The Franklin Arbuckles

A distinguished and disarming Canadian painter and his artist-wife reminisce with wry, warm humor about their comfortable vie bohème and the struggle to earn a living at the work they love

Barbara Moon February 28 1959

The Franklin Arbuckles

A distinguished and disarming Canadian painter and his artist-wife reminisce with wry, warm humor about their comfortable vie bohème and the struggle to earn a living at the work they love

Barbara Moon February 28 1959

The Franklin Arbuckles


A distinguished and disarming Canadian painter and his artist-wife reminisce with wry, warm humor about their comfortable vie bohème and the struggle to earn a living at the work they love

Barbara Moon

The street is in a pleasant, residential section of north-central Toronto. A lawyer lives up the block at No. 66; a food broker lives across the way at No. 51; a surgeon lives at No. 49; No. 46 is the home of a man who makes tombstones.

But the new people in No. 52—the red-brickwith-half-timbering that is the oldest house on the street—are artists.

In fact George Franklin Arbuckle, 49, is one of Canada’s most successful artists. He is vicepresident of the Royal Canadian Academy; his vigorous landscapes grace both private collections anil a dozen of the leading galleries in North America and Europe; the series of covers and illustrations he has painted for Maclean’s

since 1944 have been described as “a remarkable piece of Camuliana.” His wife, Frances-Anne Arbuckle (born Johnston), is widely admired as a painter of interiors and still life, and is herself an associate of the RCA. Her father, Franz Johnston, was an original member of the Group of Seven. The Arbuckles, who lived and painted in Montreal for seventeen years before their recent return to Toronto, have two daughters: Robin, twenty-two, who stayed behind to work as a secretary, and Candace, nine.

The Arbuckles moved into No. 52 last September, with their easels and canvases and bundles of frames; with their life-size carved wood cherub and their glowing old bits of Per-

sian carpet; with their worn, comfortable, mismatched furniture and the massive Breton armoire, black with resin and years.

In the placid broadloom-and-glass-chandelier neighborhood the inventory was no more—and no less—remarkable than the artists themselves. The Arbuckles belie the triter legends about artists. They are gentle people, civilized and lighthearted. They discuss their work diffidently, and do not like to make lofty pronouncements on art in general.

On the other hand, they scorn protective coloration in the community. Told not long ago that he’d automatically been listed on the Home and School Association rolls when Candace entered her new Toronto school, Arbuckle’s response was simple, heartfelt horror: “God, no!” he exploded. The Arbuckles hate all furniture that comes in matching suites; they will scrimp to buy something beautiful, but not to buy a luxury. After twenty-four years of marriage Mrs. Arbuckle got her first Mixmaster this Christmas. After a lifetime as artists in Canada they know what is necessary to them and what is not. They have had to find out.

“If you're an artist your material wants are very, very few,” Arbuckle observed recently. “The things you need are paints, brushes, food, maybe a little bit for clothes.”

After spending an afternoon and evening with them this January I would add one item to Arbuckle’s list: enough money to ransom time to paint for himself from the time spent willy-nilly painting for others.

We sat in a living room mellow with books and old wood and objects mulled by love and much handling. Arbuckle—called Archie by his friends—was folded deep into an armchair in the corner. He is a tall, sandy man with a faint, cropped mustache, surprised blue eyes and a mouth ready to quirk in self-derision. He is a fly-fisherman and a pipe-smoker.

His wife has wider, more tranquil bones, but her deepset eyes blaze from her face. Her voice is low and musical. She’s a crossword fan and, like Arbuckle. a lover of chamber music.

I asked them about their early years. They met at the Ontario College of Art, in Toronto, where both were scholarship students, but they waited five years to get married because the depression was on and they had no money.

"Remember, before we were married, Archie,” said Frances suddenly, “and you had the studio on Grenville Street, and I’d come in from daddy’s studio at noon and we’d buy eggs and cook them on an electric plate? Archie had a plate he’d got by

continued on page 46

The Franklin Arbuckles continued from page 20

“We traded pictures for meals, furniture arid even dental work”

saving cigarette cards,” she explained.

Arbuckle gave a brief hoot of laughter. “That whole street . . . Dick Taylor, the New Yorker cartoonist was there then and he later said it was the world’s one real Bohemia . . . turtle-necked sweaters . . . empties tumbling out of cupboards . . . everyone broke and painting from morning till night.”

The Arbuckles were married in 1934 and rented a tiny room at Bloor and Jarvis streets.

“I painted a whole exhibition in that little room, looking out one little window," Arbuckle recalled.

Sporadic recollection became crosstalk:

. . we stuck up crocuses in the window to make a still life, or hung up different curtains . .

. I painted that damn window in the fall, in the winter, in the spring, in the summer . .

“. . . the boardinghouse where the maids were so dirty we wouldn’t eat anything hut bananas and boiled eggs

. . the old Ford?”

. . the roof began to leak, so you took the whole top off and lined it with newspapers. They stopped the leaking. But they rustled. Like a hurricane over your head ..."

As they warmed to remembrance, some of their feelings about painting began to filter into the talk.

"We could get outdoors, out into the country, to paint. We had those years of it when we started out,” said Frances dreamily. Charcoal, their disdainful black kitten, emerged from under her chair and sprang into her lap.

“It’s become unfashionable to paint outdoors,” Arbuckle explained. “But to me the times outdoors are the happiest an artist can ever have. Certainly they’re the happiest I’ve had. It’s hard work. You work like a regular slave . . . out in the rain and the wind and the weather, and the cold so that you’re just shaking with it. and yet there’s joy in it. There’s nothing between you and . . .”

“. . . everything else in the world is completely cut out," Frances broke in.

“. . . there is just that thing around you that you’re trying to express,” Arbuckle finished.

"Frances is a very good landscape painter,” he remarked after a minute. Frances smiled deprecatingly. “And she has a wonderful sense of color. She was horn with it. 1 had to develop it." He glanced up at the big canvas over the fireplace, a glowing still life of fruits and bottles on a figured cloth, signed Ft anees-Anne Johnston.

"And, literally, Archie did develop it," Frances said, and then turned to her husband seriously. “But l could never he the draughtsman that you are."

They eked out a living from art and teaching. In the summer they both went to Georgian Bay and, in exchange for room and board, taught in Franz Johnston’s art school; in the winter Arbuckle taught at night, at Northern Vocational School and Frances did a large business with handmade Christmas cards.

"And we traded for things," explained Frances. "We traded pictures for meals and for furniture. That chair Archie’s sitting in we got by trading. And for years we traded pictures for dentist's work.”

“Trading saved our lives,” Arbuckle offered laconically. “We never actually starved but, well, it was the depression . . .”

Frances shivered suddenly, and reached for a stole of glowing Burmese silk to pull round her shoulders; answering jades and violets and blues flickered deep in the opal on her finger. “Let’s have a fire, Archie,” she suggested.

While her husband disappeared to the basement for kindling, she talked about her own painting.

“I was always going to be a landscape painter,” she said, “and. you know, I wasn’t bad at it now I come to think of it. But after Robin was born I had to be at home. She was born in the third year of our marriage. So I was more or less forced into painting interiors and flowers.”

She chuckled suddenly. "But I’ve got an easel now. For years I painted on two chairs spread with newspaper. At night.”

She brooded for a moment. “After I left art school I worked and painted in my father’s studio. And after we got married I worked and painted in Archie’s studio. Then we were going to have Robin so we rented the lower part of a house to live in . . . one of those little houses with dingy brown chesterfields and aspidistras in the window, you know?” Her eyes drifted toward the windows and she gazed out absently for a moment. “I’ll never forget the first day I thought it was time 1 stayed home. Archie left for the studio by himself and I sat looking at the walls and the chesterfield and the aspidistras and I thought, ‘What am I doing here?’ ” For an instant the echo of panic stirred in her eyes.

The price of freedom

Arbuckle, returning with wood and paper, nodded vigorously. “Frances just doesn't get enough time for painting. It’s a great shame. She’s a better painter than I am.”

The fire popped suddenly; in the flickering light the jack o’lanterns on a chest in the dark corner were orange pennants.

“A lack of security is something an artist has to make up his mind to put up with,” he went on, in more conversational tones.

"Yes, an artist's freedom has to be paid for in some way,” Frances agreed.

"You pay for it," said Arbuckle, "though it's a little hard on the children.”

Frances reflected. “I don't know. 1 giew up in an artist’s house and actually we felt rather superior, because we were always surrounded by interesting people, life was a very interesting sort of thing. But we moved so much.” The cat's ears twitched and he stirred restlessly in her lap. “A new school every six months. I remember making up my mind that if I had children they’d go to a good school and stay right through."

Arbuckle nodded. “There’s no doubt about it. Having a family makes a difference.”

“We lived for seven years, after we were married, on Archie’s painting and teaching,” Frances recalled. When war broke out and the art market slumped. Arbuckle took his first commercial job —with Bomac Engravers, in Toronto.

"It was a serious decision. You could say I had qualms,” Arbuckle comment-

ed. He grinned. “I did one thing at Bomac I’ll never forget.

“It was a job for a sock company. It was supposed to be a great thing: Santa Claus sitting down admiring a pair of socks. But the client had got hold of the idea that everything should be focused on the socks. So I couldn't even show Santa’s head. That would detract from the socks.” He gave his sudden hoot of iaughter. “And I didn’t even do the socks. They had a sock expert to do that—a guy who painted nothing but socks.”

“Archie was a recognized painter,” said Frances with some indignation. “He was already a member of the OSA and an associate of the RCA.”

The Arbuckles moved to Montreal in 1941 when Arbuckle transferred to Bomac's Montreal office. In 1944, the same year that he painted his first cover for Maclean’s, he became a freelance again. The move back to Toronto last fall was dictated by their wish to be near Arbuckle’s mother and father, who are eighty-nine and ninety-six respectively-

Raising two children (their second daughter, Candace, was born in 1949). and paying for two longish periods of illness for Frances have made commercial art and illustration a relentless necessity.

“I always have jobs piled up ahead." said Arbuckle. ‘Tve been working ten and twelve hours a day for years.”

“Twelve hours?” Frances burst out. “Sixteen!” Sundays the same as any other day. You just can’t do that to yourself.”

Arbuckle agreed wryly. “I'm just so bloody tired.” After a pause he said rather bewilderedly, “I’ve suffered in the last six months from a great desire not to paint.”

“Because you’re tired,” said Frances.

"I’ll get over it. I have to.” Arbuckle grinned and rolled up his eyes outrageously. “The wolf is at the door.”

Frances still looked faintly worried. What one writer has called “the rage to paint" and another “a disease” is the constant in the Arbuckles’ life, is the premise of every choice of action, the motive for every scheme to ransom spare time from other commitments.

A few minutes later the front door banged and Candace, a thin, vivid nineyear-old. danced into the room giving a random tug to the hem of her Brownie uniform and announcing in a piercing voice. "I’m starved. I've simply got to have at least a biscuit or I can't last till dinner.”

Frances disappeared into the back of the house with her and Arbuckle and 1 fell to discussing styles of art. “I’m not a rebel, no,” Arbuckle said. “The Group of Seven—-one thing about them is their influence lasted about twentyfive years too long. 1 considered them great and it would have been wonderful if 1 hadn’t." He got up to poke the fire. "I began at a very dull time in Canadian painting," he said over his shoulder. "It's still a dull time. Mind you. right now there is a rather exciting group of painters here starting to do some really good stuff. But 1 don’t think they are being nearly so original as they think they are. It’s not new—it’s just new in Canada. It's international art.”

"How would fellow-artists be apt to describe your work?”

Arbuckle's eyes lit up with fun. “Just kind of fuddy-duddy, most likely,” he said.

‘'Because it's representational?” “Yes,” he said. “Mind you, 1 think it's good to be a rebel. And if a movement had come along that I had really been able to believe in. I'd have joined it.”

He gave the fire a final jab just as Candace skidded into the room waving a sheet from a scribbler. "l ook. Daddy, look,” she said, colliding with Arbuckle’s knee. He held her off till he'd finished: “I’d like to think the opportunity for being a rebel isn’t past,” he said seriously.

Candace’s sheet was a drawing of a red-crayon schoolhouse in a green-crayon landscape. “That’s not your best drawing,” said Arbuckle with mock severity. “You can do better than that.” She peered to see if he were serious and, reassured, laid her cheek on his shoulder for a brief instant before wandering off to the kitchen.

Frances, coming in to announce dinner, glanced after her and said, “It’s a shame Robin isn't here too. We're really a very close-knit family.”

“I painted my first magazine cover in a kitchen,” said Arbuckle. serving barbecued spareribs from a fine old Willowpattern platter.

“In fact your studio at that point was the kitchen,” recalled Frances. She added mint-seasoned new peas to the plates, and baked potatoes with glistening oiled skins.

“I do loathe housework, but I don't mind cooking,” she said doubtfully. “And I like arranging things.” The polished oak table reflected masses of alert white mums in twin blue-and-white Chinese bowls. She laughed up at Arbuckle who was pouring claret into her glass. “Before 1 was married, my idea of housework was Saturday mornings when I polished the brass and copper.”

Arbuckle, back at his own place, said with a perfectly straight face, “The salad will be no good. / didn't make it.” “Actually,” Frances said, “Archie makes wonderful salads. Really good. So he usually does them.” She paused to sip her claret. “Another thing a lot of people don’t know he’s good at is portraits. He began to make quite a reputation with them ...”

"... But 1 couldn’t stand the people you had to work for,” Arbuckle finished, registering delicate distaste.

Frances thought of something else. “Archie also did something that was unusual at that time; in the thirties he did quite a few subject-matter pictures, satires.” She paused in the act of carrying out plates. There was Streetcar Madonna. Archie rode on streetcars for days, doing research.” She giggled. “And I posed for it. I was the man reading a copy of Hush!”

“Oh, lord, everyone’s posed for me,” said Arbuckle, with frisky pride. “Frances was the martyr-at-the-stake in the illustrations for The White and the Gold, Costain’s book. And Robin’s been a young housewife in an attic, and a girl on horseback. And I got a friend of ours who’s a clergyman to pose for an illustration of Hendy entering an Indian encampment. He was supposed to be in those tight frontier leggings so”— Arbuckles' eyes crinkled gleefully—“I got the clergyman to pose in long winter underwear.”

Frances appeared from the kitchen with an iced angel cake, carried high like a boar’s head. “We don’t actually like cake that much,” she said. “But I keep trying out the new Mixmaster.” Later, leaning toward the fire and cradling a snifter of brandy in his palms, Arbuckle talked a bit about the future

of art. "What may happen," he said, “is that painting itself may absolutely die as an art. It's far from impossible.” He suggested that the pique to the creative imagination came to a twentiethcentury youngster from mathematics, or outer space, or even the entertainment world, and no longer from painting as in the past.

He suggested, too, that there would probably never now' be a true Canadian school of painting, because the great schools had all developed in regional isolation. impossible in an age of universal

communication. “Everything’s getting standardized," he said, “because nothing is allowed to develop on its own lines, in peace, in a backwater.”

“You’ve probably painted more widely in Canada than any other Canadian artist . . .” I began.

“Alec Jackson’s painted more of Canada than 1 have.” Arbuckle objected.

“Still, you’ve painted in the far north, and in the prairies, on the west coast, in Newfoundland. Is Canada a particularly good country to paint?"

“I don’t know. I’ve never painted in

any other country.” He looked sheepish. “1 know I’m supposed to have a nice pithy answer to a question like that." After a minute he offered helpfully: “You could say I’ve never wanted to paint anywhere else . . ." Then he shook his head. "But that’s not true." The Arbuckles have three times planned to go to Europe to paint, but have never quite managed it financially. “I guess I’d better just say we’re lucky Canada is so paintable.” he decided finally.

The talk turned to commercial versus fine art. The distinction. Arbuckle main-

tains, lies in whether the artist has to revise his pure inner promptings to any external specifications, admitted or otherwise.

“Illustration is an honest and skilled job,” he said. He was talking meditatively now, with the leisured emphasis that is spaced by pulls on a pipe. “I’ve found it’s more so than some fine art. For instance” — he paused to tamp down the tobacco—"I was marketing some of my paintings through a dealer and he told

me, ‘Those Laurentian scenes are going well. Why don’t you do some more?’ Well, that would be commercial art in the worst sense. That’s prostitution.” He pondered. “But think of the pressure on you to do just that, if you’re trying to support a family on painting alone. That’s why illustration’s more honest. It’s not pretending . . He knocked dottle from his pipe before resuming, “I think now that ideally I would like to spend fifty percent of my time on

illustration, earning just enough so I could paint exactly as I like the rest of the time.”

Frances spoke from the shadows: “I worry that you don’t get more time to paint.”

The fire ticked quietly, no more than a dull glow.

After a silence Arbuckle said, “Two artists should, I suppose, not get married. They should remain single; maybe they should live in sin. I don't know.

And if they do get married they shouldn’t have any children.”

Frances got up suddenly and switched on a lamp. Highlights leapt to life on copper steins, oak tables, the backs of calf-bound books. The cat sprang out from his hide under the sofa and batted at the hem of Frances’ stole.

Arbuckle stretched luxuriously, sat up and squinted wickedly at his wife. “But I still think that would be a hell of a miserable way to live,” he said. ★