WOOD, William John
Born: 26 May 1877, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada
Died: 4 January 1954, Midland, Ontario, Canada
William J. Wood was a painter and etcher known for his portraits and figurative studies depicting small town and family life in a bold, personal style. He lived in Orillia and Midland, Ontario among other places. Though he remained isolated from ongoing contact with artistic centres, his work was supported by the Group of Seven.
William John Wood was born on a farm near Ottawa in 1877. He grew-up on a lakeshore farm near Port Colborne on Lake Erie, and showed an early interest in music, poetry and art. In 1896 Wood left home to work on Great Lakes and ocean ships. Around 1900, Wood took a few courses at the Eric Pape School of Art in Boston, Massachusetts, where the curriculum placed emphasis on studying the figure from the living model in the manner of the Paris art academies, and commercial illustration techniques. Wood also had the opportunity to see contemporary trends in painting while in Boston.
In 1904 and 1905 Wood studied briefly for two winter sessions at the Central Ontario School of Art and Industrial Design (now the Ontario College of Art and Design) in Toronto with George A. Reid, William Cruikshank, Charles Manly and Robert Holmes, all of whom were painter-etchers. Reid advocated tonal painting with a fluid brush technique and the depiction of familiar subjects, influenced by American Impressionism, which accorded with Wood’s interests. In 1905, Wood met Jessie Reaman of Severn Bridge, whom he married in 1906.
Wood began to etching in 1907 while he was working part-time as an illustrator for the Temiskaming Herald, and homesteading in Heaslip, in northern Ontario. Wood made his first prints at this time, inspired by his knowledge of the work of Swedish etcher Anders Zorn who captured the spontaneity of drawing on the etching plate. Wood later commented, “The seeming directness and ease together with marvelous results in etching by the Swedish Zorn, lead me to attempt this art. [I was] self-taught with the aid of a handbook, [and] my first press, the clothes wringer on a wash-tub.”
In 1908 Wood met artist Frank Carmichael (later a member of the Group of Seven) at the Orillia fall fair, where the two exhibited their pictures. When Wood moved his family to Orillia in 1909, he worked as a carriage painter for Carmichael’s father’s business. Beginning in 1911, the year he met artist Arthur Lismer (who also became a member of the Group of Seven), Wood travelled often to Toronto and participated in the art milieu. Encouraged by Lismer’s enthusiasm for his etchings, in 1912 Wood began working with his new self-designed printing press, which he had had cast in a foundry in Orillia. In 1913 through his contacts with Lismer, Wood was invited to hold a solo exhibition at the Arts and Letters Club in Toronto, and sold thirteen works. This was also the year Wood settled permanently in the town of Midland on the shore of Georgian Bay, where he worked in the shipyard for many years.
In 1915 Wood enlisted in the armed forces and served in WW I. While stationed in England he visited London and saw exhibitions of graphic art and etching at the Royal Academy in 1917 and 1919. Following three years of separation from his home, Wood celebrated his return to Canada by depicting his family and his immediate surroundings in his paintings and etchings. His painting Memory’s Melodies, 1919, a study of a young woman playing the fiddle in muted, almost monochromatic colours, was exhibited at the Ontario Society of Artists annual exhibition held at the Art Gallery of Toronto and drew the attention of the art milieu.
By 1921 Wood had changed his palette towards bright, primary colours as his large oil painting Summer Evening, 1920-21, attests. This lively composition depicting a dancing couple that focused on their closely held bodies, was painted in a spontaneous loose manner in bold colour that captured both movement and intimacy. It was exhibited at the Ontario Society of Artists annual show, and purchased by the National Gallery of Canada. In 1924, it was exhibited at the British Empire Exhibition in Wembley, England.
In 1923 Wood was invited to exhibit with the Group of Seven in a show which travelled in the United States. Five years later, in 1928 Wood exhibited with the Group of Seven at the Art Gallery of Toronto. He exhibited Self Study, 1927, (now in the National Gallery of Canada), a gaunt, bold self-portrait in oil with dramatic shadows and highlights, that was appreciated by reviewer Fred Jacob (18 February 1928, Toronto Mail and Empire), “Many persons will be pleased to see…William Wood of Midland, whose painting has always been a unique example of self-expression, accomplished quite outside a sophisticated art environment. His Self Study is a very interesting piece of painting in spite of its awkwardness.”
During the 1920s and 1930s Wood was considered Midland’s artist-in-residence, and did restoration work on paintings in the historic Martyrs Shrine. During the economic Depression of the 1930s Wood was unemployed for most of the decade; he continued to produce etchings with vigor and self-assurance. During his most prolific period, 1930 to 1935, Wood made over sixty etchings characterized by emphatic drawing and coarsely bitten lines that depict familiar subjects, boats in Setting out from Harbour, 1933, dancing couples in Waltztime, 1934, landscapes in Trees by a Lake, 1934 and Boom Logs on the River Seven, 1934, as well as numerous studies of female bathers and beach scenes. The years 1935 to 1938 were his most prolific as a painter. One work, Summer Diversions, 1936 depicts a red-haired bather in a red bathing suit standing in a verdant setting that witnesses Wood’s compositional interests in broad masses of light and shade.
In 1933, when the Group of Seven expanded to become the Canadian Group of Painters, Wood became a charter member of the new association, whose aim was to establish a national network of modern artists. He exhibited with them three times in 1936, 1939 and 1947. During the 1940s Wood resumed employment at the Midland shipyards and during WW II he had little time to produce art.
Wood died in Midland in 1954, at age 77. His artistic talent was little known during his lifetime due to his decision to live in Midland far from the artistic milieu. In 1983 the Art Gallery of Ontario mounted a major retrospective exhibition of his paintings and prints which brought his achievements to light.
A Dictionary of Canadian Artists
Selected Public Collections
Kleinburg, ON, McMichael Canadian Art Collection
Midland, ON, Huronia Museum
Hamilton, ON, Art Gallery of Hamilton
Hamilton, ON, McMaster Museum of Art
Ottawa, ON, National Gallery of Canada
Toronto, ON, Art Gallery of Ontario
Toronto, ON, Hart House, University of Toronto
Selected Solo Exhibitions
1913, W.J. Wood, Orillia: Exhibition of Sketches, Etchings, etc., Arts & Letters Club, Toronto, ON
1954, Exhibition of Oils, Charcoals and Etchings, Huronia Museum, Midland, ON
1971, William J. Wood, Gallery of Contemporary Art, Midland, ON
1972, William J. Wood Retrospective, Hart House, Toronto, ON
1973, W.J. Wood (1877-1954): A Retrospective Exhibition of Etchings, McMaster University, Hamilton, ON
1975, A Retrospective Exhibition of W.J. Wood: Founding Member of the CGP, Pennell Gallery, Toronto, ON
1983, W.J. Wood (1877-1954): Paintings and Graphics, Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, ON; travelling
Selected Group Exhibitions
1912-1939, Canadian National Exhibition, Toronto, ON
1916, Third Exhibition of Works of Canadian Etchers, Art Museum of Toronto, The Grange, Toronto, ON
1920-1932, Ontario Society of Artists
1920-1950, Canadian Society of Painter-Etchers and Engravers, Toronto, ON
1921, CPE travelling Exhibition, British Columbia Art League, Vancouver Art Gallery, Vancouver, BC
1923, Paintings by Canadian Artists, Group of Seven, touring: Minneapolis, MN; Brooklyn, NY, USA
1924, British Empire Exhibition: Canadian section, Wembley, England
1926, Philadelphia Sesquicentennial Exhibition, Philadelphia, PA, USA
1928, The Group of Seven [and associates], Art Gallery of Toronto, ON
1929, 1931, 1933, Exhibition of Canadian Art, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, ON
1933, 1939, 1947, Exhibition of the Canadian Group of Painters, Art Gallery of Toronto, Toronto, ON
1931-1951, Art Association of Montreal, Montreal, QC
1995, The Group of Seven: Art for a Nation, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, ON
2005, The New North: W.J. Wood and the Group of Seven, MacLaren Art Centre, Barrie, ON
1912, non-resident member, Arts & Letters Club, Toronto, ON
1913, Canadian Society of Graphic Arts
1920, non-resident member, Society of Canadian Painter, Etchers and Engravers, Toronto, ON
1933, charter member, Canadian Group of Painters