Discover Five 20th Century Canadian Artists

By: Dara Vandor

a few of the gems in our December 2020 Canadian art auction

Assembling an art auction can be like curating a gallery exhibition. It’s a balance of gathering works by artists that consistently perform well, that the market is hungry for, and a commitment to find and present sometimes lesser known, but equally compelling works by artists who are beginning to realize their potential in the market.

We’d like to shine a spotlight on five works selected for this auction, offered online December 5 – 10,  by artists who we have come to appreciate and are delighted to bring to your attention. While all five of these “hidden gems” created work that defies encapsulation in a short blurb, we hope that you will enjoy these biographies in miniature.

Lot 12 – Alexandra Luke, Untitled, oil on board signed to the stretcher on the reverse 48 ins x 32 ins; 121.9 cms x 81.3 cms

ALEXANDRA LUKE (1901-1967)

Born Margaret Alexandra Luke in Montreal to a prominent Westmount family, the path to a career in abstract art would be a long one, taking her through the unexpected death of her first husband just months after their marriage in 1925, followed by the birth of her first child. Three years later she married Clarence Ewart McLaughlin, grandson of Robert McLaughlin, founder of the McLaughlin Carriage Company which was sold to General Motors in 1918. Ewart’s brother Robert was the first president of General Motors Canada. The family lived in Oshawa, and Luke contributed to the local art community in many important ways.

Art and painting remained central to her life as she had her own large painting studio on the third floor of her estate, “Greenbriar,” and organized many exhibitions locally. She travelled often with like-minded friends to see museum shows in Toronto, Ottawa and likely Montreal and New York, where she would have seen early modernists.

By the 1930s Luke was publicly advocating for the importance of abstract art, although still painting mainly figurative work at the time. In 1945, at the age of 44, she enrolled in the Banff School of Fine Arts, where she studied under A.Y. Jackson and Jock Macdonald.

Her early work had been influenced by the Group of Seven, a style which began to shift towards abstraction under Macdonald’s tutelage. Further study under Hans Hofmann in Provincetown, Massachusetts, pushed Luke further into non-figurative work. In 1952, Luke organized the first Canadian Abstract Exhibition, where she would meet the members with whom she would form the Painters Eleven group. At the time, abstraction was seen as either subversive and strange, with much controversy surrounding its acquisition by public galleries and organizations. Quebecois artists had been promoting the style since the early 1940s through the Automatiste group that included Paul-Émile Borduas, Marcel Barbeau, Jean Paul Riopelle and others. However, this modernist push had not yet penetrated English Canada.

The Painters Eleven group was formed in 1953 to remedy the paucity of abstraction in the public eye. Members included Luke, Jack Bush, Oscar Cahén, Hortense Gordon, Tom Hodgson, Jock Macdonald, Ray Mead, Kazuo Nakamura, William Ronald, Harold Town and Walter Yarwood. Other than a strong commitment to abstraction, these artists shared no common artistic vision. By 1960, the group disbanded, and while they had only been together for a short period, had indeed managed to shape Canada’s artistic landscape. In the words of Luke’s granddaughter, Wendy Moses, “barely eight years after [Luke] began painting seriously, this Ontario housewife had become a leading spirit in the dynamic avant-garde of Canadian art.”

Luke’s painting Untitled, above, lot 12 in our December 5 – 10 auction, comes from the seminal period of abstract work in her oeuvre.


Lot 45 – George Douglas Pepper, O.S.A., R.C.A. Boathouses on the Ottawa River, 1930, oil on canvas signed and dated ’30 28 ins x 36 ins; 71.1 cms x 91.4 cms

GEORGE douglas PEPPER (1903-1962)

Educated at the Ontario College of Art in Toronto, Pepper studied with J.W. Beatty and J.E.H. MacDonald.

The influence of the Group of Seven can be felt in Pepper’s work, echoed in the undulating forms and lively palette. Pepper continued his studies in Italy and France, notably in Paris at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière. Returning to his hometown of Ottawa, Pepper married artist Kathleen Daly in 1929, with whom he would later travel to the Arctic to study Inuit Art. Pepper and his wife moved back to Toronto so that Pepper could take a job teaching at his alma mater, a career interrupted by a stint as a war artist from 1943-1946. By 1950, Pepper was promoted to vice-principal of OCA.

Pepper is also noted as one of the founding members of the Canadian Group of Painters. Following the Group of Seven’s disbandment in the early 1930s, this new group was formed in 1933 so as to include modern artists and a wider variety of styles. The Canadian Group of Painters included several members of the Group of Seven, including A.J. Casson, Arthur Lismer, A.Y. Jackson, F.H. Varley and Franklin Carmichael, with a total of 28 English-speaking founding members. The new group had no formal manifesto, but operated under the objective to foster closer bonds between Canadian artists and to encourage Canadian artistic expression.

Lot 45, Boathouses on the Ottawa River, is dated to 1930, the year Pepper would move from Ottawa to Toronto to begin working at the OCA. It is a very rare occasion to have the opportunity to acquire a canvas of this size and quality by the artist.


Lot 43 – Henrietta Mabel May, A.R.C.A. Silver Lake, 1934, oil on panel signed; titled and dated on the reverse 11 ins x 14 ins; 27.9 cms x 35.6 cms


Born in Montreal, Mabel May displayed an early interest in art, though it was only in her mid-twenties that she enrolled at the Art Association of Montreal, where she would study with William Brymner. Travels in Europe introduced the young artist to the work of the Impressionists, which enthralled her—particularly the work of Monet and Renoir.

Mabel May was a founding member of two important artistic groups, the Beaver Hall Group and the Canadian Group of Painters. The former was organized in 1920, when Mabel May and Randolph Hewton, Edwin Holgate and Lilias Newton, fellow graduates of the Art Association of Montreal, were looking for affordable studio space. They rented a three-story house at 305 Beaver Hall Hill, and invited several colleagues to join them in the space. This group soon included eleven men and eight women, which would be led by their elected president A.Y. Jackson. Jackson displayed his own work alongside that of the Beaver Hall Group, while also inviting members to show work in broader circles including Group of Seven exhibitions. The Beaver Hall Group would disband after only two years, though many of the relationships forged between the female artists endured over the subsequent years.

Alongside George Pepper, Prudence Heward and many others, Mabel May was a founding member of the Canadian Group of Painters in 1933. Her work was exhibited widely in local, national and international venues, as well as being acquired by important institutions. The Depression brought challenges, and to make ends meet, Mabel May began to teach art classes to children at an Ottawa girls’ private school as well as at the National Gallery of Canada. Mabel May returned to Montreal in 1947, where she would stay for three years before retiring to Vancouver to be closer to members of her family.


Lot 44 – Peter Clapham Sheppard, O.S.A., R.C.A. A Northern Lake, c.1936-37, oil on canvas signed; with the estate stamp on the reverse 34 ins x 38 ins; 86.4 cms x 96.5 cms


Louis Gagliardi, an expert on the artist, notes that Peter Clapham Sheppard’s works “offer us a fresh and dynamic alternative to the Group [of Seven].” Sheppard began his career apprenticing as an engraver and lithographer, subsequently studying more formally at the Central Ontario School of Art and Design and the Ontario College of Art. His work was exhibited extensively alongside that of members of the future Group of Seven, with Sheppard rising to the top of the Toronto art scene in the early 1900s. A modernist, Sheppard’s work centred on the urban and northern landscape as well as the figure. Influenced both by Impressionism and the Ashcan School, Sheppard would travel extensively throughout Europe and the United States.

Sheppard’s career was soon eclipsed when the Group of Seven came into being. Tom Smart, in a biography of the artist, notes that Sheppard “did not seek out or describe nationalistic symbols or utopias in the northern landscape. His was a very different source of inspiration, articulated in a form of urban pastoral and in scenes of economic growth embodied in civil engineering projects and in the rail yards.” Sheppard’s compositions are thoughtful, but tip towards the human rather than the romantic or grand. Overshadowed by the grand objectives of the Group of Seven and the encroachment of abstraction, Sheppard died in near obscurity.

In his rich telling of the artist’s biography, Gagliardi notes that perhaps the most important relationship of Sheppard’s life was with Bernice Martin, an artist whom he met at the funeral of J.W. Beatty in 1941. The two maintained a friendship for the next 24 years, with Martin tending to Sheppard in his old age. Martin inherited the artist’s estate, and a chance encounter of her own with Gagliardi helped to reignite Sheppard’s legacy. It is a heartwarming story, and best told by Gagliardi himself—to read more about Sheppard’s path from fame to obscurity and back again, please click here.

We are pleased to offer three works by Sheppard in this auction: lot 41lot 44 (pictured above) and lot 58.


Lot 46 – Stanley Francis Turner, O.S.A., R.C.A. Heavy Snow, oil on canvas signed 28 ins x 32 ins; 71.1 cms x 81.3 cms


Turner was born in Aylesbury, England in 1883, immigrating to Canada at the age of 20. He began farming in Saskatchewan while continuing to make art. In 1911, Turner moved to Toronto to work in the advertising department of the Timothy Eaton Company. Seven years later, he would switch firms, joining Rous and Mann Press Ltd, where he would work under Franklin H. Carmichael, one of the founding members of the Group of Seven. (A.J. Casson, who would join the Group in 1926 at the invitation of Carmichael, was also working at Rous and Mann at the time.)

Turner also studied at the Ontario College of Art in Toronto, where he was taught by George Reid and J.W. Beatty. These influences, combined with an interest in Japanese prints, can be felt in his work. During World War II, Turner was twice commissioned by The Globe and Mail to illustrate war maps.

Please note the two paintings by Turner in this auction, lot 46 (pictured here) and lot 47.



The auction is offered online from December 5 – 10.

We invite you to browse the full catalogue for the Canadian Art auction.

Should you have any questions or require additional photographs or condition reports, please do not hesitate to contact us at [email protected].

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