a microscopic essay about painter W.J. Wood

(I wrote this for the Huronia Museum blog)

William J. Wood painter, etcher (b.  May 26, 1877 d. January 5, 1954)

A simple, evocative expression of small town Ontario life in the first part of the twentieth century can be found in the numerous etchings, watercolours and oil paintings of William J. Wood in the collection of the Huronia Museum. Woods was a painter and etcher who chose as his subjects, music, nudes, and scenes around his home of Midland, Ontario.  His work examines with warmth the peopled environment not the empty, raw landscape of his contemporaries. He was a close friend of several members of the Group of Seven: Arthur Lismer and A.Y. Jackson. In 1923 at one exhibition Wood is listed as a member of the Group of Seven, replacing Franz Johnston.  Wood has been overlooked as an artist both during his lifetime and afterwards.

William J. Woods was born on a farm near Ottawa in 1877. By 1896 he left home to work on ships, travelling to the United States and Europe.  During this period he took some art classes in Boston in 1900.  He had two winter sessions at the Central Ontario School of Art (now the Ontario College of Art).

In his autobiography, A.Y. Jackson writes a chapter entitled, “Art Appreciation and Otherwise”. In it he describes the precarious living that Canadian artists faced in his lifetime. Among the people he writes about is Bill Wood. It is an illuminating passage.

“Years ago I met Bill Wood, who worked in the shipyards at Midland. He had always wanted to be an artist, and he had managed to put in a few months’ training in Toronto in the winter-time when he was a Great Lakes sailor. Then he got married and raised a family. When he took up etching, he made his own press and prints. His efforts at etching and painting were all made after the day’s work or at week-ends.
“Hart House purchased one of Wood’s paintings of a girl playing a violin. His own letter regarding the painting appeared in Canadian Paintings in Hart House. ‘It represents’, he wrote, ‘more to me than a “Woman with a Violin”. The woman whom it recalls is a lassie playing by ear the songs and hymns of Auld Scotland, the homeland of my father. I painted “Memory’s Melodies” when the Grants visited us in the evening and Mrs Grant played her violin…after I had ten hours in the auto-body works in Penetang. The mellow colour of the canvas is due no doubt to its being done at night by the usual electric light. The paint is home brew from dry colours. Do I love a violin? Do I? it’s as beautiful as a bark canoe I once bought of an Indian at Byng Inlet and lost the next day as belonging to another Indian. My attitude towards the arts is that where your heart is, there your art is also.’

“In their modest little home at Midland, where his wife helped out by sewing and other work, Bill, painting signs, making etchings, talking like a philosopher, was a most cheerful soul. The Art Gallery of Toronto has one of his canvases, “On the Beach”. Whenever I see it I can’t help feeling that if he had only a quarter of the opportunities some of the young artists have today, he would have proved to be a genius.” (A Painter’s Country: the autobiography of A.Y. Jackson. Clarke, Irwin & Company Ltd. Toronto, 1958 p. 147-148)

To support his family W.J. Wood  worked in various jobs: painter/burnisher at a shipyard, carriage painter, house painter, did restoration work on Martyrs’ Shrine.  During the depression his job at the shipyard was lost and he refused “relief”. 1941-49 he was employed as a sign painter on boats.  When unemployed Wood had more time to devote to his art, but lacked the funds for materials. He often painted small canvases.  He would grind his own pigments and mix his own oil paints.

In 1906 he married Jessie Reaman from Severn Bridge.   1908 he worked for the Herald Printing Company, stationery printers and publishers of the Temiskaming Herald for which he did illustrations. By 1911, Wood was in Toronto and had made contact with a group of young artists, some of whom would form the Group of Seven.

During World War I, Wood served in the Canadian Army in England and on the Continent, returning to Canada in 1919.  While stationed in England he took art classes at the YMCA.  At this time he may also have seen and been influenced by the work of Walter Sickert. He certainly attended exhibits of the Royal Academy.

Major influences:  George Reid (himself influenced by Velasquez and had been taught by Thomas Eakins) and Anders Zorn. In1920 Wodd joined the Canadian Society of Painter-Etchers and Engravers. He exhibited with the CPE up to 1950. In 1933, he was a founding member of the Canadian Group of Painters. During his lifetime he participated in 92 exhibitions of art in Canada.


A Painter’s Country: the autobiography of A.Y. Jackson. Clarke, Irwin & Company Ltd. Toronto, 1958

W.J. Wood: Paintings and Graphics. Christine Boyanoski and John Hartman. Art Gallery of Ontario, Catalogue of an exhibition held at the Art Gallery of Ontario, Oct. 22 – Dec. 4, 1983 and travelling to other galleries.

Author: William J. Gibson

62 year old - writer/photographer Canadian, survived open heart surgery, received kidney transplant, sometimes dour, sometimes amusing, over six feet in height, severely follicle challemged

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