BlogSeptember 9, 1995

Lilias Newton: Portrait of the artist

THE GAZETTE, MONTREAL September 9, 1995

Klinkhoff finds another undeservedly neglected talent

Eric Klinkhoff with portraits by Lilias Torrance Newton. (Gazette Photo)

ANN DUNCAN, Gazette Art Critic


September 9, 1995


No more than a few dozen visual artists in Canada have the privilege of supporting themselves these days solely from selling their art.  Most  artist have to cobble together a living teaching of doing odd jobs.  And even then, Statistics Canada has shown that the average income of a visual artist is well below the poverty line. So it is truly a remarkable feat that Lilias Torrance Newton (1986-1980) managed not only to earn her keep throughout her life by painting portraits, but that she was also able to raise her son, Forbes, singlehandedly.


In fact, in her prime, Torrance Newton was considered Canada's leading portrait painter.  She should also be heralded as a feisty, gutsy role model for anyone interested in a feminist take on our art history. Yet the last time Torrance Newton was honoured with a retrospective of her work was in 1981.  That show was in Kingston at Queen's University's Agnes Etherington Art Centre. So an exhibition of her portraits, especially here in her home town, is more than overdue. 


The Galerie Walter Klinkhoff deserves much praise and credit for once again ferreting out a neglected figure from Canadian art history and honouring him or her with a proper exhibition. The Torrance Newton exhibition, which opens today, is part of the gallery's series of museum-quality shows in which the art is not for sale.  The gallery has been organizing this series for about 24 years now as a public service, as a way to woo a new audiences into the gallery and to help do the work that our museums used to do but seem increasingly to let fall by the wayside.  (I have never quite understood why the major museums spend next to no time exploring the roots of our art history.)


These exhibitions take a lot of time, energy and money to put together.  For the Orrance Newton show, paintings have been brought in from the National Gallery of Canada, the University of Toronto's Hart House collection, the Musée de Québec, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts and the McCord Museum of Canadian History as well as from private collections in New York, Ottawa, Toronto and the Eastern Townships. Eric Klinkhoff said he and other members of his family who work at the gallery tried to select paintings that showed the full range of Torrance Newton's talent and insight.


"Most of her paintings were of men, robed and gowned," Klinkhoff said.  They were the bankers, university presidents, judges, lawyers and captains of industry who could afford to have their portraits painted.  She was also the first Canadian artist to be commissioned to paint Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip. "But there was not a lot of leeway in the way she could paint the formal portraits," Klinkhoff said. So the Klinkhoffs kept those sorts of portraits to a minimum in this show. 


Naturally, there are a few examples - a painting of Dr. C.S. Fosbery, the founder of Lower Canada College, was plucked off the wall of LCC's dining hall for the show.  Similarly, a dour portrait of Mrs. Maud Edgar, a co-founder of Miss Edgar's & Miss Cramp's School, was borrowed from that institution, which was also Torrance Newton's alma mater. And there's a very stiff and formal-looking Frederick E. Meredith, who was the chancellor of Bishop's University between 1926 and 1932. But much of the exhibition consists of portraits Torrance Newton chose to paint or portraits of people with whom she felt as a special empathy, even a complicity.


As Barbara Meadowcroft wrote in the exhibition catalogue:  "Her success as a portrait painter was due as much to her rapport with her subjects as to her technical brilliance.  She liked to talk to her sitters while she was painting.  The liveliness of her portraits comes from the excitement she felt in getting to know her sitters, many of whom became friends." There is a wonderfully sensitive rendering of a serene-looking Mrs. Brooke Claxton (circa 1936), propped up against cushions because she was at the time recovering from a serious illness. 


There are also portraits of fellow artists - fellow Beaver Hall Group member Prudence Heward, Louis Muhlstock and A.Y. Jackson.  the painting of Muhlstock earned her acceptance in to the Royal Canadian Academy in 1937 - she was only the third woman to be so honoured - while Jackson painted in the background of her portrait of him, Klinkhoff said. Here, too, are portraits of several children.  Often there were the offspring of friends, while the two paintings entitled Winkie are of her son. And some of Torrance Newton's subjects were virtually anonymous.  One striking portrait of a woman is identified simply as Martha (circa 1938). 


In general, Torrance Newton's women tend to have more personality, more depth of personality, more individuality than her men. "She like to paint women a lot more than she like to paint men,"  Klinkhoff explained.  "She felt she had certain affinity with them." That feeling was often reciprocated, said Klinkhoff, who often posed for her to fill in for busier, more famous subjects. "She was a lot a fun for an old lady," Klinkhoff said, confessing that he sometimes showed up for such sessions after partying well into the night.  "She was like your grandmother's age and you thought you could put one over on her, but you couldn't . . . She was a grandmother type who would drink a gin or two and she had a great sense of humour.  There was a special aura to her that made her stand out."


Torrance Newton was not a brilliant painter.  But as this exhibition shows, she was highly skilled and disciplined, with more than a few flashes of real talent.  For that as well as for her abilities to earn her way in a world where art tended to be considered a superfluous and peripheral activity, Torrance Newton deserves a more prominent niche in our collective cultural consciousness. ■


The  Lilias Torrance Newton exhibition continues at the Galerie Walter Klinkhoff, 1200 Sherbrooke St. W., until Sept. 23.  The gallery is open Monday to Friday, from 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., and from 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturdays.


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