Conservation of Lawren Harris’ Iconic Canadian Paintings

Detail of a Lawren Harris oil painting being carefully cleaned of dirt in our lab, using an aqueous cleaning solution on cotton swab.

Our lab has been fortunate to conserve paintings by Lawren Harris, from small oils on panel created during sketching trips he took across Canada, to large oil on canvas of northern landscapes and urban cityscapes, to his later abstract paintings.

Lawren Harris (1885-1970) is widely regarded as one of the key figures in modern Canadian painting and was a catalyst of the acclaimed Canadian historic artist group; the Group of Seven. He used bold colour and simplicity of form to speak to the specificity of the raw, vast Canadian landscape and its industry. He felt that the role of the artist, and the function of art was to reveal the divine forces of nature.

Some of the paintings that we have conserved are included in a touring exhibition “Idea of North: The Paintings of Lawren Harris”. The show includes more than 30 of the artist’s most significant and rare northern landscapes from the 1920’s and 1930’s. Organized by the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles and the Art Gallery of Ontario, the works were also shown at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.  Steve Martin, comedian, musician, actor, writer and researcher of Harris’s life and his art, created and co-curated this exhibition.   His pure enthusiasm for this artist and his work has deepened the knowledge and understanding of Harris’ iconic images and our vision of Canada.

Mount Thule, Bylot Island (1930), in the collection of the Vancouver Art Gallery was carefully stabilized, cleaned and restored by the FSR Lab to prepare it for safe display at the gallery and inclusion in the landmark exhibition.  Over its years at the gallery, it had been minimally conserved several times in an effort to stabilize the delicate paint layers.  Despite this care, the painting remained unstable, with extensive cracking, multiple areas of visible past restorations and a darkened varnish.

Due to the extreme fragility, national significance and popularity of this painting, extensive conservation treatment was done to ensure that the work could withstand the demands of long term storage, exhibition and loan. Conservators cleaned the painting and tested organic solvent solutions that led to the removal of distracting discolored varnishes and past restorations.  Once cleaned, the paint was consolidated on a multi-purpose heated suction table, and the canvas received a supportive lining. Lining is rarely done to museum paintings, but the painting could not be displayed or transported safely without this treatment. Paint losses were infilled and inpainted to match the surrounding areas. Finally, the paint surface was re-varnished to saturate the colours and protect the artwork. The painting conservators at Fraser Spafford Ricci are honored to have been a part of preserving Lawren Harris’ vision of Canada.

As an addition to this post we’ve had Artsy reach out to us with regards to their online art catalogue. Artsy partners with institutions -such as The British Museum and the Guggenheim Museum- to cultivate a database of art and artists to be used for collectors, students and art-lovers with the goal of making art more accessible. They provided a link to their page on Lawren Harris for our readers to take a look!