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Barbara Braunohler's Captivating Portrait of Barker Fairley

By Lauren Rondinelli

Barbara Braunohler, Portrait of Barker Fairley, date unknown


The portrait of Barker Fairley by Barbara Braunohler (date unknown), is part of the Faculty Club collection, and hangs in the Fairley Lounge. It is a stand-alone piece that highlights all of Fairley’s prominent features at an advanced age, such as his gray hair, ocean blue eyes, and thin lips. He is dressed formally in a dark blue collared shirt, a tie, and a brownish blazer. Fairley also looks as if he is very focused on Braunohler painting his portrait, and looks rather serious. The colour scheme of the portrait also uses many dark tones, apart from the colour of his skin and his facial features. His outfit and the background of the portrait are tinged with varied hues of blues, browns, and greens. Considering Fairley's significant contributions to the Faculty Club—notably the Group of Seven artwork that he and his wife, Margaret, donated and that adorns the rest of the room—it is appropriate that a portrait of him be placed in the room that bears his name. 

Fairley was a German scholar and a University of Toronto professor. He wrote articles and books in his subject area, but also focused public attention on Canadian art in general and on the Group of Seven in particular [1]. Not only this, but he was friends with members of the Group of Seven and collected their art [2]. Fairley and his wife, Margaret, offered the Club a collection of Group of Seven works on the condition that it welcome women as members. Due to this, Barker Fairley and Margaret Fairley—who was a writer and active member of the Communist party [3]—played a significant role in the Faculty Club. Named after the pair, the graceful Fairley Lounge on the building's main floor welcomes visitors to examine this magnificent collection of Group of Seven artwork [4]. While the room is named for both of them in recognition of the donation, there is no portrait of Margaret present, for unknown reasons.

While we know a great deal about Barker Fairley as the sitter of the portrait, very little is known about the artist herself. Barbara Braunohler was born in Germany in 1928. After many years, she then met her husband, and made her first living by drawing portraits. In 1953, they moved to Canada and called Toronto home. In 1977, Braunohler returned to painting portraits professionally after completing art classes at Central Technical College. She appears to have had a successful career as a portraitist, given that her works hang in many world-renowned institutions. For instance, her official portraits are shown in business boardrooms, the Royal Ontario Museum, and the University of Toronto, including in the Faculty Club.  Among the well-known people she has painted are Pauline McGibbon, the Lieutenant-Governor of Ontario, and Barker Fairley. Very little is actually known about Braunohler’s life and career which can imply that she was a private person or that she was not a very known figure. What we do know came from her obituary from 2015 [5]. 

Braunohler also painted many other portraits of prominent professors from the University of Toronto such as Northrop Frye. Frye’s portrait is more formal, however; nearly his whole body is shown, whereas Fairley's is focused on his face. Frye's attire is a red, academic robe, compared to Fairley’s suit and tie. Why was Fairley portrayed this way compared to Frye? Does this have to do with his personality, his request, or was it an aesthetic choice that Braunohler made? Not much is known about Braunohler, so the answer remains unclear. But we might also ask: since Braunholer painted many prominent figures, such as Fairley and Frye, why is so little known about her? 

This seemingly simple portrait raises many questions about the sitter, and even more about the artist herself. Clearly, there is much work needed to uncover the artistic practice of Barbara Braunohler. 



[1] Symington, Rodney. “Barker Fairley.” The Canadian Encyclopedia, June 12, 2008.

[2] Basile, Victoria. "Barker Fairley: The Club's Very Own." Art at the Faculty Club, 2024. 

[3] “Fairley, Margaret.” Discover Archives, 2022.

[4] “A Brief History.” The Faculty Club - The Faculty Club, University of Toronto. Accessed March 10, 2024.

[5] “Remembering the Life of in Memory of Barbara Braunohler” The Standard Obituaries, December 31, 2015.


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