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My brush with the Group of Seven

By Jim Withers

I don’t want to sound like a shameless name-dropper, but I once had a member of the Group of Seven as a neighbour – sort of.

That would be Frank (Franz) Johnston (1888-1949).

I only mention this because this month happens to be the centenary of the ground-breaking début exhibition by Canada’s most famous septet.

Held at what is now the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto on May 7, 1920, it was the birth of the first major national movement in Canadian art, heralding a break from our colonial, European past.

Johnston and I both lived in the sleepy hamlet of Wyebridge, Ont. (pop. 133, or so), 90 klicks north of Toronto, on the southern shores of Georgian Bay, whose rocky coastline and windswept pines were powerfully captured on canvas by the Group of Seven.

While it’s a bit of a stretch to say that Johnston was really my neighbour – he moved to Toronto in 1948, the year I was born – I certainly was familiar with his former home and studio. Only a couple of minutes’ walk from where I grew up, the sprawling building, once known as The Grange, was a landmark, seeing service as a sort of community centre, a cinema and a temporary courthouse for travelling judges. It even had a jail. I got to know it through the Stuckey family who lived there, including my music-loving friend Dave, whose record collection introduced me to Bob Dylan, Frank Zappa and the just-departed Little Richard.

While Johnston was a founding member of the Group of Seven, the only G7 exhibition he took part in was that sensational first one. He officially struck out on his own four years later and, on the advice of a numerologist friend, changed his name to Franz as part of a marketing strategy. His style became increasingly realistic, but with an emphasis on the effects of light on ice and snow. During his eight years in Wyebridge, Johnston took breaks from the stark, rocky grandeur of the Canadian Shield, to paint pastoral scenes and the river banks of the meandering and not-so-mighty Wye, named after the much larger river that divides England and Wales. Local resident Hazel Guthrie (1922-2019), who did light housekeeping for Johnston when she was a young woman, told me about how he would make postcards depicting her farmer father working in the fields.

Johnston died in Toronto in 1949. And while he was never as famous as some of his Group of Seven brothers, like Lawren Harris, A.Y. Jackson and Arthur Lismer, Johnston thoroughly travelled and painted the landscapes of this vast land and was part of that trail-blazing band of artists who helped give Canadian art a distinct identity. I liked his stuff and I'm proud to call him a former neighbour – sort of.

Long live the Group of Seven.

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