Barker Fairley is an elemental man who seems exempt from the vicissitudes of mortality. At 91, his spirit is as ebullient as champagne, and he has been spared the bodily and mental decrepitude which sometimes overtakes men far younger than he. His complexion is like rubbed ivory, his white hair as fine as corn silk. His blue eyes are bright and age has not dimmed his luminous intelligence. His speech is fluent and lucid, rich with the low vowel sounds of his native Yorkshire.
As Fairley sees it, there are two main factors that have contributed to his longevity: “I have never done anything I knew I couldn’t do; and since the age of 20 I have never been in a hurry. I haven’t worked hard since my undergraduate days.” Yet his output has been vast and varied. As a German scholar, during the 40 years he taught at the University of Toronto, he established an international reputation with classics such as A Study of Goethe (1947), and a fine, elegant translation of Goethe’s Faust (1970). He founded The Canadian Forum in 1920 and nurtured the fledgling arts and literature magazine as editor and writer for 11 years. As an art critic Fairley became a friend
and champion of the Group of Seven.
Fairley has been painting for 47 years but has not yet received the benediction of the Canadian art establishment, though his last show at the Marianne Friedland Gallery in Toronto last fall was a smash success, with every painting sold within hours. A new exhibition will open at the same gallery on
Nov. 25 with about 40 pictures, mostly landscapes produced over the last two years.
Fairley’s distinction as a literary scholar has been something of a hindrance as the arbiters of taste and fashion in art persist in regarding him as nothing better than a talented amateur.
Fairley, who was born in Barnsley, Yorkshire, in 1887, won a county scholarship to Leeds University, where he studied French and German. Later he spent three idyllic years at the University of Jena, in what is now East Germany, teaching English and studying German. In 1910 he came to Canada, and for five years taught German at the University of Alberta. He describes those years as “empty” and “uneventful” except for his meeting with Margaret Keeling, whom he married in 1914. (They had five children, of which
two are still living; Margaret died in 1967.)
In 1915 Fairley was appointed professor of German at the U. of T. “I came to what was supposed to be a very dull city, and my intellectual, spiritual, and artistic life all began in Toronto,” he now says. Fairley had no thought of becoming a painter himself until 1931,
when a friend called Robert Finch “pushed” him into it. “As soon as I started, within a year I’d got into oils and portraits as well as landscapes. It was all there in my head and I didn’t know!”
His landscapes are timeless and serene, reduced to essentials in the manner of Oriental art. They are simple with the simplicity of extreme sophistication. Fairley’s pictures never blaze with the aching colors of a Van Gogh. “I believe in the restricted palette,” he explains, “two neutrals and two yellows.” Yet his color harmonies are so subtle and pleasing that his landscapes have become immensely popular.
Fairley’s portraiture is the opposite of official portraiture, which seeks to record a photographic likeness of the
sitter. “I don’t have to get a likeness,” Fairley insists. “I hope I get the inner life. I may do several portraits of the same person and get a different aspect each time.” His portraits are executed in a style which is a modified cubism containing echoes of Wyndham Lewis and Modigliani. Fairley’s method is analytical, an examination of structure. He uses his intelligence like a scalpel, dissecting the face before him in his search for “the inner life.” His stark portraits may not be popular, but they are uncompromisingly truthful. And in those tragic, unsmiling faces is written Fairley’s often grim commentary on the human condition.
Fairley is sadly aware that while
Canada has a landscape tradition, it has no portrait tradition: “There’s no public to receive any more than the conventional in portraiture, and that’s a great pity.” A book of Fairley’s portraits, for which he has written the text, is to be published next spring, to coincide with his 92nd birthday on May 21.
According to John Sommer, who has exhibited Fairley’s work frequently in the Gallery House Sol in Georgetown since 1969, “Barker’s portraits are also formally interesting in terms of abstraction and balance. He’s not so much a portraitist as a recorder of intelligences, and in this he’s a very modern painter.”
There is an enviable completeness to
Barker Fairley’s life. He lives in a comfortable house in Toronto with his devoted and supportive second wife Nan, 45, and paints in a second-floor studio overlooking the street. Having spent the summer in Presqu’île Point, Ontario, painting landscapes (“Pm almost the first person to do these rural landscapes in a modern way. I would claim that for myself”), he intends to spend the winter painting portraits. “I can do portraits till I die, because every face is a new one. There are thousands of babies being born today and each will have a face that’s slightly different from all other faces ever, and it's truel So painting faces is an endless excitement.”
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