Paul R. Johnston, A Forgotten Canadian Painter?

Harold Barrett, the proprietor of Pickwick’s Choice Antiques at 1698 Queen St West spared some time to chat with me and pose for some photos today. This man is a treasure. My Saturday afternoon visits with this colorful character are the high point of my week. Every encounter is different as Pickwick discusses the fascinating trends in his life – I could start an entire new domain on The Life of a Queen St Antiques Dealer. It actually bothers me that his knowledge is wasted in this dusty shop in the antiques ghetto of Toronto. Phone him at 416 538 4419 and ask him anything!

Harold Barrett advises collectors to ‘buy Canadian art right now!’ But some conditions apply. Namely the modern Canadian artists must have some credentials and some record of their achievements and gallery shows. Where did they go to school? Who taught them? What did the critics think of their work? Did they join a movement? Pickwick didn’t need any persuading to show me one of his best pieces. It’s hanging on the wall right behind the counter, for sale, a bargain at $695. This piece is something of a scarcity in the Canadian art world because it’s from the son of famous painter… There’s no Wikipedia file for Paul Roderick Johnston – the son of Franz Johnston? I can’t find any hard data on this man. Even in Frank Johnston’s wiki page there’s no mention of any children? Paul R Johnston is how he signed his name to this oil on canvas, entitled Winter Landscape near Wyebridge. It’s 20×16 oil on canvas that was priced at $100 in 1945 – the artist dated his work here by writing the numbers 44 behind his signature. Pickwick believes this was sold at a gallery in downtown Toronto in 1945. ‘Do you know how much you could buy with $100 in 1945? he asked me and then replied ‘It was three months wages for most people.’
According to Pickwick, Paul Roderick Johnston was the son of Mr. Franz Johnston who lived from 1888-1949. Francis or Franz was an original member of the Group of Seven, but only showed in the Group’s first exhibit where he displayed over sixty paintings – more than all the other members. Franz painted differently than the other Group of Seven members. He liked close-ups that often seemed crowded, and demonstrated incredible prowess in simple landscapes with subtleties like clouds reflecting on water. Here is Franz Johnston’s classic LANDSCAPE AND SKY STUDY signed; inscribed “The Weather Breeder” on the reverse, inscribed title – it was sold in November 2006 at Ritchies and the estimate reads between $7000 and $10,000 but I don’t know how much it actually brought. This painting is exceptionally beautiful. Dumpdiggers proclaims this to be a terrific investment at $10K and a steal at $7K. According to Harold Barrett of Pickwick’s Choice the artist known as Paul R. Johnson was the son of this famous Franz Johnson. I have to believe him. The back of the painting proudly declares the artist’s pedigree. REMARKS – Bright landscape by son of Famous Franz Johnston – ARCA What does A.R.C.A. mean? Academie de Royal Canadian Artiste hmmm… no? According to Charles Moffit of Lilith Galleries http://www.lilithgallery.com/ ARCA stands for Association for Research into Crimes against Art. In Winter Landscape near Wyebridge, Paul paints like his father – Franz Johnston’s style became increasingly more realistic throughout his life, evincing a particular fascination for the qualities of light reflected from snow. Like his father, Paul explored river valleys and detailed the bright blue water bending between snow-laden banks. Like his father, Paul also painted the pastoral countryside around Wyebridge, Ontario.

Hunting Bottles in an Old Barn

On Thursday July 17th The Glove mustered skilled workers to help him repair a weather beaten structure that stands alone on some property he recently purchased, just west of Warkworth Ontario. Dumpdiggers answered the call – but only so we could rummage about in the forgotten history of the old barn.
This old barn sits alone on the south side of Hwy 29 which bisects a historic local region known as Oak Heights. This structure has survived the farm house and all other buildings on the property and now towers over their cement foundations – it has even outlived the United Church which was the focus a tiny farm community, one century earlier.

The barn was built almost 100 years ago, and was probably erected right on top of a smaller, earlier structure on the same spot. For the last forty years, this farm was owned by Eddie Dudeck who died just a few years ago. He was an eastern European immigrant (Polish?) , a tobacco farmer, and something of a land baron. Many of the local residents worked for him at one time or another, including my own father.
This barn did not exist in the 1870s, when the settlement was first surveyed for the Northumberland Co. 1878 map available in McGill University’s Blackadder Digital Collections. Here’s a cut away that I fashioned which shows the property belonged to Johnson Brewster. His 200 acre lot also supported the church. On a side note, my own ancestor’s original plots are also recorded here. My great, great, great grandfather George Campbell died when a rock he was burying on his land tumbled in on top of him. The family legend is that he’s still there somewhere on that farm, underneath that rock.

All around the stone walls outside the building is the best place to find coins, old pocket watches and spent ammunition. The first thing I noticed when I approached the site was how much debris and loose material had collected over time against the stone foundation. It was easy to shovel through this fluffy matter – yes thats cow dung in the right hand side of the picture. Littered with crumbling barn boards, buckets, and straw bales, the surface debris rests on top of some harder sub soil that conceals older relics. I have no doubt that some concentrated digging and sifting on this site would yield all manner of old coins and broken tools.
In some situations Dumpdiggers employ passionate enthusiasts to retrieve surface objects. These people are specially trained professional who don’t mind doing a little dirty work when it comes to recovering our valuable heritage. Here’s young Alec with a quart of port. When we opened the bottle it still looked remarkably palatable – it smelled pungently like overripe wine vinegar. A distiller could no doubt refine this fluid into the finest moonshine.

The wooden floor boards above the drive shed are carpeted in rotting tobacco, which I tried to photograph, without success. The decomposing plant matter now perfumes the air in a musty fragrance. Underneath the ancient straw in an adjoining hay mow I found fertilizer bags and newspapers, one of which was dated September 1976 – Dumpdiggers believes this pinpoints the last summer the barn was used in any serious agricultural enterprise.
The dividing wall between the hay mows. If I had more time on site I would dig away the straw and loose leaf tobacco from around the short wall that bisects the interior of the barn. This is where Dumpdiggers would have the best chance of finding lost coins, jewelery and spent beverage bottles.
Here are some old beer bottles that have already been recovered on this site. The labels on the bottles read, O’Keefe’s Extra Old Stock Ale, Molson’s Stock Ale from Montreal, Bradings Old Stock Ale, and IPA. The Glove believes this wide selection of 1970’s era paper label beer bottles evidences teenagers dipping into their father’s coolers and meeting here in ritual drinking. But I don’t agree. I suspect these old bottles are the scattered remains of a late 70’s era tobacco season harvest party wherein it was customary to provide young workers with a massive selection of commercial brew craft upon which they might deliberate their first taste of alcohol.
Buying and selling historic lumber sounds like a good business. Here’s a Canadian website that buys old barn boards. Pine was the building material of choice for old barns in the 1800’s. This abundant local wood survives the elements untreated – pine doesn’t shrink when it dries. All this is because pine has a natural resin (which is distilled to make turpentine?) that coats and protects its fibrous cells. Cedar also has a natural oil, but this wood doesn’t last as long outside and doesn’t grow to the size of pine logs. The north wall of the stable bears the marks of an unsympathetic addition; the window boxes on the east side are an entirely different shape. This means the barn was expanded at some point and the oldest diggings would be found around the north wall.
Explore the tops of all stone walls. When I ran my hand above the window boxes I encountered all manner of rusted objects – old door knobs and electrical boxes and even a spring loaded wooden mouse trap that fortunately wasn’t cocked. There were spent shotgun shells and a few small tins, oxidized beyond all recognition. Dumpdiggers also found lots of square nails and a broken lock.This is just one historic property in transition – the rolling hills of Northumberland County seen here in the distance will soon be enhanced by gardens, fruit trees and a cute little animal pasture in the foreground. That’s probably how it looked on July 17th 1908 when this barn was the center of activity on the Brewster farm.

The Adventure in The Gut

Dumpdiggers explore the Kawartha Lakes A trip north of the #7 Hwy in Eastern Ontario is like stepping back in time. That’s the feeling you get when you see the old farms with their tumbled silos and dilapidated barns, and signature red brick Victorian houses. Look closely – there’s still evidence of the insulbrick outbuildings and the ghost of an apple orchard behind the house on almost every one of these properties. The small little fields along the road are surrounded with oversized stone fences piled high with the limestone crumble of the Canadian Shield and dotted with last century’s farm equipment. Old combines and McCormack threshing machines are left to rust within sight of the road – a cry for help? Some farm driveways feature unusual signage selling home cooked meals, fresh sweet corn, wild blueberries and straw bales. There’s a lot to read, including the names of the local children painted on the pink granite rock cuts, and signposts crowded with surnames on cottage roads. On Sunday July 7th 2008, The Glove lead an expedition north from Havelock Ontario into a unique conservation area that’s 400 acres of natural splendor called The Gut. This place is well situated in the scenic Kawarthas cottage country near the Marmora mining district. The geology here is quite spectacular. The Gut is a centuries old rock cut wherein the mighty Crowe River has cut its own path through the quartz streaked green granite of the Canadian Shield. The Crowe River moves quickly here and makes isolated pools among the rapids. The bottom of the channel is smooth in most places and its fun to frolic in the wash, but swimming is dangerous. The land is owned by the local Crowe Valley Conservation Authority and they are poor so of course there are no camping facilities, and you’ll find only the barest trails here on which there are no picnic tables, no BBQ huts, and no garbage cans or handrails; the place is very natural and a little dangerous.
In several spots wild raspberry bushes crowd the path, their thorny brambles deterring any deviation from the trail. Late July / early August will taste a record crop of wild red and black raspberries this year for it has been wet in Ontario this summer and the wild grape vines and berry bushes up here are loaded with green pimples that will soon be ripe juicy fruit. Dumpdiggers appreciate the entropy that’s visible from the road in any excursion north of Havelock. Its fun to poke about in piles of debris close to the ditch, and deeper. Dumpdiggers found treasure fields along the historic ‘South Road’. Here’s a 1936 McCormick Deering ‘All Steel’ Mechanical Thresher. This machine separates the wheat from the chaff during the harvest. The belt drive was propelled by the Power Take Off at the side or rear of the farm tractor – these two innovations made it possible for small groups of people, the farm families, to work twice as much land as their ancestors, and put 2x more oats in their granaries, so they could feed 2x more livestock. Cyrus McCormack patented the world’s first threshing machine in 1834. The first McCormick factory opened in 1847. If you read the company history you’ll note that Cyrus McCormack initiated a patent infringement lawsuit against the Manny Company of Rockford, Illinois in 1855 after the Manny reaper bested the McCormick Reaper that summer in the Paris Exhibition. The Manny Company hired Abraham Lincoln to represent them against Cyrus McCormack and it should come as no surprise that the Manny Company won the case. For McCormack it didn’t matter anyway – over the next twenty years, the family business boomed until The Great Chicago Fire of 1871 destroyed the entire factory and the McCormicks’ homes. But even then their manufacturing businesses quickly recovered. After several short term contracts split the business between the McCormick brothers, the whole operation was reformed in 1879 as the McCormick Harvesting Machine Company which is of course the predecessor of International Harvester Inc. and Case IH Corporation. And what did the Diggers find that day? Rummaging around in the pastoral roadside dumps did produce some interesting tidbits and minor prizes and pieces of larger puzzles… Here’s a nice dark olive glass Hemingway insulator that’s as common as dirt, but there are some interesting mold marks on the reverse – even the most common insulators have character up here, north of the number seven.
But the best discovery on the whole trip was this blue enameled steel two quart water pitcher – slightly rusted around the handle with one minor bruise along the base. Experts tell me this is the signature color of Eaton’s Catalog enamelware from the 1960s. It might have been connected with one of the first properties in the area and might herald from a time when The Gut was portaged by men carrying canoes.