As It Happens

Toronto historian tracks down mystery house in Lawren Harris painting

Historian Ellen Scheinberg consulted with archivists, architects, and combed through Google Maps to find a Toronto property featured in a Lawren Harris painting.
After an intensive search, historian Ellen Scheinberg finally tracked down the mystery property in "House, Toronto" by Group of Seven painter Lawren Harris. (Ellen Scheinberg)

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It's a painting of a fairly nondescript house. 

But House, Toronto is the work of Group of Seven artist Lawren Harris, which makes both the painting, and the mystery Toronto property it depicts, significantly more interesting. 
Ellen Scheinberg is a historian and heritage consultant who was tasked with finding a Toronto house portrayed in a Lawren Harris painting. (Ellen Scheinberg/Heritage Professionals/Twitter)

"It's a lovely detached two-storey home," Ellen Scheinberg tells As It Happens host Carol Off.

"He uses vibrant colours — orange and green and blue. It's a very compelling piece."

Scheinberg is a historian and heritage consultant. Last year the painting sold at auction and the buyer asked Scheinberg to track down the unknown house.

Scheinberg and art historian Jim Burant detailed the heroic sleuthing that followed in a piece published last week in Spacing Magazine.

Most people know Harris for his paintings of Canada's northern landscape. But Scheinberg explains that his earlier work focused on urban life, like in House, Toronto, which was painted around 1920. 

After leafing through other examples of Harris' streetscapes to try to find similar paintings, Scheinberg contacted ERA Architects, a firm that specialize in heritage buildings.

"They identified this as a Second Empire house and gave me an idea of which neighbourhoods might have this type of home." 
Scheinberg says many people know Lawren Harris' later work like 'Mountain sketch XXI', which portrays Canada's northern landscape. But Harris also painted many urban landscapes, particularly with fellow Group of Seven artist J.E.H. MacDonald. (Ritchies Auctionneers/Canadian Press)

But the real breakthrough came when Scheinberg showed the painting to City of Toronto archivist Patrick Cummins.

"He recognized it. He wasn't sure exactly where it was, but he knew it was in Yorkville." 
Lawren Harris' "Toronto House" as seen on Google Maps. (Google)

With that clue, Scheinberg eventually found the house at the corner of McMurrich Street and Roden Place.

"When I found it I was overjoyed," Scheinberg says. 
This archival photograph shows the back of a row of houses on Roden Place, the street where the elusive Lawren House was finally discovered. (City of Toronto Archives)

Scheinberg says the house was built in 1887 and its earliest residents were skilled craftspeople. She was "astonished" to find out that it was still standing, despite all the decades of development.

The house's preservation is largely due to the efforts of one of its previous owners, Toronto architect Mandel Sprachman, who used the building as his office. 
Scheinberg says architect Mandel Sprachman, who once used the house as an office, was instrumental in protecting the property because he listed it as a heritage building. (Ontario Jewish Archives, Blankenstein Family Heritage Centre/Al Gilbert, C.M.)

"He obviously loved it and he wanted to protect it, so he put it on the heritage inventory, knowing that was the right thing to do if he wanted it to remain around after he sold it or passed it on to his family." 

The building remained in the Sprachman family until it was sold last fall. Scheinberg was relieved to learn that the new owners plan to renovate and preserve the building.

Scheinberg doesn't know whether Sprachman had any connection to Harris. Her colleague, Burant, thinks Harris may have passed the house on his way home from his studio or that it was one of a series of streetscapes Harris painted with fellow Group of Seven artist J.E.H. MacDonald. 
An untitled 1912 sketch of houses in Toronto by Lawren Harris. (Trevor Mills/Vancouver Art Gallery/Canadian Press)

As Scheinberg points out, particularly with Harris, there are many other paintings with unnamed buildings still to be discovered.

"I would love to see the public pursue this kind of exercise, " Scheinberg explains. "I've already had calls from people who've sent me photos of paintings that they have of houses."


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