Reminiscences of the Group of Seven
The Empire Club of Canada Addresses (Toronto, Canada), 14 Oct 1982, p. 47-58

Casson, A.J., Speaker
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Going back 65 years. Some personal history. The true origins of the Group of Seven ten years before the first show in 1920. Personal reminiscences including the first exhibition of the Group; how the speaker became a member; the nature of the Group; anecdotes; growing recognition of the Group; sales; etc. The speaker's life now. Changes after the Group broke up. Why the Group broke up. The speaker's happiest painting years with the Group.
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14 Oct 1982
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Full Text
OCTOBER 14, 1982
Reminiscences of the Group of Seven
AN ADDRESS BY A.J. Casson, R.C.A., LL.D.
CHAIRMAN The President, Henry J. Stalder


Beauty lies in the eye of the beholder. Awareness is created by the number of people knowing about a particular beauty. Acceptability stems from the approval of both the scholars and art lovers in general. Preference is reached by quality, harmony, ingenuity, uniqueness; by a personal style which unites values of the craft with innovation and progress. A master is one who can amalgamate these factors and excel in each of them independently.

Master Casson, welcome to this meeting of The Empire Club of Canada.

What the artist offers to society is not a bagful of his own tricks and idiosyncrasies, but rather some knowledge of the secrets to which he has had access and which only his sensitivity can reveal to us.

A master knows where to search in himself and where to find strength. But this strength is not yet genius. Artistic genius lies in the continuity, in the perseverance, in the capacity to create and recreate even higher achievements.

Our guest of honour has a most impressive record of achievements that will make it difficult indeed to do justice in an introduction. But let me try.

He was born in 1898 in Toronto. In 1919 he became apprenticed to Franklin Carmichael, was introduced to the Arts and Letters Club, and met members of the Group of Seven. He attended the Ontario College of Art in 1920, and in 1921 he began exhibiting with the Graphic Arts Club, later the Canadian Society of Graphic Art.

He became a member of the Group of Seven in 1926, replacing Frank H. Johnston, and founded--with Carmichael and Fred Brigden--the Canadian Society of Painters in Water Colour. He was also elected an Associate of the Royal Canadian Academy (ARCH).

In 1927 he joined the firm of Sampson Matthews as a designer, becoming art director in 1942. From 1946 until his retirement in 1957, he was vice-president and art director of the company.

In 1933, on the dissolution of the Group of Seven, he became a founding member of the Canadian Group of Painters.

He was elected President of the Ontario Society of Artists in 1940, an office he held until 1945, and he was also elected to full membership in the Royal Canadian Academy (RCA). In 1948 he was elected President of the Academy, an office held until 1952, and he served as Chairman of the Council of the Ontario College of Art.

He received the Province of Ontario Award in 1948, and in 1949 became an Honorary Member of the National Academy of Design in New York. He became Vice-President of the Art Gallery of Toronto (now the Art Gallery of Ontario) in 1955, an office he held until 1959.

In 1957 he received the University of Alberta National Award Gold Medal for painting and related arts. He very modestly states that he became a full-time artist only in 1959. It was then that he established an association with the Roberts Gallery, Toronto. He had one-man exhibitions in 1962, 1965, 1968, 1972, 1975, and 1978.

He became a consultant to the Ontario Provincial Police on matters of forged paintings in 1962 and is still an honorary inspector.

In 1970 he was awarded the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts medal and the degree of Doctor of Laws, honoris causa, was conferred on him by the University of Western Ontario. He was awarded the degree of Doctor of Laws, honoris causa, by the University of Saskatchewan in 1971. In 1973 he was awarded the City of Toronto Award of Merit for distinguished public service, and became, as well, a Fellow of the Ontario College of Art. In 1974 a lake in Curtain Township, District of Sudbury, Ontario, was named Casson Lake in his honour, and a township near Thessalon, Ontario, was named Casson Township. In 1975 he was awarded the degree of Doctor of Laws, honoris causa, by the University of Toronto, and in 1978 he was awarded the Silver Jubilee Medal, and in the same year the Art Gallery of Windsor organized a retrospective exhibition of his work. And in 1982 he was awarded an LL.D. from McMaster University, as well as from Mount Allison University.

Those are the facts of a brilliant career in art. The only thing more important is the actual work, the creation. The spirit of that creation was well captured by one of our fine speakers, also a member of the Group of Seven, fifty-seven years ago. In 1925, A. Y. Jackson spoke to The Empire Club of Canada and mused: "When the last cow is taken from the drawing room and the walls are alive with red maple, yellow birch, blue lakes and sparkling snow-scapes, I can hear the young modern painter up north say to his pal: there's the trail that those old academic Johnnies, the Group of Seven, blazed."

Ars longa, vita brevis--art is long, life is short. Dear Sir, your art will forever outlive you. Please welcome A. J. Casson.


Mr. Chairman, ladies and gentlemen: When I was asked to give this talk, I wondered if my memory would be fairly clear, because I was asked to reminisce a bit about the Group of Seven--and that goes back sixty-five years. Some things are a little bit hazy but I am not going to talk about the history of the group. That has been done over and over in books, heaven knows. Some are fairly correct; in others the writers were guessing and I am now at an age where I don't want to take the trouble to try to correct them.

I should say that I was born in Toronto in 1915, and when I came back to Toronto things in the art world were pretty flat. I managed to get a job in a small engraving house and began going to different art schools in the evenings, OCA, Central Tech, and so on. But at that time, I didn't even know there was anything like the Group of Seven.

One of the mistakes often made by people writing about the Group is that they start with the first show the group had in 1920. But the group really was formed perhaps ten years before that. As Lawren Harris said one time, however, "We didn't pin a name on it until 1920." It was just a group of people who worked at Grip Ltd. You see, all the Group of Seven (with the exception of Harris, who had independent means) worked at commercial art some time in their early days, and Grip Ltd. was where they met. I have always felt that the prime mover in the Group was Jim MacDonald, but Lawren being the younger, much younger than Jim, and having private means, was the front man who pushed things. At that time in Toronto there was no art gallery. It was very difficult for a young artist to get into the art world, there was no way of meeting people or anything like that.

For some unknown reason--I have never puzzled this out--everybody was outdoors sketching. I think the first two Group of Seven things I ever saw were in a show at the reference library, about 1917 or 1918. I still remember seeing a Jackson and a Lismer. I remember those all these years later and at the time I had not a clue who they were. But for some reason everybody was sketching--all the commercial boys, everybody who could paint was out sketching. I was one of them. We didn't know what we were doing, it was sort of the blind leading the blind, but we were having a lot of fun. Just recently I was down in our basement and I found an old box with a hundred sketches that I had intended to throw out. I looked them over. There are about seven or eight of them I wish I could do now. Being young and full of beans, I slapped paint on in a way I couldn't possibly do today. I've taken ten or twelve out and the rest are going in the garbage. Unfortunately, I can't remember where I painted these paintings. I have no idea. It might have been Port Credit, anywhere.

I should come now to the first exhibition of the Group. Now, I don't think there are many here who were at the opening of the Art Gallery of Ontario, which was then the Art Gallery of Toronto. My wife and I were there that night and, you know, it was terribly formal. White tie, ladies with evening dresses and white gloves, a receiving line, and nobody had any idea what some of these paintings were all about, but they were terribly polite about it. The curious thing is, with all this formality and everything, the next day, when they checked the sales, there were none. Nothing was sold. Later some went to the National Gallery. I have always remembered that--the difference between that opening and an opening today, where "anything goes."

People ask me how I became a member of the Group. In 1919 I was floundering around, not very satisfied with the work I was doing, and I was asked to go on the staff at Rous & Mann. Well, if you got on the art staff of Rous & Mann in those days you were made. I was for seven years Frank Carmichael's apprentice. I owe more to Frank in my art career than to any other single person. He took me under his wing and coached me, took me sketching, did everything. Occasionally, he would take me to the Arts and Letters Club for lunch, perhaps once a month. I met the Group just casually and shortly after that I became a member. Then the rest of the Group began to take an interest in me. I had to be pretty tough to take what they threw at me. They were pretty critical. I didn't realize until years later they were testing me to see if I was going to come through with some good things, and later perhaps they would make me a member to take Frank Johnson's place. The Group was an organization that avoided anything that was like a formal society. This is one of the things I regret now when I am asked to check up on things about the Group. There was no head of the Group, no secretary, no minutes were kept, anything. There were very few meetings; about the only time there really was a formal meeting was when a show was coming up or we were going on a camping trip. I am sorry that no records were kept. I can remember going to the Arts and Letters Club on a Monday, say, after there had been a Group opening at the Gallery. As I was so much younger than these men I just sat and listened to them. If any of you have read the criticism that came out in those days, it really wasn't criticism. When you look back at it now, it's funny to recall what they said. I expected the Group to be all up in arms about this. They weren't. They treated it as a joke and I remember saying to Harris one day, "Isn't this awful?" and he said, "No, it's better than being ignored." I think he was right.

I sat on the sidelines for years. Alex Jackson--we kept in touch with Alex until two weeks before he died--always referred to me as "the kid," and I became sort of a joe-boy for the Group, running errands, doing things for them. I would go out to Carmichael's, help him mat things. He would keep me working until twelve at night. I was just as stubborn as they were; I wouldn't give in, this routine they put me through. And I always remember Jim MacDonald--who was a very kind, considerate person--coming to me once. He said: "I have a mural to make for somebody at the Canadian National Exhibition. I have too much work. Could you possibly take it on for me? I've designed it." Well, I couldn't turn it down.

Now that I think back on it, I don't think Jim designed it and I don't think he was interested--it was a pretty ordinary thing. However, that was one of the joe-boy jobs that I did for him, and I did plenty. Later on, they took me out sketching with them more and more, and finally they invited me to go on one of their famous trips to Lake Superior. Up until that time they had been making these trips to Algoma, but I wasn't in on it.

But in 1926 we went up to Lake Superior. I thought you might like to know what a Group of Seven sketching trip was like. We took the night train. It was in the middle of October. We got off at Port Coldwell about five at night. The train wouldn't stop--it was on a heavy grade--but Harris had given the conductor ten dollars or something to slow it down to twenty-five miles per hour. Because I was the youngest, I was put on the steps to count our baggage coming out. When we got to the right point, I got a shove to jump. Harris had arranged for a couple of section men to put the heavy things on a jigger and take us up the track five miles.

Well, of course, that night we had no more time than to get a tent set up, get something to eat, and go to bed. Next morning we set up camp. There was a fireplace and all that to get ready. For two weeks it snowed every night and every morning. We thought that would be fine; light snow was great. But about half-past nine every morning it would rain a bit, which took the snow off. We spent two weeks there. For some people it would be miserable. We had a wonderful time. I have never in all my life been associated with people who were so enthusiastic. Not because they were painting to sell, because there were no sales anyway, but just with straight enthusiasm. It got into your blood. I would go out with them; they would pick their spots, and I would watch them for a whole morning and a whole afternoon and I don't think they would raise their heads. They were concentrating on what they were doing. I was roaming around to see if I could pick up some pointers from them. But they didn't pay much attention. They were busy. But every night when we came back--we had a little stove, a little woodstove, I wouldn't say it was warm but at least it wasn't freezing--they would ask me to show them what I had done that day. Never brought theirs out, and you know what they had to say--they were rubbing it in pretty hard but I had learned a lot from them.

One day it was raining terribly, and Harris said, "I forgot that my mother is sending us some supplies up." Well, I volunteered to walk the five miles back to the station. You can imagine what it was like, the middle of October, bitter cold. When I got there, there were two loaves of bread, two green cabbages, and two baskets of Canadian grapes. That night Frank Carmichael and I were getting dinner ready. I was going to put the cabbage in a pot and cook it. He wanted to know what I was doing. I said, "I'm going to cook the cabbage." "That's no way to eat cabbage," he said, "no good for you." We argued for a while and finally I handed him his half and I cooked my half. You had to know Frank Carmichael; it had to be raw cabbage. And I'll never forget the look on Jackson's face that night when he came over to our tent, and we were sitting there eating those cold grapes. Harris was a bit of a faddist and he arranged all the supplies for that trip. He said, "Look, fellows, don't bring any cigarettes. I'll bring that." When we got there, he had tins of this new tobacco that was supposed to have the nicotine out of it and cigarette papers. You can imagine on a bitter cold day trying to roll stuff that was like dried tea with cold hands. But it was fun, we enjoyed it.

It was shortly after that I decided I had to break from them. You see, the nearest to me was Carmichael, eight years older. When I first met them they were all established artists. I had never even painted a canvas at that time or exhibited anything. They had such an influence I couldn't help following them. I've often said that I could dig out one of my old, old sketches on Beaver-board, put Frank Carmichael's name on it and I'd be able to sell it. I broke away from them and went on my own.

It was then that I began painting the Ontario villages, because Alex Jackson begged me to go down to Quebec with him. I thought no, if I go to Quebec I'll see everything the way Alex does. So I started painting Ontario villages, and I'm awfully glad I did because what I painted has long since disappeared. I still went sketching with one or other of them the odd time, but I made sure I was away from them not to see what they were doing.

Up until the 1950s the Group's work was well known and there were an awful lot of--I wouldn't say complaints, but comment that the Group had done a lot of harm; that they had put Canadian art back so many years because after the Group became well known, everybody was trying to paint like the Group. That was not the fault of the Group. The one thing the Group insisted on was that they didn't want to found a school of painting; they merely wanted to have Canadian artists look at Canada as Canadians, because up until say 1920 there were no public collections in Canada. There were no galleries, any collections were in private hands and they were mostly Dutch masters or tidy English landscapes. The Group wanted to break that way of seeing things, break the hold of a technique that was imported. Good and all as it was, it didn't apply to our northern landscape.

Also, I can remember people saying that the Group was making up these paintings. Around 1920 there wasn't one person in a hundred who had ever been north of Muskoka. It was a pretty rough country, there was no accommodation, so they really didn't recognize what the Group was painting. I suppose, when you look back, nobody--no group of painters--has ever covered the country as thoroughly as the Group did, from East to West, North to South. I often said to my old friend Jackson in later years, "Alex, you painted everything in Canada except one place, the Niagara Peninsula." He looked at me and said, "Can you imagine me painting a nice sweet thing with apple blossoms?"

Up until 1950 there was no great sale of Canadian work of any kind. Then it started to take off. Unfortunately, the higher prices arrived too late for most of the Group to benefit. My old friend Carmichael died in 1945. When Frank died, he had never sold a sketch for more than $35--framed. Not long ago there was a Carmichael painting sold at auction for $27,000. I said to my wife when I heard this, knowing what Frank was like, "I bet he is turning over in his grave and saying, 'The darn fools could have had that for $35."'

This art boom in early Canadian and Group of Seven started about 1950 and built up until about 1960. 1 suppose many of you in the audience know there were a tremendous number of fakes. The market was flooded with them. It was a curious thing: there were practically no Varleys, Carmichaels, or Harrises. It was all MacDonald, Johnston, and one or two of the others. I noticed that some of these paintings weren't right. So one day I was going out to an exhibition. Jackson happened to be in town, so I got him to come along. We went in the door and there was a big Jackson of the Northwest Territories hanging in the hall. Alex didn't say anything as he was taking his coat off; he just grunted. Then he turned around and pointed and said, "When I left Ottawa last night that one was in my studio, and that one was in the National Gallery." Some of them were fair copies; others just took a minute or two to notice. But finally, we put a stopper on that and I enjoyed it. The Ontario Provincial Police felt they were taking too much of my time, and I said it doesn't matter how much time it takes--it is the one way, even though they are all gone, that I can thank them for what they did for me, to look after what they have left and make sure they are right. I haven't seen too many fakes lately, but they are still around.

Now I would like to conclude by saying that I am not active in the art world any more to any extent. When I took over the presidency of the Academy many years ago I realized something had to be done. The council was made up of men my age and up to ninety-four. Good painters, good men, but I realized that they weren't up with the times. It was an awkward situation; these men had served the Academy well. By careful manoeuvring I got them out and younger men in. And I remember coming home and saying to my wife after that meeting, "When I get up to near that age I am not going to inflict myself on a lot of the younger people. I'm going to keep out of it." And I have. I know what is going on, but I think it is time for me to pull out of the whole thing because the Group now is history. That's as it should be.

After the Group broke up things began to change. It broke up in 1932 because, first of all, the Group felt they had done what they had started out to do. Also, Harris was going west, Varley was going west, MacDonald had died, Lismer was going into full-time teaching, and they felt it was time to do away with the Group. They formed what was called the "Canadian Group of Painters." I never agreed to it; I didn't think it would work, though it did for a few years. I would much rather have seen the Group end and let that be it. I must say that as far as being a painter, my years with the Group were the happiest painting times I've ever had--the way they looked after me, the encouragement and the enthusiasm. As I have said, now it's part of history, put it in its place and leave it there. Thank you very much.

The appreciation of the audience was expressed by Sydney Hermant, a Past President of The Empire Club of Canada.

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Reminiscences of the Group of Seven

Going back 65 years. Some personal history. The true origins of the Group of Seven ten years before the first show in 1920. Personal reminiscences including the first exhibition of the Group; how the speaker became a member; the nature of the Group; anecdotes; growing recognition of the Group; sales; etc. The speaker's life now. Changes after the Group broke up. Why the Group broke up. The speaker's happiest painting years with the Group.