Francis (called Frank, and later Franz) Hans Johnston was born in Toronto in 1888. He was educated at the Givins Street School, Toronto; Central Technical School under Gustav Hahn; and Central Ontario School of Art under William Cruikshank and G.A. Reid. Upon graduation, he apprenticed with Birks as a jewellery designer and at Brigden’s, both in Toronto. Following his apprenticeship he joined the commercial art firm Grip Limited in Toronto, where he met future Group of Seven members J.E.H. MacDonald, Arthur Lismer, and Franklin Carmichael. The following year, he went to Philadelphia to study at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art and then worked with the design firm, Carleton Studios, in New York, returning to Toronto in 1915.
Johnston was commissioned to paint the home front in 1918 during the First World War for the Canadian War Memorials Fund. During evenings and weekends, though, he sketched Ontario’s Royal Canadian Air Force training camps including aircraft in various manoeuvres, some of which he developed into paintings. In 1918, he travelled to the wilderness of the Algoma region near Sault Ste. Marie with artists Lawren Harris, MacDonald and art patron Dr. James MacCallum.
In May of 1920, Johnston and a group of likeminded artists exhibited as the Group of Seven for the first time, at the Grange in Toronto, and were hailed for developing an utterly Canadian art movement. Johnston’s landscapes reflect his knowledge of turn-of-the-century ideals, being more atmospheric than those of the Group. In December of that year, Johnson mounted the first of many independent exhibitions at the Eaton’s of Canada Gallery where the press praised his handling of light. In 1921 he moved to Winnipeg to become the Principal at the College of Art and Director of the Gallery until 1924 when he returned to Toronto to teach at the Ontario College of Art, the same year that his formal associations with the Group of Seven ended.
About 1926 he changed his name from Frank to Franz because a numerologist friend in New York told him that the name Frank would never bring him success. His canvases from then on were signed Franz Johnston. In 1948 Johnston moved from Wyebridge to Midland, Ontario, but in 1949 suffered a stroke. He is represented in such collections as the London Public Art Museum, London, Ontario, the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, and the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, to name a few.
This work, along with hundreds of other remarkable photographs by Johnston dating from 1910 forward, was uncovered in an old shed in Hastings County, Ontario. The majority of these photographs feature breathtaking views of the far north – and include images of hunting, sealing, tepees, igloos and reindeers. Some were submitted to competitions during the artist’s lifetime. And while the majority of Johnston’s photographs were donated to the Huronia Museum in Midland, this photograph (along with the others available) was rescued by a thoughtful and conscientious housekeeper more than 15 years ago. Informed to take the images to the local landfill by her employer, Johnston’s daughter-in-law, believed it best to do otherwise. She wisely retained and stored them, until deciding to offer them for sale in 2010.
Winnipeg Art Gallery, Winnipeg, Manitoba