Group of Seven artist whose work was destroyed in St. Anne’s church fire got his start in Hamilton

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Published June 11, 2024 at 3:19 pm

The lost St. Anne's Murals by three group of Seven members were totally destroyed in a blaze on June 9 via St. Anne's Anglican Church.

Canada is mourning the loss of the historic St. Anne’s Anglican Church in a catastrophic fire last weekend and the irreplaceable religious murals by three Group of Seven members, one of whom got their start in Hamilton.

The church was built just north of Dundas Road in 1862. At the time, the area was the hamlet Brockton, but Toronto swallowed up the small community in 1884. The neighbourhood is now Little Portugal.

St. Anne’s received a major redesign in 1907 giving the church its distinctive Byzantine layout. This included a large central dome. However, this dome was bare.

In 1923, the church commissioned Group of Seven co-founder J.E.H. MacDonald to paint murals on the dome depicting the life of Jesus. By this time, the Group had been around for a few years but was not known for religious iconography.

MacDonald, born in Durham, England in 1883, immigrated to Canada with his family at age 14. They settled in Hamilton and MacDonald joined the Hamilton Art Academy. There, he trained under acclaimed painter and “chronicler of the North” Arthur Heming.

The Solemn Land JEH MacDonald

The Solemn Land by J.E.H. MacDonald via Wiki Art Commons.

However, he soon moved to Toronto and connected with several notable artistic contemporaries. MacDonald encouraged many, including Tom Thomson, to pursue their painting skills. He spent the next few years working in famous Toronto design studios, such as Grip Ltd, where he connected with future Group of Seven members Franklin Carmichael, Frank JohnstonArthur Lismer, and Frederick Varley.

He held his first art show at the Arts and Letters Club of Toronto, where the artists often met to discuss art, in November 1911. There he met future Group of Seven member Lawren Harris and the pair began a long collaboration. They aimed to create a uniquely and truly Canadian form of landscape art. In 1913, the final future member, A.Y. Jackson, joined the pair.

Algoma Waterfall by J.E.H. MacDonald via Wiki Art Commons.

The Group formally consolidated to pursue the quest for a truly Canadian landscape form in 1920. Though closely associated with the group as a collaborator, Thomson died before they officially came together. Within a few years, they were quickly famed as a pioneering set of artists.

Their work, while distinct between them, shared a modernist approach. MacDonald was renowned for a rich, colourfully vivid style. Art historian Joan Murray “described it as “dark, tough and rich, like Jackson‘s, but his colouring was more fiery and his style more elegant. His sense of composition was oriented towards his meditation on design, a subject in which he was a master.”

Lake McArthur Yoho Park by J.E.H. MacDonald via Wiki Art Commons.

At the group’s peak, though primarily known for his landscapes, St. Anne’s Church commissioned Jackson to work on the dome murals. He brought Carmicheal and Varley in on the project as well. A total of nine painters worked on the murals.

They depicted the life and passion of Jesus including events such as the Nativity, the Entry to Jerusalem, and the Crucifixion. The Group members worked on 16 to 18 paintings on the dome roof.

Three of the 18 murals at St. Anne’s Anglican Church by J.E.H. MacDonald et al. via St. Anne’s Anglican Church.

The work was completely different from the collective’s usual works, adopting a much more classical, almost medieval, style of religious iconography. They feature flat figures, compared to other Group painting, often surrounded by rich golds.

MacDonald died nine years after the mural’s completion and the Group of Seven disbanded. The surviving members reformed as the larger Canadian Group of Painters.

The murals remained on the church dome for more than 100 years until a four-alarm blaze erupted early in the morning on June 9. The fire gutted the interior, and the dome completely collapsed. According to Toronto Fire, the murals were destroyed.

The cause of the blaze remains under investigation. However, Toronto Police say it is not considered suspicious at this time. They’ve set up a tip line for witnesses to submit any photo or video evidence of the scene. 

 

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