The Group of Seven and Graphic Design
The members of the now-celebrated Group of Seven are primarily known for their iconic paintings of the Canadian landscape. It is not as commonly known that these artists, with the exception of Lawren S. Harris, supported their painting careers by working as commercial artists, producing a wide variety of designs for advertisements, books, brochures, magazines and posters. The current exhibition at the Library and Archives of the National Gallery of Canada presents a selection of graphic designs by the original members, in celebration of the centenary of the formation of the Group, which held its first exhibition at the Art Gallery of Toronto in May 1920.
Five of the seven members – J.E.H. MacDonald, Franklin Carmichael, Francis (“Franz”) Johnston, Arthur Lismer and Frederick Varley – worked alongside Albert Robson and Tom Thomson at Grip Engraving Ltd, a graphic design firm established in Toronto by the cartoonist John W. Bengough in 1873. MacDonald, the oldest member of the Group of Seven, worked at Grip from 1895 to 1903 and again from 1906, becoming Senior Artist. Franz Johnston started at Grip in 1908, the same year as Thomson (who died in 1917 prior to the formation of the Group of Seven, but who has always been considered a member). Carmichael and Lismer arrived at Grip in 1911, and Varley was the last to join the company when, encouraged by Lismer, he immigrated to Canada from England in 1912.
By 1911, MacDonald had decided to leave Grip to concentrate on painting, although he would continue to pursue freelance design work over the next two decades. A year later, following Robson and Thomson, Carmichael, Johnston, Lismer and Varley were hired by Grip's competitor, Rous and Mann Ltd, the first printing company in Canada to establish a permanent art department. Harris and Jackson were the only Group members not to work at either company. The members of the Group continued to develop artistically in the mid-1910s through sketching excursions to Algonquin Park and other locations. These trips not only had a profound impact on their painting, but also on their commercial work.
MacDonald was the most prolific graphic designer among his Group of Seven peers. He began as an apprentice in the Toronto Lithographing Company in 1889 and moved to London, England, for a few years to work for Carleton Studio, where he refined his knowledge of Art Nouveau and Arts and Crafts design. Upon his return to Grip, he created travel brochures for such companies as the Canadian Pacific Railway. Among his best independent work is the poster Canada and the Call, designed for a Royal Canadian Academy exhibition in 1914 in aid of the Patriotic Fund, and front covers for several exhibition catalogues in the 1920s, including the 1927 Exposition d’art Canadien at the Musée du Jeu de Paume in Paris.
Johnston studied art in Germany and the United States, before returning to Toronto, where he studied under artist Gustav Hahn at the Technical School. In 1907, he worked occasionally for Grip as an engraver and subsequently for Rous and Mann. Anticipating later work by Carmichael and Jackson, Johnston designed brochures for the Bon Echo Inn, including, in 1916, the front cover for the resort's official publication The Sunset of Bon Echo. Like other members of the Group, he also produced illustrations for numerous magazines and books. An original member of the Group, the highly prolific Johnston took part in the inaugural exhibition of 1920. His membership was brief, however, as he left the Group the following year, when he became a teacher at the Winnipeg School of Art.
Carmichael, the youngest member of the Group, was born and raised in Orillia, Ontario. In 1910, he moved to Toronto to study at the Central Ontario School of Art and Industrial Design (then Ontario College of Art). The following year, he was briefly mentored by MacDonald at Grip. Despite taking an artist studio with Tom Thomson in 1914, he continued to work as a commercial artist for the next twenty years. In 1932, he became a full-time instructor in commercial design at the Ontario College of Art. During his later years, he focused more on printmaking, but still accepted commissions for commercial work, including book designs.
Like MacDonald, Lismer trained as a commercial designer in his native England before emigrating to Canada in 1911. After working less than a year at Grip Engraving and three years at Rous and Mann, he moved to Halifax to become principal of the Victoria School of Art and Design from 1916 to 1919. He returned to Toronto to join the Ontario College of Art, but continued to take on commercial contracts, including designs for brochures and books: Lismer’s most successful book design is The Privacity Agent by Bernard K. Sandwell. He also contributed illustrations to several books by Marius Barbeau, including Come 'A Singing: Canadian Folk-Songs.
Varley was a friend of Lismer's in Sheffield, England, and was hired by Grip not long after he arrived in Toronto in 1912. Like his fellow artists, he moved to Rous and Mann the following year, working there until 1918, when he served in the First World War and became an official war artist. Varley’s skill as a commercial artist is especially evident in his book designs, most of which were commissioned by the recently established Ryerson Press. The most notable of these are Complete Poems by Thomas Maclnnes, Newfoundland Verse by E.J. Pratt, and Pens and Pirates by William Arthur Deacon, all published in l923.
Jackson trained in commercial design, but not at Grip or Rous and Mann. Instead, he worked at various lithography firms in his hometown of Montreal, as well as in Chicago. Although he decided to focus on painting as early as 1905, he continued to occasionally accept design commissions. His first book illustrations were completed in 1912 for Little Book of Bird Songs by Louise Murphy, and in 1924 he produced the front cover, endpapers, frontispiece and ten illustrations for Chez Nous (Our Old Quebec Home) by Adjutor Rivard. Like Johnston and Carmichael, Jackson also designed promotional material for the Bon Echo resort, including the poster Bon Echo Inn on the Mazinawe Lakes, widely considered one of the best fine-art posters of the period.
As an heir to the Massey-Harris fortune, Lawren S. Harris was less inclined than other Group members to take on commercial projects. He occasionally ventured into magazine illustration and book design, producing, for example, several drawings for Going Down from Jerusalem by author and journalist Norman Duncan, made when Harris accompanied Duncan to the Middle East in 1907. The resulting text and images were serialized in Harper's Magazine and published as a book in 1912. Ten years later, Harris created the cover, endpapers and illustrations for his own book of verse, titled Contrasts.
Each member of the Group of Seven pursued graphic design and painting with equal passion, one activity influencing the other. The current exhibition provides a glimpse of many outstanding examples of the Group’s accomplishments in the field of commercial design.
The Group of Seven: Graphic Design is on view at the Library and Archives at the National Gallery of Canada until January 3, 2021. Share this article and subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest articles, Gallery exhibitions, news and events, and to learn more about art in Canada.