“We have everything out of which to build ideas and traditions, to fail to make use of them would simply be throwing away a priceless heritage of spirit and material.”
Franklin Carmichael apprenticed at the commercial art firm Grip Limited in Toronto in 1911, while studying evenings at the Ontario College of Art and Toronto Technical School. From 1913 to 1914 he studied in Antwerp, Belgium at the Academie Royale des Beaux-Arts.
On his return, he began painting on weekends with colleagues Tom Thomson, J.E.H MacDonald and Arthur Lismer. Although he also used oil paints, he is noteable among the Group of Seven members for his use of watercolour in depicting the Canadian landscape. During the fall of 1914, he moved into the Studio Building where he shared a space with Thomson over the winter. He was part of the Group from the beginning and exhibited with them consistently from 1920 to 1932.
In 1925, he made his first trip with Group members when he went to the north shore of Lake Superior with Lawren Harris and A.Y. Jackson. It was Carmichael’s first experience in the north and he would return to Lake Superior in 1926 and 1928. He sketched with watercolour on this trip, rather than oil paints. The cloud formations in the watercolour Snow Flurries: North Shore of Lake Superior (1930) contrast with dark blue-green smooth and simplified hill forms. These resemble the rounded forms of Harris’ Lake Superior paintings. In the 1930’s Carmichael explored themes of industry in northern Ontario, particularly the mining regions and in 1933 he was a founding member of the Canadian Group of Painters. In 1932 he left commercial art to become head of the Graphic Design and Commercial Art Department at the Ontario College of Art.
Carmichael produced numerous etchings, linocuts and most importantly, wood engravings over his lifetime. He also worked on book illustrations for Canadian publishers from 1942 until the end of his life.
Courtesy the National Gallery of Canada
Born in Orillia, Ontario, son of Mr. & Mrs. D.G. Carmichael, his parents had emigrated from Aberfoyle, Scotland in the late 1880’s and settled in Orillia. He worked for his father who was a carriage maker and received a good part of his early training in design from him. He also took painting lessons from Canon Greene (believed one of the parsons on which Leacock based Sunshine Sketches character Dean Drone). In 1909 he met Canadian artist William Wood, who like himself was aspiring to become a full-time painter. Carmichael gave Wood continued encouragement throughout his life. When his father sold his carriage business in 1911 Carmichael moved to Toronto and attended the Ontario College of Art where he studied under William Cruikshank and G.A. Reid; at the Toronto Central Technical School he studied under Gustav Hahn. He was hired as an apprentice at the Grip Engraving firm in 1911 where he met Thomson, Lismer, MacDonald, Varley and others. He sketched with them on weekends and holidays.
By 1913 he had saved enough money to study at l’Académie des Beaux-Arts, Antwerp, Belgium under Isidor Apsomer and G. Van Der Veken and there won the highest award for Drawing from Life (1913-14). On his return to Toronto he shared accommodation with Thomson in the shack behind the Studio Bldg. (1914). After almost a year he married Ada Went, a girl from Orillia; they had been in love for years. To support his wife and future family, he went to work for Rous & Mann. With a steady salary, he rented a small house in the village of Thornhill where J.E.H. MacDonald and a number of other artists were living.
By 1920 he had saved enough money to buy a bungalow in the village of Lansing (today part of Toronto). The Carmichael’s new home was near a wide valley where they picnicked in the summer and skied in the winter, and when time permitted, Frank did some sketching. In 1919 A.J. Casson had joined the firm as Carmichael’s assistant at Rous and Mann and in the following years they became close friends. In 1920 the Group of Seven was formed and Carmichael became a founding member. At different times he took sketching trips with them to northern Ontario in search of rugged landscapes.
In 1924 he made the first of these trips to the north shore of Lake Superior with Lawren Harris. In 1925 he moved from Rous and Mann to Sampson-Matthews. This same year he co-founded the Canadian Society of Painters in Water Colour with Casson and Fred Brigden. In 1923 he made a separate trip to the Ottawa Valley. From that trip he painted the large canvas, Upper Ottawa near Mattawa (1924) – NGC. Up to 1925 much of his painting had been done in oils, he now focused on water colours. Later F.B. Housser writing in the Year Book of Arts in Canada, noted, Carmichael and Casson are painting in water colours . . . giving to Canadian landscape a statement in water colour as bold and untraditional as that which some of their associates have given it in oils. In 1925 he took a second trip to Lake Superior with Lawren Harris, A.Y. Jackson and A.J. Casson and the following year (1926) went back with Harris once more. From these trips he made many sketches and a number of large paintings, October Gold (1922), and A Northern Silver Mine (1930) both in the McMichael Canadian Collection at Kleinburg. Other fine works include a water colour Jackfish Lake (1926), and Autumn Hillside (1920) both in the AGO.
He won a silver medal in 1926 at the Sesqui-Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. He also worked diligently on wood engravings and did the illustrations for Grace Campbell’s Thorn-Apple Tree (1942) with 15 critically acclaimed engravings. He did two other books, John Robbins’ Incomplete Anglers (1943) and Grace Campbell’s The Higher Hill (1944). Carmichael had as well success in industrial design, specializing in kitchen utensils and was credited with introducing the oval dish pan for a steelwares firm. In 1932 he left Sampson-Matthews to become Head of the Graphic Commercial Art Department at the OCA. This same year he built a cottage in La Cloche Hills on the north shore of Georgian Bay. From there he made sketching trips to the surrounding countryside. Some of these works can be found in the McMichael Canadian Collection.
Keenly interested in music he played the bassoon, cello, and flute, and took part in the University Orchestra presentations and other group performances. For thirteen years he gave his all in the development of programmes for students at the OCA and finally classes for returned servicemen. On Oct. 24, 1945, following a regular day at the school he started out for home and slumped over dead in his car. He was 55 years old. He was survived by his wife, Ada, his daughter, Mrs. Mary Masten; his parents, and a brother, Graham. A memorial exhibition of his work was held in Toronto Art Gallery (AGO) in 1947.
Other exhibitions of his work were held at Mount Slaven School, Orillia (1960) and Galerie Dresdnere, Tor. (1964). He is represented in the following collections: AGO, Tor.; HH U. of T.; St. Hilda’s College, Tor.; Rous & Mann Press Ltd., Tor.; McM. Can. Coll., Kleinb., Ont.; PL & Art Mus., Lond., Ont.; NGC, Ott.; Firestone Art Coll., Ott.; MMFA, Mtl.; William Collins Sons, Tor.; Can. Packers, Tor. and many private collections. His affiliations were: OSA (1917) (Pres. 1938-41); G of 7 (1920); CSPWC (fdn-mbr. 1925) (Pres. 1932-34); CGP (fdn-mbr. 1933-39); RCA (ARCA 1935, RCA 1938); Arts & Letters Club, Toronto.
Colin S. MacDonald
A Dictionary of Canadian Artists, volumes 1-8 by Colin S. MacDonald, and volume 9 (online only), by Anne Newlands and Judith Parker
National Gallery of Canada / Musée des beaux-arts du Canada