Lawren Harris Rules Canadian Art Auction Landscape

From Front and back cover of Today’s National Post

In 1916, two friends and artists from Ontario, both in their thirties, stood roughly shoulder to shoulder in their accomplishments as both worked to combine the new European way of painting and their native landscape into a uniquely Canadian body of art.

The stream of history would soon carry the men off in dramatically different directions. The solitary Tom Thomson disappeared mysteriously on a canoe trip in 1917. Among Canadian artists, the romantic figure has arguably commanded the public’s imagination ever since. Yet it is the relatively long-lived and hard-working Lawren Harris, the Thomas Edison to Thomson’s John Ruskin, who has captured the chequebooks of the nation’s art collectors.

Harris has racked up by far the highest total all-time sales in the country’s auction houses: $71.5-million to Thomson’s $34.3-million.

Harris pulled further away from Thomson – and the rest of Canada’s art elite – this week. The figures above come from Heffel Fine Art Auction House’s database of auction records, which do not yet include the results of the company’s major Canadian art sale at the Vancouver Convention Centre on Wednesday evening. There, a Harris painting, Bylot Island I, sold for $2.8-million (all figures include buyer’s premium, 17% in this instance).

More Harrises defied the estimates and any lingering effects of the recession: Arctic Sketch IX went for triple its estimate, selling for $1.52-million. Another small oil-on-board sketch, titled Winter, sold for $731,250, smashing the estimate of $300,000 to $500,000.

Island Lake Superior went for $585,000. Another Harris painting, Mountain Sketch LXX, sold for $497,250. (Works from Harris’s latter abstract period sold more modestly, as usual.)

“We had record amounts of telephone bidding, and a packed ballroom with about 400 people,” said David Heffel, president of the auction house, describing Wednesday’s Harris-mania. “The phones were just a-chatterbox; it was just a chicken coop. It was quite something to see.”

David Silcox, president of Sotheby’s Canada and author of 2006’s The Group of Seven and Tom Thomson, said the market’s apparently insatiable appetite for Harris is no bubble: It is based on the fundamental quality of the late man’s work.

“Of all the members of the Group of Seven … Lawren Harris painted more very successful paintings as a percentage of his total output. He simply hit more home runs than anyone else,” said Mr. Silcox.

Sotheby’s upcoming June 2 sale in Toronto includes works by Thomson and Harris.

“His work is very commanding,” said Dennis Reid, chief curator of the Art Gallery of Ontario and author of a 2002 book on Tom Thomson. “You walk into a room and there’s a great Lawren Harris on the wall, boy, you notice it.”

“There is a kind of an elegant abstraction to his treatment of the landscape,” said Ian Thom, senior curator of the Vancouver Art Gallery. “The work has, at its best, a classicism and serenity to it that a lot of people find appealing.”

For his part, Thomson has a unique place in Canada’s visual sense of itself, Mr. Thom continued. “For Thomson there are two absolutely iconic paintings. The Jack Pine and The West Wind are engraved in a large part of the Canadian psyche.”

Regarding sales results, comparing Thomson and Harris is an unfair exercise, Mr. Reid said. The men lived different lifespans and displayed somewhat different work ethic.

Harris was blessed with a relatively long life, and produced far more works in his lifetime. In 1885, Lawren Stewart Harris was born into a Brantford, Ont., family that was comfortable thanks to its success in manufacturing mechanized farm equipment. He died in 1970 at 84, a Companion of the Order of Canada.

His ill-fated friend Tom Thomson, often potrayed as brooding, moody and solitary, died on a canoe trip in 1917 at the age of 39, before the Group of Seven painters’ founding in 1919. Whether he was murdered over a loan, committed suicide over his fear of marriage or just bumped his head and drowned is matter for conjecture.

Thomson completed 40 full-sized canvases in his lifetime. Most of the works that come up for sale are small sketches on board. Meanwhile, Harris was capable of completing 40 finished canvases in a single year.

The odd time a good Thomson comes up for auction it gives high-rolling bidders’ paddles a jolt. At a Heffel auction last November, a Tom Thomson, Early Spring, Canoe Lake, sold for $2.75-million, blasting into shards the pre-sale upper estimate of $800,000. However, for the most part, the supply of Thomsons has all but dried up.

The same thing will happen to the supply of Harrises, Mr. Heffel said. “I predict in five or 10 years, we just won’t see major Harrises. It will be a very, very rare occurrence – maybe once every 10 years.”

Once both artists are in the history books and only rarely in auction catalogues, Thomson could spring back to the forefront. Harris’s long life reads like the proverb about slow and steady winning the race: from privilege as a boy to bankrolling the Group of Seven to serving as a de facto dean of Canadian art in later life; working steadily all the while. Next to Thomson’s story, it lacks glamour.

“People always respond, for a variety of reasons, to mystery and drama,” Mr. Thom said, “and Lawren Harris’s life doesn’t have a lot of mystery and drama to it.”

National Post, with files from Canwest News Service

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