CLARA HARRIS ART
The research trips of 2011 gave me the opportunity to meet collectors and learn more about Clara and her art. But it became evident that the surface had barely been scratched. After all, Clara’s paintings were the culmination of many years of travel and five days provided only a cursory overview. The September 2012 trip emerged out of this need to collect and refine the research. The Clara Harris website creator, Kristine Knapp-Czarnecki, came for the first part of the trip. Her familiarity with the subject matter, purpose of the research and photographic capabilities were invaluable.
We set off on Thursday, September 20th, our destination: Port Hope, Ontario. In keeping with our research we chose to stay at the historic, Carlyle Inn (email@example.com). Its proprietor, Dave Henderson, was an excellent source of information regardingthe history of Port Hope as well as J.W. Beatty (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_William_Beatty) and the students of the Port Hope Summer Art School
On Friday, September 21st, we went to Molson’s Mill: the home of the Ontario College of Art’s summer school which was founded and operated by J.W. Beatty from 1923 until his death in 1941. As we had only seen the outside of the mill on the 2011 summer trip this was key to understanding the experience of the young artist, Clara Perry. Our appointment was with antique dealers, Clay and Carol Benson (http://smithscreekantiques.com/antiques-links.htm), who own and have restored the mill. Their daughter, Christine, who was also present runs the summer art and music camp at the mill. History is repeating itself!(www.journeythroughthearts.com). Our agenda was to exchange information about the art school under Beatty’s supervision as well as what is known about Clara. There were old photos and newspaper articles describing Beatty, the students, their work and their lives.
Original paintings were displayed on easels including self-portraits and scenes, all so familiar to the paintings completed by Clara. Clara’s self-portrait (see the Portrait section of this website) signed in her maiden name, with a style so similar to the other portraits, suggests that “Clara Perry” was undoubtedly critiqued by Beatty. Students’ portrayals of the Ganaraska River, the Mill, Old Pioneer Bridge and farms in the Port Hope area were all slightly different from each other but had amazing similarities. Apparently if Beatty didn’t like the student’s work he would alter it himself!
Being able to study and live in this idyllic setting in the golden glow of summer as young artists was a privilege and for the select few.
Christine at Journey Through The Arts Summer Arts School
To enhance the historic, educational, and artistic mission that Clay, Carol and Christine carry out every day, five framed images of Clara’s paintings: “Port Hope Summer Art School”, “Ganaraska River, Ontario Pioneer Bridge”, “Devil’s Elbow Near Port Hope, 1933”, “Yellow Building By Water” and “Barns and Stooks” were donated to the school.
Above: The Carlyle Inn and Bistro.
Left: Dave Henderson, proprietor and Verna McLean in front of the Carlyle Inn.
In the afternoon of September 21st we proceeded to our next appointment to meet Linda, a collector in Cobourg.
Cobourg , Ontario
Kris and I headed to our next destination, Cobourg, Ontario to visit Linda H. Linda had contacted me in November 2011. She had some paintings of Clara’s and wanted to know more about them as well as their value. Very unusual were two, small, (5 x 7") water colours of the Humber River. I have seen over two hundred paintings of Clara’s but they are exclusively in oil. These water colours are a “first” and Linda agreed to share them. I couldn't wait to see them. Two other paintings of Gloucester Harbour are typical of Clara’s work: painted on site and in their original frames. Then there’s Clara’s “Meadowvale Mill 1939”. I had read about Meadowvale as Clara’s husband, Fred, in his diary mentioned painting expeditions that he and Clara had made to Meadowvale and the mill in 1939:
February 9 - Clara and I out to Meadowvale and sketched old mill.
February 23 - Out to Meadowvale for mill sketching.
March 2 - Out to Meadowvale and good wood oils.
March 8 - Out to Meadowvale and sketched up the road.
I had mistakenly assumed that the “Meadowvale” mentioned was a street in Etobicoke. But Linda provided
some valuable information in one of her emails: “I have another Clara Harris oil painting signed on the back Meadvale Mill, Feb/39. I did some research and am 100% sure that she meant Meadowvale Mill. It is on the Credit River and there are photographs of it on the internet. Mississauga’s heritage website has an interesting section on Meadowvale and the artists that lived there. Their address is www.heritagemississauga.com and type Meadowvale in the search box.” Linda raised another question: “Did Clara paint other scenes of the Credit River?” It is probable as good painting sites once discovered were visited multiple times. This suggests that some of the undocumented paintings of river scenes could be the Credit.
Linda had another surprise for us: two huge binders filled with information including certificates of birth, marriage, passenger and crew lists, border crossings, and immigration, not only for Clara but her ancestors. Such in-depth research supports future entries to Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clara_Isabella_Harris) and the Concordia Women Artists History Initiative (http://cwahi.concordia.ca/). Thanks to Linda's geneological talents factual information about Clara's life and work becomes part of this website.
At this point Kris and I parted. For the next stop – the west end of Toronto – Ann (my travelling companion
on the 2011 Research Tour) joined me. We wanted to explore the west end of Toronto where Clara had lived and painted so many images of the Humber River and its environs.
Water colour, 5 x 7"
Humber River with two buildings in background
Water colour, 5 x 7"
Humber River, grey building and tree in foreground
Vital to our research was to meet with an authority who knew as much about this area as possible in the “then” and the “now”. That someone was Madeleine McDowell. On Tuesday, September 25, 2012 Ann and I set off for historic Lambton House (http://lambtonhouse.org) to meet with Madeleine.
As an historian and activist Madeleine gave us an in-depth tour describing when Lambton House was built, its importance as a stagecoach stop, as well as the restorations and on-going efforts to preserve it. When Clara set up her easel by the Humber and painted “Little Falls at Lambton” she was within walking distance of the Inn.
As an environmentalist, Madeleine emphasized the importance of preserving what natural beauty remains not only around the Humber River but any natural habitats which still exist in big cities like Toronto. Madeleine shared photographs of the Humber River the way it looked when she was growing up and the enjoyment that she and her family had experienced over the years. Clara’s paintings such as “Jane Highway, Lower Riverside”, and “Farm House on Scarlet Road” reinforce the need to control the pace of “urban progress” and evaluate what kind of a world we want to live in.
As a formally trained artist who graduated from the Ontario College of Art (http://www.ocadu.ca/) Madeleine appreciated the artistic merit of Clara’s work. She admired the paint brushstrokes in the sky of Clara’s “Malton Road” and described the skill required to do this.
Finally, as Madeleine since childhood, has lived so close to the Humber River, her appreciation of the value of Clara’s documented work is genuine. For educational and historical purposes we gave Lambton House eleven framed images of Clara’s paintings that can be displayed and enjoyed by its visitors. As Madeleine said when she saw the paintings: “This was my Humber”. Nothing more needs to be said!
Madeleine agreed to meet with us again to show us the exact areas where Clara painted and introduce others who knew Clara or have her paintings. Our time with Madeleine gave us more insight into Toronto’s history as recorded through Clara’s paintings; reinforced by Madeleine’s encyclopedic knowledge.
Madeleine describing the history of Lambton House in one of the first floor rooms.
Madeleine showing the original paint colour found under more recent layers of paint.
Madeleine and Ann examining the back of an old historic plate.
Madeleine describes the plate in more detail.
Current view from the upper front porch
Above: Madeleine and Verna with two prints of Clara’s paintings. Today the city encroaches on Lambton House. Note the apartment building to the left in the photo.
Madeleine and Ann with donated prints of Clara’s paintings.
The Humber River of Madeleine's childhood
Madeleine on the second floor of Lambton House
Next stop - the McMichael Canadian Art Collection in Kleinburg: the "holy grail" of the Group of Seven artists.
Clara studied under J.W. Beatty (http://criticalmassart.blogspot.ca/2012/08/oca-summer-school-in-port-hope-circa.html) who was a major influence and colleague of Tom Thomson, sketched with Lawren Harris, A.Y. Jackson and Arthur Lismer (www.lochgallery.com). As their influence is seen in Clara’s work a visit to the McMichael Canadian Art Collection in Kleinburg, Ontario (http://www.mcmichael.com) was essential. On Wednesday, September 25, 2012 Ann and I received a private two hour tour. The information given by our guide Judy S. about the Group of Seven’s work as well as other Canadian artists was invaluable. In a long hallway with paintings hung “gallery style” a painting immediately jumped out at me. I had seen various interpretations of that scene during our visit to the Port Hope Summer School: done by Beatty’s students so long ago. I recognized it immediately as Clara had painted the same scene: "Old Pioneer Bridge, Near Devil’s Elbow, Port Hope 1933". I checked the directory to find the spartan title: “An Old Bridge at Port Hope” painted by J.W. Beatty (http://www.mcmichael-artdb.com). Clara’s careful documentation which is characteristic of her work adds more information to Beatty’s painting and to those interested in the art of that period.
As we toured the gallery we could see the similarities between Clara’s landscapes done in the plein-air method and those in the gallery collection. The visit was also fitting as the museum is situated by the Humber River Valley, the location subject of so many of Clara’s paintings.
Thank you Judy for such an in-depth tour
Verna and Judy S., McMichael tour guide standing near the gardens.
At this point Ann and I parted I was going to my last appointment : a collector in St. Catharines. It was Thursday, September 26, 2012.
St. Catharines, Ontario
Les, a collector in St. Catherines, had contacted me through the website in October 2011: “What a delight to find your website! I have been trying to track down more information about Clara Harris for many years without much success. My wife and I own about 10 of Clara’s paintings and I would like to acquire more”. I was looking forward to meeting Les and his wife, Arlene and seeing their collection. Les acquired the paintings in the 1970’s from an antique store on Eglinton Avenue in Toronto. There were numerous paintings of Clara’s but Les decided on two. When he got back to St Catharines and he and Arlene evaluated Clara’s work they decided that he should go back and purchase the rest. In Les’ words: “I acquired a car load of additional paintings on that second trip”. The antique store owner told Les that Clara did not like promoting herself or selling her work; preferring to donate it to schools, churches and other institutions. Clara gave a lot of her paintings to friends too. This explains why Clara was less known, even though her training and talent were commensurate with so many well-known artists with whom she exhibited.
As only one of Clara’s paintings were framed Les took the remaining eight to a professional framer who put dust covers on the backs of each one. Consequently it’s not known which scenes Clara had titled. Les volunteered to make a tear in each dust cover so that we could have a look at the backs of the canvases but we decided against it. Thanks to Les and Arlene for sharing their collection with us. And readers, if you recognize any of these scenes please contact me.
With my final stop at Les and Arlene’s completed it was time to drive back to New York. The five hundred mile trip gave me lots of time to review the value of the tour. From Port Hope to St. Catharines the collectors and their information provided more facts about Clara and her art as history.
I was already thinking about when I could take my next trip!
Summer on the Farm
Large Pine Tree & Buildings
Boathouse, Green Boat and Sailboat
Autumn at the Lake
Grey Barn, Farmer, and Haystack
Original frame, 21” x 27”
Ice Break Upon Northern Lake
View of the Lake from the Roadside