The Curious History of Harold Town’s “Stretch No. 29”

By: Dara Vandor

Lot 318 – HAROLD BARLING TOWN, R.C.A. STRETCH #29, 1971. Oil and Lucite 44 on canvas signed and dated ’71; also signed and dated ’71 on the reverse; titled to gallery label on the reverse; together with an additional canvas remnant also signed and dated. 44 ins x 55.5 ins; 111.8 cms x 141 cms; 44 ins x 37.5 ins; 111.8 cms x 95.3 cms. Estimate $5,000-$10,000; Price Realised: $12,000

Some artworks lead a straightforward existence, passed down through generations without incident. For others, their paths are a bit more eventful.

The latter is true of Stretch No. 29, painted by Harold Town (1924-1990) in 1971. The canvas originates from the Sharkey family estate, bought by accident by Neil Sharkey. In 1955, Neil had founded Art Presentation & Associates, a company which handled fine art delivery, packing, and shipping. Neil’s company also managed art installation for larger organizations, including the Art Gallery of Ontario, as well as for private residences.

In the early 1970s, Neil was tasked with packing and moving Stretch No. 29. While in transit, a problem on the road forced Neil to slam on the breaks to avoid an accident. Unfortunately for both Neil and the painting, this sharp stop caused damage to the front of the Town. Neil had declined to take out insurance, and was personally liable for the issue. The owner of the Town insisted that Neil himself buy the piece at its full retail value—$3900.

At the time, Neil was married with three young children. The family was living in a rental, and had just managed to save enough money for a down payment on a home of their own. Indeed, they had just put an offer on a house when the cost of the Town—equal to over $27,000 today—wiped out their savings and forced them to back out of the deal on their new house.

Neil’s daughter Allie, then a young child, recalls the family’s heartbreak. Now the accidental owners of an expensive piece of art, the Sharkey family had the damage cut out of the piece, and the 128”-long painting turned into two smaller framed works of unequal length. The original work was a complete semi-circle, with the purple shapes fanning out from a central point. The edited work has a missing strip taken from just off centre.

The family would make the best of an unexpected situation, and the piece was hung in the family home for years—a striking yet unremarked-upon backdrop of the Sharkey kids’ childhoods. When the eldest, Mark, moved out in the 1980s, the Town came along. He hung one portion in his stairwell, and another above the couch. Mark took over the family business, Art Presentation, in 2005, which he ran until his death earlier this year. Passionate about the arts, Mark’s talents for art installation and preservation were well known by patrons and collectors within the Toronto art world.

It is both our and the consignor’s hope that this striking painting continues its unique journey in a new collection—perhaps with a little less adventure this time around!

About Harold Town

Town was a trailblazer within the Canadian art scene from the 1950s to 1980s, perhaps best known as a founding member of the Painters Eleven group. Known for his work across diverse media, Town’s work always combined an intense creativity with a technical brilliance.

Town graduated from Western Technical School and the Ontario College of Art (present-day OCAD University), after which he linked up with several other painters interested in modernism and abstraction. In 1953, they decided to officially band together, coalescing into a group known as the Painters Eleven, which would exhibit their work together for the next seven years. The group had no official manifesto, and the artists’ approach to their work varied greatly in approach and temperament. David Burnett writes that “nevertheless, in the absence of a broader critical context, there was the appearance of unity, if only in the dominance of strong colour, abstract forms, and the puzzling relation between the paintings’ titles and what they looked like.”[1]

After leaving the Painters Eleven, Town began a high prolific and highly public career, exhibiting widely across North America. His work was sold for record prices, and Town was the subject of much press. A 1961 article on the artist exclaims that a Town exhibition “is to the world of Canadian art what the Grey Cup game or the Stanley Cup playoffs are to Canadian sport.”[2]

Prints, paintings and collages were produced in a myriad of styles, as the artist relentlessly pursued innovation and dynamism, marked by a love of colour. Town also wrote, sharing his strong opinions on art and fellow artists, authoring essays, articles and four books. Writer and critic Robert Fulford noted that Town “always pursued parallel careers, as though he was convinced that the world deserved several Harold Towns at once.”

Town sitting beside a Stretch painting at Mazelow Gallery in 1970. Photograph by Boris Spremo and published in the Toronto Star.

The Stretch Paintings

A series spanning only a short period, the Stretch paintings were created from 1970-1971. Burnett writes that they are “at one level, a homage to Matisse, in particular the elegance of form in the late cut-outs…[they] depend on a single simple form, such as a drop of paint drawn into a long stream, like a raindrop in a window pane.”[3] Town, referring to Stretch 27—which bears a strong resemblance to Stretch 29—explained that “everything stretches in our society; this picture is about pulling cellophane out of a box, or spilling ketchup.”[4] Indeed, the Stretch series has a lightness, a simplicity and sense of humour—the latter characteristic being a hallmark of Town’s work throughout his career.

About the auction

Perfect for the season, the final Canadian Art auction of 2021, online from December 4-9, includes several snowy landscape scenes by artists such as Frederick Simpson Coburn, Marcel Fecteau, Barker Fairley and Henri Masson. Look for colourful still lifes by William Paterson Ewen, Bernice Fenwick Martin and William Goodridge Roberts alongside a fine selection of sculpture including an impressive work by David Robinson, a colourful Gerald Gladstone assembly and an intricate David Partridge. Collectors of modern and contemporary works will enjoy offerings by Harold Klunder, David Bierk, Christopher Pratt, David Blackwood and Harold Town.

We invite you to browse the full catalogue.

Please contact us for more information.

 

 

[1] Burnett, David. Town. Art Gallery of Ontario/McLelland and Stewart, 1986. 26

[2] ibid, 122

[3] ibid, 135

[4] ibid, 135


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