When Group of Seven founder, J.E.H. MacDonald, settled in Thornhill in 1912, his presence encouraged several of his contemporary artist friends to join him. Four other future members of the Group of Seven rented houses in Thornhill for brief periods.
James Edward Hervey MacDonald (1873-1932) was born in Durham, England and emigrated to Canada in 1887, first to Hamilton, and then to Toronto. After studies at the Central Ontario School of Art and Design (later, the Ontario College of Art), he worked at Grip, Ltd., a design and engraving firm, from 1895 to 1911. There, he met a number of future Group of Seven members including Lawren Harris, who persuaded him to resign from Grip and paint full-time.
In 1912, J.E.H., his wife (the former Harriet Joan Lavis) and their eleven-year-old son Thoreau (named for Henry David Thoreau, famed philosopher, naturalist and author of Walden) arrived in Thornhill; they rented the brick house at 18 Centre Street, originally built for Mason Cogswell.
When the owner decided to occupy the house himself in late 1913, the MacDonalds purchased the house and property at 121 Centre Street. This location, eventually known as “Four Elms”, soon became a mecca for visiting artists such as Tom Thomson, who used to come to Thornhill when he was facing an impending deadline at Grip, Ltd.; Thoreau remembered his father and Tom poring over a design at the dining-room table.
In 1916, in the garden at “Four Elms”, just a few feet from the back door of the house, J.E.H. painted “The Tangled Garden”. It was to be one of his most controversial works. Donald Jones describes it as “a painting suffused with sunshine and cluttered with lush blossoms”, but critics at the time were much less complimentary; they accused MacDonald of “throwing paint pots in the face of the public.” J.E.H. wrote a sarcastic response in the Globe on May 27, 1916, in which he attacked all ill-informed art critics “who are better acquainted with footlights than sunlight.” (Donald Jones) “The Tangled Garden” now hangs in the National Gallery in Ottawa. Another of his works, “Morning Sunshine (The Artist’s Wife)”, painted in 1926, was obviously set by the back door of his Centre Street home.
Unfortunately, MacDonald was faced with continual financial difficulties, due to the negative effect of World War I on fine art sales and the housing market. In 1920, the same year as the official inauguration of the Group of Seven, he was forced to give up full-time painting and accepted a teaching position at the Ontario College of Art. He became principal there in 1929 and remained in this post until his premature death of a massive stroke in 1932. A memorial plaque to J.E.H. MacDonald in Oakbank Park was dedicated on November 3, 1973.
Frank Johnston (1888-1949) was born in Toronto and, like MacDonald, Lismer and Varley, joined the firm of Grip Ltd. as a commercial artist. For a short time before 1920, he rented the house at 14 John Street, the first house to the east of Yonge Street on the north side of John. After taking part in the original exhibition of the Group of Seven in 1920, he left Toronto in 1921 to become principal of the Winnipeg School of Art. In 1926, he changed his name from ‘Frank’ to ‘Franz’. Returning to Toronto in 1927, Johnston became principal of the Ontario College of Art for two years. In the 1930s, he directed a summer school of art on Georgian Bay, closing the school in 1940 to settle at Wyebridge, Ontario. Over the years, his style changed from a decorative interpretation of the landscape to a more realistic one. Johnston died in 1949 and is buried on the McMichael Gallery grounds.
Arthur Lismer (1885-1969) emigrated from Sheffield, England to Toronto in 1911 and found employment at Grip Ltd. where he met Tom Thomson, J.E.H. MacDonald and other future members of the Group of Seven. He lived briefly in Thornhill in the one-and-a-halfstorey frame house at 22 John Street. It was here that Lismer painted “My Garden, Thornhill” about 1916. At least two of his other works, “Afternoon Sunlight, Thornhill Ontario” and “John Street, Thornhill”, were completed at that time. From 1916 to 1919, Lismer served as principal of the Victoria School of Art and Design in Halifax. He returned to Toronto and later became a devoted teacher at the Ontario College of Art, where he established a number of children’s art programs. He died in 1969 and is buried in the small cemetery on the grounds of the McMichael Gallery in Kleinberg.
Franklin Carmichael (1890-1945) was the youngest member of the Group of Seven. Born in Orillia, he worked as a wagonpainter in his father’s carriage shop. He arrived in Toronto in 1911 and studied at Central Technical School and the Ontario College of Art. Carmichael was soon hired as an apprentice at Grip Ltd., where his friends Lismer and Varley encouraged him to apply to study at the Academie des Beaux-Arts in Antwerp for the 1913-14 school year. On the outbreak of World War I, he returned to Toronto and worked in the new Studio Building on Severn Street with a number of future Group of Seven artists and Tom Thomson; he even shared accommodation with the latter in the shack behind the Studio. In 1915, he married his childhood sweetheart, Ada Went, and the couple soon moved to Thornhill. They rented a small cottage at or
near the site of the present 68 John Street, on the east side of Thornhill Cemetery. According to Laura Weaver, George Billerman, who lived at 86 John Street, said that he took piano lessons from Mrs. Carmichael. Over the years, Carmichael worked full-time as a commercial artist for the firms of Grip Ltd., Rous & Mann and Sampson-Matthews.
In 1932, he began teaching at the Ontario College of Art and soon became head of the Commercial and Graphic Art department, where he remained until he died of a heart attack in 1945. Carmichael was notable among the Group of Seven artists for his revival of the neglected art of watercolour painting.
Frederick Horsman Varley (1881-1969) was a boyhood friend of Arthur Lismer in Sheffield, England. Both studied at the Sheffield School of Art and at the Academie Royale des Beaux-Arts in Antwerp, Belgium. Varley followed Lismer to Canada in 1912 and began working in commercial design. He lived for a short time in the Pomona Mill House at 170 John Street. From 1918 to 1920, he served as an “overseas artist” in England and France, where he painted scenes of battlefields and cemeteries. In 1926, after a brief teaching stint at the Ontario College of Art, Varley became an instructor of drawing and painting at the Vancouver School of Decorative and Applied Arts. He remained on the west coast for the next ten years, but eventually returned to Toronto and, in 1957, moved to Unionville. Although he excelled at painting landscapes, he is perhaps best known for his portraits and his depictions of the human figure. Like Lismer, he died in 1969 and is buried on the McMichael Gallery grounds.
Quotes are from an article in the Toronto Star, January 17, 1981, p.H11, by Donald Jones, author of the “Historical Toronto” series. It was entitled “MacDonald’s ‘Tangled Garden’ still surrounds Thornhill house.”
This article has been adapted from the article "Thornhill – Mecca for Twentieth-Century Artists, Part 1" by James Broughton, which first appeared in the October 2014 edition of the Society for the Preservation of Historic Thornhill (SPOHT) newsletter.