Businessman Robert McMichael and his wife, Signe, had been in their log house with the large field-stone fireplace and floor-to-ceiling living-room window barely two years when one of the country’s most famous journalists showed up to interview them.
Located 40 kilometres northwest of Toronto, near the village of Kleinburg, the house was beautifully poised atop a wooded valley overlooking a branch of the Humber River. It was an area the visiting writer, Pierre Berton, knew well: He along with wife Janet and their growing brood had been living near Kleinburg for at least the past five years. Berton, 36 at the time, duly wrote a laudatory cover story for the December, 1956, issue of Canadian Homes and Gardens magazine about the McMichael residence. The cover line read, “The House That Was Made for Christmas,” based on a comment Signe had made to Berton during his visit.
Today we know the house the McMichaels christened Tapawingo (Haida, purportedly, for “place of joy”) as the McMichael Canadian Art Collection, famed for its holdings of work by Tom Thomson, the Group of Seven and indigenous artists. Now surrounded by a boreal forest lovingly planted and nurtured by its original owners, the McMichael remains a picture-perfect milieu in which to mark the holiday, perhaps never more so than this year.
This is because the gallery is displaying 186 Christmas cards created by members of the Group of Seven and their contemporaries as well as artists of a more modern cast such as Jack Bush, William Ronald and Harold Town. Many of the cards have never been shown in public; they’re all from the McMichael archives or lent by other institutions and individuals.
Aptly titled This House Was Made for Christmas, the exhibition is a reminder that many of these artists didn’t earn their living solely from fine art. Bush, for instance, was for many years a commercial artist for various design and advertising firms while Thomson, J.E.H. MacDonald, Franklin Carmichael and Frederick Varley did illustrations and designs for Toronto’s influential Grip Ltd. A.J. Casson was employed in the 1940s by the country’s first silk-screen printing firm, Sampson, Matthews Ltd. The vintage cards in the show, notes Sharona Adamowicz-Clements, the McMichael’s assistant curator of collections, “demonstrate the important role that commercial work and printmaking had on the careers of many Canadian artists who were able to promote their work by way of their printing practice.”
This House Was Made for Christmas runs at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection in Kleinburg, Ont., through Jan. 31.