When Canadian student Paula Larsson decided to organize a display of Canadian artifacts from the University of Oxford’s prestigious Bodleian Libraries, she never dreamed that a Group of Seven painting would be part of the show.
Larsson is a history student at Oxford and is president of the university’s Canadian Students Society.
The group is primarily a social club, but Larsson also wanted to inject some culture into one of their events so she asked the Bodleian’s senior archivist to gather a selection of Canadian artifacts from the 13-million-plus items in its archives.
“One thing I love is that Oxford has a Canadian feel to it,” said Larsson.
“Even though this is England, we have a number of Canadians at Oxford — professors, students — and I really wanted to see what else is Canadian.”
The selected items were placed inside a boardroom at the Bodleian’s Weston Library building.
That name was A.Y. Jackson, a founding member of the legendary, pioneering group of Canadian landscape painters, the Group of Seven.
The oil painting, measuring around 30 centimetres by 40 centimetres, shows a springtime village scene in Quebec.
“It’s really amazing to see how something so culturally important to Canada has found its way to the archives here at Oxford,” said Larsson.
“And then the question arose: ‘Why was it here?’ So, why in Oxford, in the archives, is there this painting of Jackson?”
The Bodleian’s records show the artwork was bequeathed to them by a British professor, Richard Hiscocks, after he died in 1998. It has remained in the archives since then.
Hiscocks spent time in Canada in the 1920s and 1930s and then again in the 1950s and 1960s as a professor at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg. He also served as president of the Winnipeg Art Gallery from 1959 to 1960.
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A label on the back of the painting from a now-closed framing store in Winnipeg suggests it was during this period that Hiscocks acquired the oil sketch.
Jackson most likely dated the back of the canvas, but it was covered by paper during the framing process so, for now, we have to speculate on when he painted it.
“I would say the 1940s. It’s hard to say what year, exactly,” said Wayne Larsen, author of two books about Jackson, including A.Y. Jackson: The Life of a Landscape Painter.
“His style did change a bit and evolved.”
Larsen pointed out the curvature of the trees in the painting and noted the lack of detail in how buildings were rendered.
“He paid a little more attention to details in the ‘20s and ‘30s,” he said. “This painting here just jumps out at me as the 1940s.”
Although it’s unusual to see a Group of Seven painting turn up in the archives of a British university, Larsen says there are “thousands” of Jackson oil sketches like these in existence.
Jackson wore snowshoes when painting in the rural fields, and locals called him Père Raquette — or “Father Snowshoe.”
“Locals would say a sure sign of spring was the arrival of Père Raquette,” said Larsen.
When the Group of Seven first formed their movement in the 1920s, their art was widely dismissed by critics at home in Canada.
That all changed in 1924 when some of their paintings were sent to England to feature at the Canadian Pavilion during the British Empire Exhibition in London.
“The paintings went to England and met with huge positive criticism,” said Janet McNaught, co-owner of the Arctic Experience McNaught Gallery in Hamilton, Ont.
“This was an exciting, new way of painting and depicting the Canadian landscape and the frontier, and it really was the first round of very positive response that the group had received and that then came back to Canada, and they were much more successful commercially than they had been before.”
McNaught says it’s nice to see a painting like this end up back in England, where the Group of Seven first found widespread critical acclaim.
“It’s a lesson in Canadian culture that we wait for people from outside to approve of us before we champion our own causes,” joked McNaught.
For now, the painting is being kept in the archives at the Bodleian Libraries, and the university says it’s exploring opportunities to put it on display in “the near future.”
Larsson hopes that happens sooner rather than later.
“I just want more Canadians to see it and appreciate what it is and where it is,” said Larsson.
“I’d love to have more Oxford Canadians come in to see it again.”
WATCH: Forgotten Group of Seven painting found at Oxford