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Barker Fairley: The Club's Very Own

By Victoria Basile

Group-of-seven-artists.jpg

Archives of Ontario. Six of the 'Group of Seven' artists, plus their friend Barker Fairley, in 1920. Taken at The Arts and Letters Club of Toronto. Photographed by Arthur Goss.

 

Keeping a watchful eye over the Group of Seven paintings in the Faculty Club is the portrait of Barker Fairley, staring down the walls of the Fairley Lounge, dedicated to him and his wife, Margaret. Barker and Margaret generously donated these brilliant works, and while you may be getting lost in the beauty of the pieces themselves, you may also be wondering who is Barker Fairley? 

 

Barker Fairley was born in the United Kingdom on May 21st, 1887. His career started in the study of philosophy and Germanic studies, with an impressive portfolio of papers and articles.[1] He later made his way to Canada and the University of Toronto, where he joined the German department. He would continue teaching at UofT for the remainder of his career. He passed in Toronto on October 11th, 1986, at the age of 99, leaving behind a plethora of art and academia.

More than a simple biographic entry is needed to understand how he ended up having his name on the door and all of this iconic Canadian artwork linked to him. Fairley was fascinated with Canadian art and literature, especially through the Group of Seven, as seen in the art around the room. Not only did he celebrate their work, but he spent a lot of time with the members. In 1920, he joined six of the seven members of the Arts and Letters Club of Toronto to take a now famous photo. Fairley, seated between Lawren Harris and Frank Johnston, stares down the camera with a pipe in his mouth. He was present in meetings and discussions with the Group of Seven, like this one, proving his friendship to the members. It also makes you think about what it may have meant for a young man to be amongst all of his favourite artists. In fact, when you google the Group of Seven, this is the first photo you will find, and it features someone who was not even a member! This close friendship that Fairley shared with the members shows us how he had access to these paintings, and how they became his to donate. 

When he was not writing about Goethe and Germanic literature, he would indulge himself in these very practices, like that of his friends and idols of the Group of Seven. As an amateur artist, Fairley shared their love for the landscape depiction, making a compilation of his own Georgian Bay Sketches in 1957. While these are not deftly painted or planned, they create an understanding in the experience of Fairley’s art process, with their swift black lines and light shading.[2] While a passionate artist, he had his reservations in his work, as can be seen in the 1972 re-release of his Georgian Bay Sketches by H. Anson-Cartwright. He says, “It became a sort of tight-rope walking between always wanting to draw, and, once started, always wanting to stop before it was too late.”[3] Was it self-doubt? A loss of self in the shadows of the Group of Seven? Fairley left much to the imagination in his artistic introductions to his art. 

On top of this, he was making poetry, such as his Poems of 1922 and Not Long After, which he published on colorful paper of lime green, bright yellow, pink, and lavender, which, in his writing further pushes his passion for the Canadian landscape.[4] This is a fascinating approach to publication, that makes Fairley stand out amongst the other Canadian poets of his time. His poetry and sketches are excellent places to look when trying to understand Barker Fairley as a man and an artist, and these pieces can be found in UofT’s Fisher Rare Book Library.

Fairley joined the Faculty Club in 1960, and he is credited for a lot more than just his generous art donation. Initially, the Faculty Club was a space for men only, with women faculty members meeting at the Hart House instead. This left Barker and his wife Margaret, who was also a British-born Canadian writer, dissatisfied. He had his marvellous collection of works on hand, and with the support of his wife, created a stipulation of his donation, which would only release them should the Faculty Club allowed women to join them.[5] Ironically, not much is known about Margaret, and her portrait is not featured in the lounge, but her significance in the donation and the Faculty Club more generally is infinite. 

Barker Fairley was an undeniable asset to the decor and success of the Faculty Club, and his impact on the Club present day cannot be more relevant as the works he has donated are both continue to flourish his legacy. As you move from Fairley’s Lounge into the next room, you may move with a deeper understanding of Barker Fairley as an artist and Faculty Club member. Take a moment to part with his portrait, and your new comprehension of his place in the room, along with his studying eyes travelling across the works he loved and left in the Club’s care.

 

 

Notes:

[1] Milnes, Humphrey. "Barker Fairley: A Bibliography." In Seminar: A Journal of Germanic Studies, vol. 3, no. 2, pp. 77-81. University of Toronto Press, 1967. (Find more information about Fairley’s academic work here).

[2] Fairley, Barker. 1972. 12 Georgian Bay Sketches. Toronto: Published by H. Anson-Cartwright and M. Ahvenus.

[3] Fairley, Barker. 1972. 12 Georgian Bay Sketches.

[4] Fairley, Barker, Barker Fairley, and Peter Dorn. 1972. Poems of 1922 or Not Long After. Kingston, Ont: Heinrich Heine Press.

[5] “The Faculty Club - The Faculty Club, University of Toronto.” The Faculty Club - The Faculty Club, University of Toronto. Accessed March 5, 2024. https://www.facultyclub.utoronto.ca/.

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