CBC Digital Archives

Remembering Franklin Carmichael and J.E.H. MacDonald

Around 1912 a loosely knit group of artists began to paint Canada as they saw it. Sketch boxes in tow, they journeyed all over the country to paint the wilderness with bold colours and a broad, decorative style. Despite the death of mentor Tom Thomson in 1917, these painters banded together as the Group of Seven in 1920 to forge a new Canadian expression. Their vision shaped how Canadians saw their own country and left a legacy that continues to provoke debate and discussion. Thanks to the estates of Lawren Harris, A.Y. Jackson, Frederick Varley, Arthur Lismer and A.J. Casson for their assistance in this archival project.

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J.E.H. MacDonald was a dour Methodist, but also the poet among the Group of Seven. Franklin Carmichael was a small-town Canadian who encouraged the others to go abroad. Both have long since passed away -- MacDonald, the oldest of the Group, in 1932, and Carmichael in 1945. But Arthur Lismer remembers them -- and the personalities of Lawren Harris, A.Y. Jackson, and Fred Varley -- in the CBC radio show Voice of the Pioneer
• Like Fred Varley, Arthur Lismer was from Sheffield, England. In 1911 he immigrated to Canada and took a job in a lithography plant. He quit soon after and began work at Grip Limited, where he met J.E.H. MacDonald and Tom Thomson.

• Lismer was principal of the Victoria School of Art in Halifax during the Halifax Explosion and its aftermath in 1917. He sketched scenes of the devastation which were published in the Canadian Courier later that month.

• In the late 1920s Lismer painted what's believed to be the largest mural in Canada. The Humberside Lismer Mural was commissioned by Humberside Collegiate in Etobicoke, Ont. and depicts such concepts as faith, wisdom and beauty as well as early Canadian explorers. The mural was damaged and pieces lost when the school was renovated in the 1960s. A dedicated teacher, Mel Greif, raised $100,000 from alumni, governments and other sources to restore the mural and recover lost pieces.

• Later in his career, Lismer focused much of his energy on teaching art to children. In Montreal, he set up one of the most successful children's art programs in North America and was invited to create school programs in South Africa in 1936. His goal in working with children was not to create artists but to "encourage every spark of feeling...toward the development of a more emotionally active and alive little personality."

• J.E.H. MacDonald was the first of the Group to exhibit his sketches at the Arts & Letters Club in late 1911. A local critic reviewed the show, writing: "...so deep and compelling has been the native inspiration that it has to a very great extent found through [MacDonald] a method of expression in paint as native and original as itself."

• MacDonald was the only one of the Group whose early art education was entirely in Ontario.

• Franklin Carmichael was from Orillia, Ont. and started worked at Grip Limited in 1911 after moving to Toronto. He later moved to Rous & Mann and worked steadily as a commercial artist until 1932, when he became head of graphic design and commercial art at the Art Gallery of Ontario.

• Carmichael rarely travelled with the others on long sketching trips and devoted much of his time to his family. Weekends were spent sketching in his hometown.

• Arthur Lismer died in 1969 at age 83. He and his wife are buried in the cemetery at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection.

Medium: Radio
Program: Voice of the Pioneer
Broadcast Date: Feb. 16, 1969
Guest(s): Arthur Lismer
Host: J. Frank Willis
Duration: 3:19
Photo: Falls, Montreal River by J.E.H. MacDonald

Last updated: November 27, 2012

Page consulted on October 21, 2014

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