Lawren Harris became famous as the Group of Seven ringleader whose rugged landscapes changed Canadian identity. His lesser-known pursuits? Lavish society parties, zealous spiritualist cults and a scandalous love affair that landed him in exile
Harris hiking shirtless near Mount Temple in the Rockies with CBC producer Ira Dilworth
Lawren Harris, the Group of Seven’s flamboyant front man, was dashing, oracular, ambitious and enigmatic. Imagine a mix of Merlin, Gauguin and Batman, his utility belt stocked with oil paints, hovering perpetually between high society and artistic outer space. The scion of one of Canada’s wealthiest families, Harris could have been a Photoplay cover boy—squint and you might see Charlie Chaplin, squint tighter and maybe Clark Gable. His buddies were bank presidents, doctors and industrialists, and he built elegant, expensive houses for his family. Still, he always felt more at home in the deep bush.
Lots of rich people collect art, but very few set out to make it, and even fewer with the obsessiveness that Harris did. From his late teens, he painted incessantly, searching for ever more transcendent subjects. He used his mansion at 63 Queen’s Park Crescent as the Group’s headquarters, had a special boxcar outfitted so they could venture, in relative comfort, deep into the wilderness of northern Ontario, and earnestly promoted his radical ideas about art in magazines, lecture halls and private clubs. Harris was a breathless devotee of theosophy—a tricked-out mash-up of Eastern philosophy and self-help—and became convinced that artists were superior beings attuned to a higher reality. He wore his studio smock like a vestment and believed his art could shape the country’s identity. “There is a holiness about them,” Harris’s confidante Emily Carr said of his paintings in 1927. “Something you can’t describe but just feel.”
During Harris’s lifetime, the Group was fêted and fawned and fought over. They became the subject of dozens of reverential coffee table books, biographies, documentaries, novels, postage stamps, calendars and coffee mugs. By the turn of the 20th century, their work was fetching millions at auction, and Harris had become one of Canada’s most collected artists. Last November, his painting “Mountain and Glacier” sold to an anonymous buyer for $4.6 million at a Heffel auction—the highest auction price ever for a Canadian painting.
But nothing confers status quite like Hollywood. The Idea of North: The Paintings of Lawren Harris is an exhibition of 73 Harris paintings, co-curated by the comedian and art collector Steve Martin alongside the AGO’s Andrew Hunter and Cynthia Burlingham of the Hammer Museum in L.A. It opened at the Hammer last October and arrives at the AGO this month. In the show’s catalogue, Martin compares Harris to Edward Hopper, calling them both auteurs of isolation. If Hopper portrayed a familiar urban alienation, Harris’s subject was a shimmering astral plane. He didn’t want to just depict the sublime; he wanted people to enter it through his pictures. Accomplishing that would cost him a lot more than money.
The Group of Seven always looked less like insurgents than insurance salesmen. While they fancied themselves masters of the Canadian wilderness, they were, for the most part, cosmopolitan urbanites, animated by anger toward what they considered retrograde Canadian art. They cast themselves as outsiders but were very much a part of the cultural establishment. If the romantic story of modern art is the story of artists breaking free, century by century, from the royal court, the aristocracy and then, finally, the bourgeoisie, here were a bunch of artists who were happily bourgeois. They held steady jobs, had families, went to church. The Group’s art might have seemed subversive, they might have shocked this tiny burg of burghers—at least for a little while—but it was in the service of a strenuously worthy aspiration: nation-building.
Lawren Harris fully embodied this contradiction. He grew up rich and never tried to hide it. By the time Lawren was born in 1885, in Brantford, Ontario, his paternal grandfather, Alanson Harris, had made a fortune with a newfangled harvesting machine. Lawren’s God-fearing Baptist father, Tom, worked as a secretary in the family business; his doting mother, Annie Stewart, was a minister’s daughter. The unusual name Lawren was the consequence of parental compromise: Annie wanted to call him Lawrence; Tom preferred Lorne. In 1891, Harris, Son and Company merged with the rival farm machinery company Massey Manufacturing, to form Massey-Harris, then the largest agricultural firm in the British Empire.
The only thing more important to the Harrises than money was religion. While the Masseys spent their money on music halls and university buildings, the Harris dynasty poured its cash into the church: Alanson bankrolled several Baptist churches in southern Ontario, and Tom was a deacon of the Baptist Young People’s Union in Ontario. He and Annie ran a strict, if loving, household. Card-playing was forbidden; morning and evening prayer mandatory; church attended three times every Sunday, when the only reading material permitted was the Bible. Headstrong and mischievous, Lawren occasionally chafed under this discipline. Once, at age seven, he put on one of Tom’s suits, and his younger brother, Howard, donned his mother’s dress and fur stole. The pair showed up at church, parading down the aisle.
Lawren found refuge in another, more potent and more personal religion. While every little kid makes art, little Lawren literally consumed it: when he received his first set of watercolour paints as a toddler, he ate the coloured cubes like candy. A sickly child often confined to bed with a mysterious heart defect, Lawren spent his time sketching his toys or making Christmas cards. He wanted to play hockey and swim in the river, but Annie nudged him toward knitting and stamp collecting instead.
Tom died of kidney failure in 1894, when Lawren was just nine, and Annie packed the family up and took them to the Annex in Toronto, where her parents lived. She indulged the boys—they travelled to Europe, and, at their insistence, she bought one of the first cars in the city. Lawren attended St. Andrew’s College, at the time a brand new private school in Rosedale, and U of T after that. When a professor discovered one of Lawren’s notebooks filled with portraits of his fellow freshmen, he told Annie her son would be better off studying art. She put Lawren on a boat to Berlin, where she had relatives who could keep tabs on him.
Annie needn’t have worried. Though the city was vibrant, louche and crowded, Harris kept his hands to himself, his eyes on the art. Like the rest of Europe, Berlin was a hub for thrilling new artistic movements—expressionism, fauvism, symbolism—and, like he did with his childhood paints, Harris gobbled it up. When he wasn’t holed up in private studio classes, he threw himself, with considerable self-seriousness, into other lofty pursuits: practising the violin, sketching on the banks of the Spree, hiking in the Alps. In 1907, he met the German artist and writer Paul Thiem, who introduced him to theosophy, a cultish religion whose adherents sought a fuller existence. So did Harris.
When Harris returned to Canada in 1908, the country felt paradoxically too small and too big. It was still a colonial backwater, tiptoeing toward economic and cultural independence. And yet it was also a new country, a modern country, its landscapes both unspoiled and unrepresented. Harris’s thoughts about his own painting were still unformed, but he despised the conservative Canadian artists who slavishly imitated European styles 50-odd years out of date. He wanted to be the Canadian Van Gogh—and if that was going to happen, he had to render a legitimate Canadian identity, whatever that may be. Or, better yet, create one himself.
Harris’s own identity was in flux. He was at once happily domesticated and an enemy of convention. He had come back to Toronto a true-believing, fire-breathing advocate of modern art, but he was also a proud, traditional pillar of society. By day, he painted in a modest studio above a grocery store at Yonge and Cumberland; by night, he was a fixture at Spadina, his friend Albert William Austin’s luxurious estate at the crest of Davenport Hill. Along with John Eaton’s neighbouring home, Ardwold, Spadina was a locus of Toronto society. Visitors included the Archbishop of Canterbury, J. P. Morgan and Vincent Massey, Harris’s childhood pal who would later become Canada’s first native-born governor general. The Austins threw extravagant parties, lots of them. At their strawberry socials every summer, tables and chairs were set out on the terraces, draped in colourful cloth, and guests drank tea made from the plump strawberries grown in Spadina’s gardens.
It was in that clubby and incestuous world that Harris met his future wife, Beatrice “Trixie” Phillips, a doe-eyed socialite whose father had made millions importing fine china. Trixie was as ordinary as Harris was idiosyncratic—her family called him the Artist, not a term of endearment—and she had little interest in the things that obsessed him. They were married in 1910—a convenient, functional union, at best. Whether Harris had a Baptist’s self-denial or just a general aversion to sex, he didn’t let bodily appetites get in the way of his work. He rarely used the word “sex” and loathed nude portraiture.
Over the next 20-odd years, the couple distracted themselves from their incompatibility by moving several times—from an Eden Smith–designed Arts and Crafts house on Clarendon Avenue to a dark Gothic revival home down the street from the Ontario legislature and finally, at the height of the Depression, to an immense, custom-built, modernist mansion in Forest Hill. They had three children—Lawren Jr., Margaret and Howard—and Harris indulged them the way his mother had indulged him. In a memoir called “Personal Reminiscences,” Margaret recalled, “He rarely said ‘No,’ so we had full scope to try just about anything.”
Harris gave himself the same licence. Within weeks of his wedding, he was off on a sketching trip to the Laurentians and then to a Minnesota lumber camp. When he wasn’t at his Toronto studio, his favourite haunt was the newly formed Arts and Letters Club, on the second floor of the court house of the County of York, in the space currently occupied by Terroni on Adelaide. It was an elite boys’ club where Toronto’s cultural czars dwelled. The TSO was born there, as was the Hart House Theatre. Vincent Massey, an early member, considered it a den of “weird geniuses”; Eden Smith, and later Robertson Davies and Marshall McLuhan, were often found hanging around the fireplace.
It was a short walk from there into the Ward, a working-class enclave bounded by College and Queen, Yonge and University. The Ward was home to waves of newcomers—Jewish, Italian, Irish and Chinese—who crowded into its rundown rooming houses and sweatshops. In protestant Toronto, it possessed an electric exoticism and danger. Harris, governed by a mix of curiosity and noblesse oblige, was one of a few artists to venture there. He found poetry in its poverty—literally. The Ward’s squalor inspired his first and only book of free verse, as well as a suite of paintings. Of his 1910 piece “Houses, Wellington Street,” he wrote that his only aim was to “depict the clear, hard sunlight of a Canadian noon in winter.”
A year later, back at the Arts and Letters Club, an artist named Jim MacDonald installed an exhibition of small oil sketches rendering snow, rocks and pine trees. Harris was mesmerized. He and MacDonald bonded over their creative aspirations and their mutual interest in the American transcendentalists (MacDonald had named his son Thoreau). In January 1913, they took a train to Buffalo to see an exhibition of contemporary Scandinavian art, with its pale colours, symbolism and familiar snowy landscapes. “This is what we want to do in Canada,” MacDonald said.
Harris and MacDonald fetishized the landscape, and a few other painters shared their kink, namely MacDonald’s illustrator pals—Arthur Lismer, Franklin Carmichael, Frank Johnston, Fred Varley and Tom Thomson—plus an adventurous Montreal painter named A. Y. Jackson. Thomson cut the most colourful figure. An itinerant engraver from the Bruce Peninsula, he was moody and poor, a woodsman who knew the bush more intimately than the rest. He slept in his canoe and, when in Toronto, spent nights snowshoeing in the Rosedale ravine. Thomson made intuitive work that veered as close to abstract expressionism as representational painting could, and Harris adored his intensity. One spring afternoon, while the two were painting in Algonquin Park, a vicious thunderstorm suddenly overtook them. They took refuge in an abandoned lumber shack, but Thomson quickly fled, paintbox in hand, to sketch in the gale. When the pine tree Thomson was sketching crashed down, obscuring him from view, Harris thought he’d been killed. Within seconds, Thomson sprang up, waved at his friend and kept on drawing.
United by romanticism, mysticism and their outsized egos, the group proudly proclaimed themselves the emissaries of a new art movement. In 1913, Harris hired the architect Eden Smith to build them their own three-storey brick clubhouse in the Rosedale ravine, dubbed the Studio Building for Canadian Art, which provided workspace and living quarters for six artists (Thomson lived in a shack out back). The studio cost $60,000 to build—a fortune in an era when the average Toronto house was valued at $1,600. Harris paid three-quarters of that, with his pal the ophthalmologist and art collector James MacCallum kicking in the rest. Harris designated its spaces reserved “for artists doing distinctly Canadian work.”
Doing that work, of course, meant spending a lot of time far from Toronto. Harris and his friends wanted to prove they weren’t pampered, dandified dilettantes—when they went into the woods to paint, they considered themselves hard labourers. The group was as much an adventure club as anything else, and when they were out in the bush, they could just as well have been competing for Boy Scout badges as creating art. Lismer and Thomson camped and fished, paddled and painted in Algonquin Park. A. Y. Jackson rode the Canadian Pacific Railway in the Rockies. Johnston went deep into the Canadian Shield, where he captured the northern lights. Harris, meanwhile, often painted around Lake Simcoe, where he had a cottage.
The work they produced was visceral, vivid and controversial. The press dubbed them the Algonquin School (Harris would rename them the Group of Seven in 1920). One critic accused them of having “an absolute lack of the knowledge of drawing, colour and design.” The Toronto Daily Star likened their paintings to “a gargle or glob of porridge,” dismissing them with the wave of a headline—“The Hot Mush School.” Saturday Night magazine satirized their proto-lumbersexual propensities. “[The artist] can’t work in peace unless he has a bear trying to steal his bacon or a moose breathing down his neck. That’s why the coming Canadian artist is such a husky beggar,” wrote journalist Peter Donovan in 1916.
When Canada entered the First World War, the group was flung apart. Varley became a war artist, deployed to Europe, while Lismer and Johnston painted scenes from the home front; Jackson was wounded in battle. Though Harris’s heart condition disqualified him for active duty, he enlisted in 1916, contributing to the war effort by teaching musketry at Camp Borden in Barrie.
More than 60,000 Canadian men died in World War I, but tragedy struck even closer to home. In July 1917, Thomson drowned in Canoe Lake in Algonquin Park. Suspicion swirled around his death—was it misadventure, murder or suicide? The case was never solved, and Harris was devastated. He’d lost a good friend and possibly the greatest painter he’d known. Less than a year later, Harris’s 31-year-old brother, Howard, a decorated veteran of the Somme and Passchendaele, was killed in France. Just as he had managed to finally create something, just as the country had found the artists who could transform it, all Harris could see was death and loss.
On May 1, 1918, Harris was discharged from the Army, suffering from depression, chronic sleeplessness, confusion and a mysterious ailment he described in his letters as an “apprehensive opening of the eyes.” Painting had ceased to be a refuge—he feared he’d never be a great artist. Desperate, he wrote Jim MacDonald: “At times I impress myself as having built everything…on sand.” He wanted to go far away from the Toronto slums he had painted, the Lake Simcoe vistas he dismissed as “meagre,” the Algonquin landscapes that were now tainted by Thomson’s absence. He needed to go somewhere he’d never been before—physically and psychically.
Spiritualism had always intrigued him, and in 1918 it became a lifeline. Theosophy, which dates back to the second century, was revived and reimagined by Helena Blavatsky, the magnetic, mysterious Russo-German occultist sometimes called the Mother of the New Age. Madame Blavatsky, as she was known, co-founded the Theosophical Society in 1875 with the lawyer William Quan Judge. She was a foul-mouthed fabulist, huckster and high priestess, her body draped in Indian robes, perpetually enveloped in tobacco smoke. Through psychic transmissions from long-dead Tibetan mahatmas, she claimed to have discovered the hidden source of the world’s religions, which would guide her followers toward enlightenment.
Theosophy had no rituals per se—practising it basically meant getting together with other theosophists and talking about it—but it did have holy books, including the immense, pseudo-scientific Secret Doctrine and Isis Unveiled, in which Blavatsky details the origins of the universe and the evolution of humanity. In Blavatsky’s teachings, prayer was forbidden, an anthropomorphic god derided; true reality lay behind a dissolvable physical plane. Blavatsky borrowed a lot of her concepts from Eastern religions (the books can read like Hinduism for Dummies ghostwritten by L. Ron Hubbard), but theosophy had serious supporters, including Yeats and Gandhi.
For avant-garde artists like Kandinsky, Duchamp and Mondrian, the Kool-Aid was particularly intoxicating: it endowed them with a supernatural power. Theosophists believed that artists had gone through several reincarnations to become more spiritually evolved. Attuned to a higher reality, they could communicate their enlightenment to the rest of the world, and if their visions were too original, too experimental, too vanguard, it’s only because the rest of society wasn’t as evolved as they were.
By the time Harris discovered theosophy, Blavatsky was dead, but her legacy was thriving. He loved theosophy’s epic sweep and great sense of possibility. “Theosophy is no soporific like an ordinary religion—it excites all sorts of things, unknown and untoward things,” he wrote. He joined the Toronto Theosophical Society (serving on, of all things, the decorating committee), and gave lectures on theosophy and art. He quit smoking and drinking and Christianity. And he published in the Canadian Theosophist, arguing that art was part of the training of the soul. Harris read daily from William Quan Judge’s translation of the Bhagavad Gita—and believed he was the reincarnation of Judge himself.
Blavatsky was an early eugenicist, who argued that North America would be home to a new, more spiritual race. This fed Harris’s belief in the North as a place of soul-saving power: “We are in the fringe of the great North,” he wrote, “and its living whiteness, its loneliness and replenishment, its resignations and release, its call and its answer—its cleansing rhythms.” Less than a month out of the Army, he travelled to Algoma, north of Sault Ste. Marie, where he rested, sketched, pulled himself together. He kept moving north, and finally, on a trip with A. Y. Jackson, he found what he was looking for on the banks of Lake Superior.
The forests in the area had been burned 15 years previously, exposing the unadorned contours of hills. The sky seemed infinite. There was no fall foliage to capture, only scorched earth, dead trees and frozen isolation. He and Jackson camped in correspondingly spartan conditions: bathing in the frigid lake, warming themselves by digging a trench through their tent and filling it with embers from their fire, subsisting on a Roman centurion’s breakfast cereal recipe—wheat, rye, bran and flaxseed—that Harris said made him impervious to cold. No matter the weather, he was up at first light to paint.
The large mystical landscapes he produced there became his trademark, his water lilies, his Campbell’s soup cans. They were both simpler and more whimsical than his earlier work. His palette thinned to gunmetal grey, glacier blue, russet and white; his light became more explicitly radiant; his shapes sculptural, fluid, bulbous. If Blavatsky had written children’s books, these could have been the illustrations.
The first official Group of Seven show took place in 1920 at the Art Gallery of Toronto. Harris hung five of his Ward paintings, some pieces from the Algoma trips and, unusually, four portraits. One of them was of a beguiling, open-faced woman named Bess Housser. She was married to Frederick Housser, a good pal of Harris’s from their days at St. Andrew’s. In 1926, Housser, a financial advisor, journalist and theosophist, wrote the Group’s origin story, A Canadian Art Movement: The Story of the Group of Seven. It was breathless hagiography, less art history than advertorial. If the Group set out to define a mythology of Canada, Housser shamelessly trumpeted the mythology of the Group. Of Harris, he wrote: “[He] paints the Lake Superior landscape out of a devotion to the life of the soul and makes it feel like the country of the soul.”
As Housser was composing this paean to his friend’s work, Bess was providing more fulsome inspiration for the work itself. She was a self-assured, self-taught artist and theosophist. For several years, she and Harris exchanged letters that stoked an uncommon, private intimacy. “You see into the workings, the ferments, the seethings and simmerings of people,” he wrote to her. He continued to live with Trixie and the kids, vacationing with them, moving into yet grander new homes, but his heart, according to his friend Doris Mills, was “bleeding within him.”
In 1934, the bleeding stopped. Bess found out that Fred was having an affair. She ran into Harris’s arms, got a quickie divorce in Reno and moved temporarily into the Studio Building. When Trixie discovered their affair, she threw her husband out. Harris got his own Reno divorce and married Bess. It was an intimacy they both insisted was purely spiritual and intellectual. By all accounts, Bess and Harris never had sex. “There’s to be none of that there,” he told his tennis partner Peter Haworth, assuring him that he and Bess would always have separate bedrooms.
Trixie destroyed every document relating to her life with Harris, and her family threatened to charge him with bigamy (the divorces weren’t legally binding in Ontario). Others took her side, too, including A. Y. Jackson and Emily Carr, who mocked Lawren and Bess in her journal: “They are down in California getting divorces and consoling each other meantime. [Bess] prattled about higher love and nonsex and made me a little sick.”
That November, to avoid possible legal repercussions and the tabloid glare, Harris abandoned everything—his family, his home, his security, the country that he so loved—and fled south, to the White Mountains of New Hampshire. In 1930, in a letter to Carr, he wrote, “The true artist is outside of social recognition…. Society lives by rule, creed, what is and what isn’t done. The artist lives from within not without.”
Harris never lived in Toronto again. He and Bess moved to New Mexico, where he co-founded the Transcendental Painting Group, and then relocated to Vancouver, where he’d live the rest of his life. He returned, briefly, to his hometown in 1948. By this point, he’d fully assumed the form we’re most familiar with: thin and tall, impish grin, snow-white hair styled into a Barton Fink–like nimbus. The occasion was a retrospective of his work at the Art Gallery of Toronto, the first ever given to a living Canadian artist. Harris relished the opportunity, reworking old canvases and ensuring that his more recent abstract paintings received pride of place.
For someone who had spent so much of his life uniting disparate artists, it made sense that he would now receive such lavish attention for his solo pieces. Harris loved working with, and to a certain extent controlling, other people, but his artistic growth always required a certain solitude. On Saturday evenings in Vancouver, Bess and Lawren liked to invite friends and colleagues over to listen to music. There was considerable ritual to the event. Guests were seated in the living room at eight o’clock sharp. Harris selected a record from his large collection, gave a short speech about it and then turned off the lights. Two hours later, when he brought his friends back out into the light, somewhat disoriented, moved by the music, it was as if they had arrived at another realm of consciousness—just as Harris had always wanted.
Lead photo of Lawren Harris hiking courtesy The Estate of Lawren S. Harris.