Archival Corner – Week 2: Banting as an Artist’s Subject

Throughout his career, Frederick Banting was drawn to the company of artists. Whether A.Y. Jackson, Lawren Harris and the Group of Seven landscape painters, sculptors Frances Loring and Florence Wyle, or portrait photographers Charles Ashley and James Crippen, Banting intuitively shared the artist’s passion for the creative process. He also commissioned and collected their art; revelled in their kinship at Toronto’s Arts and Letters Club; and strove to join their ranks as a painter himself.

In 1923 Banting sat for the first time as an artist’s subject for portraitist Curtis Williamson, the “Canadian Rembrandt”, and again for Hungarian painter Tibor Pólya in 1925, as well as for countless photographic studies. The most masterful portrait of all—the dramatic bust Sir Frederick Banting, was created in 1934 by Frances Loring, one of Canada’s most accomplished sculptors. It was among her finest works, and it is considered today one of the most outstanding sculptures in Canada.

Sir Frederick Banting by Frances Loring, 1934
Photo by Pringle & Booth Ltd

The Church Studio, Toronto (above)
Frances Loring, c. 1915 (left)

Loring was an American-born sculptor who arrived in Canada from Greenwich Village in 1912 with her lifelong partner Florence Wyle. Loring and Wyle were educated in the Chicago Institute of Art in the neo-classical tradition of sculpture, with its emphasis on the beauty of the human form, based on a detailed understanding of anatomy. Affectionately known in Toronto art circles as the “Girls”, Loring and Wyle produced a vast body of sculpture ranging from delicate bronzes to monumental landmarks and memorials. By the 1930s their work was identified with the emergence of national pride in Canadian art, but they had to fight for understanding and recognition, even among fellow artists, of the value of sculpture as an art form.

Sometimes scandalizing their north Toronto neighbourhood, the Girls turned their studio-home in a dilapidated church in Moore Park into an unofficial centre for the creative arts— a gathering place for artists, writers, musicians, and the cultural elite of Toronto society. The Girls’ friendship with Banting dates from the mid-1920s when he began to frequent their famous Saturday-night gatherings with mutual friends, artists A.Y. Jackson, Lawren Harris, Arthur Lismer and Barker Fairley, composer Healey Willan, photographers Ashley and Crippen, and others. Fellow sculptor Rebecca Sisler, describes in her 1972 biography The Girls how Banting, who knew the poems of Robert Service by heart, would recite them at great length to the company. “Often when sitting downstairs having supper late at night, he would make quick pen or pencil sketches of the faces around the table. At times he would have to leave around midnight to go home ‘to feed the chickens,’ a duty related to some experimental work in his lab. Three a.m. would find him back at the Church to rejoin the effervescent party.” (Sisler, 55)

Sisler suggests that Frances “could not help but respond to the powerful bone structure of Banting’s face and the quiet assertion of his personality,” and persuaded him to sit for a portrait. The experience of the sittings forged a “deep and unbreakable bond,” for as Loring once explained “Anyone you have sculpted belongs to you in a sense after that. Part of them belongs to you always.” (Sisler, 55)

With their shared scientific understanding of human anatomy, Banting would have found Loring’s artistic process fascinating. He spent many hours at the studio while the sculptor modelled what biographer Lloyd Stevenson describes as “the thoughtful features of a masterly portrait head. The essential spirit of the scientist confronts us in the pondering gaze of this massive work. The great ‘prone brow oppressive in its mind’ surmounts a serious contemplative face, and the firm lips and strong chin complete an air of resolve.” (Stevenson, 258)

Biographer Elspeth Cameron, picks up the story in her 2007 study of the Girls, And Beauty Answers: “Loring worked on the principle of ‘two heads, one from the sitter and one from [my] head.’ By informing the literal with her imaginative grasp of her subject—she turned her subject’s head to one side as if he were inquiring into something—she was able to convey Banting’s strength, curiosity, intelligence, and sensitivity…. Strength and character thrust out through the bronze, with the rugged simplicity of the brilliant doctor accented in the surface modelling treatment. The bust is alive.” (Cameron, 277)

Frances Loring with Dr. Charles Best and
Sir Frederick Banting (c. 1951)

In an address to the Hamilton Art Gallery, which displayed a Banting bust in 1955, Loring said that Banting was a fighter—a characteristic she herself shared. “It was that powerful driving force that made Banting. I suppose to succeed you have to have a little of the fanatic in you. You have to be able to get on one track and stay there. That’s Banting.” (Cameron, 286)

In 1949 five bronze replicas of the bust were made, and three sold at $2,000 each to the National Gallery, the Art Gallery of Toronto, and the University of Toronto. A sixth was cast in 1966 by Loring for veterinarian Dr. Ballard, and it is housed in the medical library at UBC. We are fortunate in London, Ontario that one of the Banting busts is held by the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame, and will be on display when the exhibit hall reopens in 2021 in its new home at 100 Kellogg Lane in London.

Sir Frederick Banting by Frances Loring, 1934
Photo: Courtesy of Canadian Medical Hall of Fame

Bill Banting (1929-1998) with Canadian Medical Hall of Fame bust of his father Frederick Banting
Banting Family Fonds
Banting House National Historic Site of Canada

Image credit: “1950s. Loring beside her 1934 portrait bust…” from Elspeth Cameron, And Beauty Answers: The Life of Frances Loring and Florence Wyle (2007)

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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