Archival Corner – Week 1: Banting as an Artist

Welcome to our newest Banting House National Historic Site Blog Feed— Archival Corner. My name is Lorraine Tinsley and I am an MA candidate in University of Western Ontario’s Public History Program. This fall, I am pleased to be following in my classmate Kat MacDonald’s footsteps as an intern at Banting House, where I’ll be working behind the scenes with curator Grant Maltman on archival research and collections management. I am particularly excited to help design and publish Banting House’s first art catalogue, centred on its wonderful collection of artworks by Frederick Banting. Production of the catalogue coincides with the centenary celebrations of the discovery of insulin. It is most fitting, for it was here at Banting House, 100 years ago, that Banting’s artistic genius first emerged.

Over the past year, under the able direction of Professor Michelle Hamilton, Western’s MA Public History students partnered with Banting House to research and design a popup exhibit on Banting’s life and work to mark the centenary. With classmate Maggie Dingwell, I prepared one of seven panels for the exhibit, entitled “Banting as an Artist.” Please read on for the story of this fascinating aspect of Banting’s life:

Banting as an Artist

Untitled, 1920
Banting House National Historic Site

Few Canadians today know that, in addition to being a world-famous scientist, Frederick Banting was a talented landscape painter. It was during his brief sojourn as a family physician in London in 1920–1921 that his emerging artistic talent took flight. With a fledgling medical practice bringing in few patients, Banting was left with little income, but ample spare time. Never one to remain idle, he turned to a childhood love of drawing, painting and wood-carving to fill the hours.

Nearby Anderson’s Art Store on Dundas Street offered art supplies, and displayed a boating print called The Landing that captured Banting’s imagination. Over the next few months he would hone his drawing skills by copying The Landing and other magazine and book illustrations onto spare shirt cardboard from the neighbourhood Reliable Hand Laundry, across Dundas Street from Anderson’s. Local artists who congregated at Anderson’s, including talented portraitist Mary Healey, also encouraged him to try his hand at oils. From that point on, Banting found his true artistic calling in oil painting.

A.Y. Jackson, Lawren Harris and Frederick Banting by Arthur Lismer
in Saturday Night, February 27, 1943

Banting’s artistic career took a dramatic turn when he joined Toronto’s Arts and Letters Club in 1925, where he found camaraderie among the Group of Seven landscape painters. Banting bonded in particular with artist A.Y. Jackson over their experiences in the First World War, and their love of Canadian art. They became lifelong friends and artistic partners, travelling across Canada from snowbound Quebec villages to remote Great Slave Lake in the Northwest Territories, painting outdoors on small birchwood panels, in wild and rugged country where it was sometimes so cold their paints and brushes would freeze.

Banting embraced the freedom and challenge of painting in Canada’s wilderness, and he cherished the artistic brotherhood he shared with Jackson.In the summer of 1927 Banting and Jackson accompanied the crew of the government ship S.S. “Beothic” on a two-month Eastern Arctic supply expedition. Banting worked alongside Jackson, eager to learn from the master painter.

A.Y. Jackson Frederick Banting, S.S. “Beothic”, 1927
Banting House National Historic Site

The Arctic trip was a turning point for Banting. It was the longest time he had ever spent sketching, and he was often frustrated with his progress. But he applied himself diligently to improving his techniques for capturing light and shadow, and with each new sketch he would ask Jackson, “Now, what’s wrong with it?”

Summer Arctic, 1927
Banting House National Historic Site

As Banting’s art matured, he came to realize that there was more to painting than just imitating nature. Artists, he felt, have much in common with scientists. Both are researchers – whether exploring for scientific truths in a lab, or experimenting with techniques to capture the world around them through their art. “Scientific research,” Banting said, in a tribute that evoked art as much as science, “is nothing more than the endeavour to unfold the secrets of nature. When once the law underlying natural phenomena is understood, we are placed in a better position to govern those phenomena.”

Jackson once jokingly suggested he trade his microscope for a paintbrush, to which Banting replied that when he turned 50 he would gladly take up art full time and leave science to younger men. He had come to love the freedom of painting so much that he confided in his diary in 1930:

It is a great country. The more I think of the city, the more I want to live in the country, and the more I think of being a Professor of Research, the more I want to be an artist or something else with more work and less responsibility.

Canadian Rockies, 1938
Banting House National Historic Site

By the early 1930s, with two exhibits at the University of Toronto’s Hart House Gallery under his belt, Banting had become one of Canada’s best known amateur artists. But he was always humble about his work. He would give away his paintings for free, never believing they were good enough to sell. He would even use an alias, ‘Frederick Grant’, to avoid publicity on his sketching trips with Jackson. For Banting painting was, first and foremost, a welcome escape from the pressures brought by his fame and scientific success. He painted for the joy of creation, and for the peace of mind it gave him – not to become a famous artist.

Near Ste. Irenée, 1931
Banting House National Historic Site

By the time of his last sketching trip in 1938 to St. Tite des Caps in Quebec, Banting’s work was being mistaken for Jackson’s—even by art experts. But his dream of retirement at 50 to take up painting full-time was cut short by the plane crash in 1941 that claimed his life. 

In February 1943 University of Toronto’s Hart House Gallery exhibited over two hundred of Banting’s paintings and sketches. His friend Lloyd Stevenson reflected on Banting’s artistic legacy in his 1946 biography Sir Frederick Banting:

He waited upon the whims of the Canadian landscape, now stern, now genial, as though it had some command upon him.… Lakes and rivers gleamed beneath his brush. A foreboding sky with a storm hiding behind the hills elated him. All of Nature seemed bent on suborning the fancy of a great scientist to other and merrier uses.  

Jasper Park, 1926
Banting House National Historic Site

In his tribute, Banting as an Artist, written to accompany the Hart House exhibit, A.Y. Jackson remembered Banting’s pride in Canada, and his belief that no country can afford to neglect its creative minds. He recalled one of the last things Banting said to him—“Won’t it be great when the war is over to get back to the country and paint again!”

This post was written by Lorraine Tinsley, an intern at Banting House NHSC. Lorraine is currently completing her MA in Public History at the University of Western Ontario.

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