of her world for us to appreciate.
Humber River in Autumn
Humber River in Summer
Humber River, North of the Old Mill
Construction by the Old Mill Adjacent to the Humber River
Humber River 2011
Humber River 2011
Clara’s painting of Berry Road remains one of her most popular with readers of the website, collectors and those who come to my studio. What they like are the vibrant colours as well as the horse drawn sleigh. The painting captures the brightness of an Ontario winter. That’s what winter looked like in the 1920’s on Toronto’s Berry Road.
To find Berry Road was easy enough but to get to the bottom of the Humber which was in a ravine was impossible. The closest I could get was by this transformer.
The bucolic scene recorded by Clara has been replaced by the stuff of the 20th Century – apartment buildings, strip malls and lots of blacktop.
Berry Road at the Bottom of the Humber
Berry Road 2011
Berry Road at the Bottom of the Humber 2011
Jane Highway, Lower Riverside
I’ve lived in the New York City area for over 30 years but love coming to the west end of Toronto as that’s where I grew up. The returns to my birthplace are instructive proving that change is inevitable. Clara’s paintings with their locations documented illustrate this point repeatedly.
Here’s Clara’s Jane Highway, Lower Riverside, Toronto, 1941 with its country scape, inhabitants and homes.
And here’s Jane Highway, Lower Riverside the road that I used to get to my job. It provided easy access to the Gardiner Expressway.
Jane Highway, Lower Riverside
And this was the view on the way down.
The water’s a little brown and the air’s a little smoggy but a decent view of the Humber River and Toronto skyline still exists. The only problem is that it’s not the 1941 scene Clara captured.
Lower Riverside en Route to the Gardiner
Clara’s “Scarlet Road, January 1937, Morning” is another favourite of Clara website readers. They like the painting’s composition, the farmhouse and the woman. And although Scarlett Road is spelled with two “t’s” Clara used only one.
Scarlet Road, January 1937, Morning
The fact that the location is identified makes it that much more appreciated. People who know the area have marvelled at the changes that have occurred in “less than a hundred years” and that “they’re so dramatic”. How did this rural landscape become this.
The answer: the city expanded replacing natural beauty with the necessities of modern life.
Scarlett Road 2011
Centre Island, Toronto
In Clara’s day Centre Island was a favourite destination of Toronto city dwellers who enjoyed its winter as well as summer pastimes. It was a favourite haunt of artists including Homer Watson and Fred Varley so it’s no surprise that Clara painted there too.
The tranquility captured by Clara in 1922 is harder to find in 2011 and the changes haven’t always been positive.
The expropriation of permanent residents from their island homes to make way for public parkland and the amusement park, Centreville, have altered this magical place forever.
Lagoon Boat Tours
Woman on Docked Sailboat, Centre Island Lagoon, Toronto 1922
Centre Island Lagoon 2011