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A prime example of Peter Clapham Sheppard’s urban humanity is 'Elizabeth Street, Toronto', painted during his creative apex in the early 1930s.

Daniel Dabrowski

Like many artists of his time, painter Peter Clapham Sheppard captured the pulse of the modern city of the 1910s to the 1930s with unique views of Montreal, New York and especially Toronto. Humane, not glamorous, they ennoble the commonplace. His thoughtful compositions, inventive choice of colours and incisive use of paint are more stirring than those of most of his peers. And yet, being a contemporary of the Group of Seven might have been Sheppard’s worst piece of luck. He died in near obscurity in 1965.

But recently he has begun to gradually gain some recognition for a number of reasons. Since the turn of this century, the auction market for his work has grown incrementally as collectors compete for especially good urban views. Waddington’s Nov. 19 auction of Canadian Fine Art in Toronto will include three paintings by Sheppard, Consignor will have one canvas in its Nov. 20 auction of Important Canadian Art and Heffel will have one canvas in its auction of Canadian, Impressionist and Modern Art on Nov. 21. As truly significant works by Emily Carr, Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven appear at auction less frequently, collectors are coping with the impossibilities of affording a Lawren Harris or even finding a good Harris when they can afford one by looking to lesser-known artists such as Sheppard. In today’s art market, a truly significant work by him plays well to the rule of thumb that it’s better to buy an A work by a B artist, than to buy a B work by an A artist.

And with this fall’s publication of Tom Smart’s Peter Clapham Sheppard, the artist has his first book, one focused on Sheppard’s career from the early 1910s through the 1930s, and one in which Smart argues Sheppard’s ability to arrest moments in the built world – the city – allowed him to succeed as an interpreter of urban scenes infused with humanity.

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Except for Carr, Tom Thomson and the Group, publications on early 20th century Canadian artists unrelated to exhibitions are rare. The financial risk is often too great, and a book such as this on Sheppard guarantees nothing for his reputation. But it is also a worthy risk that will be a springboard for his profile in the short term. In the long term, it will be the resource to spark and fuel the curiosity of future art historians, collectors and writers. That Smart and Sheppard’s signal partisan, Louis Gagliardi, have achieved this for Sheppard, and that the book will remain, is an important addition to the artist’s legacy.

So how did an artist from Toronto whose paintings were shown at, and acquired by, the Art Gallery of Toronto (now, Art Gallery of Ontario), the Canadian National Exhibition and National Gallery of Canada from the 1910s to 1930s fall into artistic oblivion? The art market is too complex and fluid to manipulate success or obscurity indefinitely. Sheppard was accomplished enough to make occasional sales to public and private collections, and to exhibit regularly at the CNE, the spring exhibitions of the Art Association of Montreal (now, Montreal Museum of Fine Arts), the 1927 Exposition d’art canadien in Paris, and more. Still, he was no art star. There were no Canadian art stars then.

Sheppard was a little older than most of the members of the Group, and his beginnings were similar to theirs. Born in Toronto in 1879, raised and educated there, he began working in commercial art in his late teens and studied at its Ontario College of Art (now, OCAD University) in 1911 and 1912 in his early thirties. His professional career overlaps nearly perfectly with the Group. He began exhibiting in the mid-1910s, hit his stride in the mid-1920s, plateaued in the mid-1930s and was treading water by the end of the decade. Many artists would be lucky to have that much of a career.

He was a painter who was as little interested in being revolutionary as being old fashioned. He let his pictures speak for themselves; they did not need criticism or poetry to be understood. These words are a paraphrase of the Group of Seven’s description of itself in 1921. But their commonalities did nothing to heighten Sheppard’s critical profile at the time, or earn him an invitation to exhibit with the Group as any one of their 37 invited contributors from 1920 to 1931.

A prime example of Sheppard’s urban humanity is Elizabeth Street, Toronto. Painted during his creative apex in the early 1930s, it will also be the cover lot for Waddington’s auction. It argues for Sheppard’s part in Toronto’s art history, sets him apart from the Group and helps explain his obscurity. So, perhaps, did the coupling of his delicate palette and his decidedly unromantic subject matter. The Group’s pursuit of the rugged, removed landscape as subject had a domestic exoticism when shown in Toronto, Ottawa or Montreal that Sheppard’s paintings of cities could not match. Sheppard’s subjects were too familiar to be novel and his style of painting was too tasteful to be caught up in scandal.

The view of a street in the Ward, a diverse and impoverished area of Toronto, could have been selected by Harris. But unlike Harris’s well-known city views from the mid-1910s to 1920s that present the city from an emotional distance, Sheppard always feels part of the city. With passing decades, Harris’s distance is easily understood as part of the increasing desire for pictorial distance in his art that took off in his views from the north shore of Lake Superior and went to a different plane in his abstractions. In Sheppard’s case, the focus on the city and painting an artistic resemblance of it was too easy to digest in comparison.

Meanwhile, as the Group’s content eventually excluded anything metropolitan, Sheppard followed his urbanism into oblivion. Sheppard was into his seventh decade, his art was no longer challenging himself or others. Then, a chance encounter with a younger artist, Bernice Fenwick Martin, at a funeral in 1941 ignited a friendship that changed both of their lives. As he aged and his artistic powers diminished, her support carried him through his last years. She was married, living a comfortable middle-class life, when she began to look out for him, eventually finding a place for him in a care facility in his last year. Unmarried, childless and the last of his immediate family, he entrusted all of his art to her when he died in 1965. Twenty-two years later, after being widowed, childless and defrauded of her life savings and home, Gagliardi, a man 50 years her junior, sought her out after he was smitten by one of her paintings. Martin told Gagliardi about Sheppard, and they began what became Gagliardi’s 30-year journey to add a new verse to the history of Canadian art and find a permanent home for the Sheppard collection.

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In the unfinished draft of that new verse, the presale estimate of $40,000 to $60,000 for Elizabeth Street, Toronto is higher than anything by Sheppard to appear at auction. Its estimate is also about one-twentieth of what would be assigned to a comparably sized Harris canvas of the Ward. Elizabeth Street, Toronto will be a test of Sheppard’s market and, if Waddington’s has at least two motivated bidders to drive up the price, it could draw more quality works onto the market.

Many artists are justly forgotten. But for a few, oblivion is an unfair purgatory. From the 1910s to 1930s, Sheppard skilfully manipulated paint to rewarding effect. Most importantly, his sustained interest in the flux and frisson of urban life is a part of Canada’s century and a half of urbanization. How Sheppard thrives beyond Gagliardi’s custodianship and into the fourth generation is the chapter to be written.

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