Born in London, England, he arrived in Canada with his parents when he was eight months old. They settled in Toronto where his father went into partnership with the Beale Brothers to create the Toronto Engraving Company. Showing a special talent as a boy he received encouragement from his father. His first outdoor sketch of the Winchester Street Bridge in Toronto displayed his remarkable maturity at the age of twelve. His father allowed him to study at the Toronto Art Students’ League under William Cruikshank and G.A. Reid. At 15 he worked part time at his father’s firm and when he was 17 he ranked first in his class at school. A good athlete, he played lacrosse for Junior Tecumseh’s but gave this up when he became employed full time at the firm. About 1892 his illustrations appeared in the Toronto Art Students’ Calendar. He also attended the Mahlstick Club where a gathering of artists included Robert Holmes, T.W. McLean, J.E.H. MacDonald, Neil McKechnie, A.H. Robson, W.W. Alexander and others. Brigden received most of his training in Toronto with the exception of a summer of 1910 in the Catskills under Carlson of the Art Students’ League of New York. In Toronto he was busily engaged in making illustrations for catalogues, newspapers, and magazines for the Toronto Engraving Company. His work appeared in the Canadian and the Farmer’s Advocate, (Lond., Ont.) where it was reported that he made very fine engravings of cattle. Weekends and evenings during the summer, between 1894 and 1906, he went painting with C.M. Manly making many trips to eastern Ontario, Quebec, and the Maritimes. Brigden painted traditional English water colour subjects until about 1906 when he made his first trip to the north country, where, in the words of J.E. Middleton, The general scene was big, swimming in air so clear that even far-off lines were definitive and distant colours vivid . . . . In 1910 he travelled to Europe and visited London, Manchester, and Brussels and in 1912 visited Buffalo, N.Y., where he saw the Scandinavian show which J.E.H. MacDonald and Lawren Harris had seen. A year later this Scandinavian influence showed itself in his Walker Lake canvas which was a considerable departure from his traditional manner. His paintings did not, however, take on the same dedication to decorative realism as had the work of Harris and MacDonald. In 1940 Liddell Franks in the Windsor Daily Star explained this aspect as follows, . . . Brigden himself did not come under the influence of the Group for he held to his belief that he should continue to paint nature realistically and to depict its more atmospheric aspects . . . . J.E. Middleton wrote, He preferred the lighter woodlands to the dark mystery of spruce and balsam. He looked with as much pleasure on rolling farm lands as on tumbled masses of rock. Brigden was still very much interested in English water colourists for in 1924 on a business trip to England he carefully examined a portfolio of original water colours of John Sell Cotman, an experience he regarded as being of lasting benefit to him. He travelled to many parts of Canada including the rugged bush country of the northland. Like many other artist-woodsmen, he went by canoe, although he usually travelled in a party which often included his sister Miss Bertha Brigden. It was on a trip down the Mississauga River that the swift water dashed one of their canoes against a fallen tree causing the canoe and all their camping gear to be lost. Bertha was safely rescued from its swift waters, the same waters that in 1912 spilled Broadhead and Tom Thomson from their canoe along with a number of their treasured sketches which they never recovered. Brigden also travelled to the Okanagan Valley in B.C., to Lake Louise and Outpost Lake in the Rockies, to northern Manitoba, then Ontario, particularly along the shores of Lake Superior down the Montreal River where J.E.H. MacDonald painted his famous canvas, Falls Montreal River, the Haliburton region, the eastern Townships of Quebec, and throughout the Maritimes including the beautiful Cape Breton Island. He sketched with T.W. McLean at Michipicoten Harbour in 1922; McLean had worked for Brigden at the Winnipeg office (1912-17). Although Brigden’s work ranked with the best in Canada he was regarded by a few of his fellow artists as first and foremost a businessman. He spent most of his time at the engraving business and worked his way up from draughtsman to supervisor to Assistant Manager to General Art Editor. He headed a staff of about 40 artists and he trained them for the production of Eaton’s Mail Order Catalogue. He became General Manager of the Winnipeg Office and when his brother died, he took over the firm, reorganizing the top personnel, making his nephew, Gerald Brigden, Vice-President and his cousin, A.O. Brigden, General Manager. As President in 1940 he was free to devote all his time to painting at his studio in Newtonbrook, Ontario. A few artists in the RCA had opposed his entry into their ranks because he appeared to them to be more a businessman. However in 1934 he was elected ARCA, in 1939 RCA. He was very active in youth work and was President of the Toronto and District Football Association, Chairman of the Boys’ Work Committee at the Central Y.M.C.A.; Honorary Vice-Chairman of a similar committee of the National Council of the Y.M.C.A. It was at a Y.M.C.A. Boys’ Department art contest that he discovered the talent of a 14-year-old boy named Charles Fraser Comfort. Comfort was soon persuaded to come to work for Brigden’s, doing something in which he was exceptionally gifted. Brigden’s solo shows include: Lyceum Women’s Art Assoc., Tor. (1941); Laing’s Art Gal., Tor. (1945); Lond. Pub. Lib. & Art Mus., Lond., Ont. (1953); AGO, Tor. (1957) and many group shows. He is represented in the following collections: AGO, Tor. (prints & paintings); HH, U. of T.; York Memorial Collegiate Inst., Tor.; Toronto Graphic Arts Assoc.; LPL&AM, Lond., Ont.; NGC, Ott.; N. American Life Assurance Co., Tor.; WAG, Wpg. and elsewhere. His affiliations include: OSA (1898) Pres. (1927-31); Mahlstick Club, Tor. (1899-1903); fdr-mbr. New Water Color Soc. (1900); fdr-mbr. GAC (1903); fdr-mbr. ALCT (1908); fdr-mbr. AWCP (1912); CSGA (1923-c. 33); fdr-mbr. & Pres. 1926-28 CSPWC (1925); ARCA (1934) RCA (1939). Ample information is provided by author J.E. Middleton in his Canadian Landscape as Pictured by F.H. Brigden produced in 1,000 copies, designed, printed and bound by Brigden’s Limited and published by Ryerson Press. The book is beautifully illustrated with his work in colour and black & white engravings, some from the Art Students’ League Calendars. Brigden pressed industrial establishments to preserve the beauty of the north country and achieved moderate success in this direction. He died on a sketching trip at Bolton, Ontario. His portrait was painted by Kenneth Forbes, R.C.A. for the OSA exhibition of 1943 and appears in the above-mentioned book.
Colin S. MacDonald
A Dictionary of Canadian Artists, volumes 1-8 by Colin S. MacDonald, and volume 9 (online only), by Anne Newlands and Judith Parker. National Gallery of Canada / Musée des beaux-arts du Canada