Archival Corner – Week 3: Banting and the Art of Wood Carving

Frederick Banting’s passion for wood carving emerged late in his artistic career, but it led to several small works of “superb artistry.” A.Y. Jackson wrote of Banting’s hobby in his 1943 tribute biography Banting as an Artist:

Another form of art he tried was wood carving. The Loring-Wyle studio was probably the cause of these efforts. Frances Loring modelled an heroic head of Banting pondering on some weighty problem, and as a result of this association we have a number of chests and other objects vigorously cut in wood. (Jackson, 30)

Sculptor Frances Loring and her partner Florence Wyle, known in artistic circles as the ‘Girls,’ held Banting in great esteem and affection (see Archival Corner—Week 2: Banting as an Artist’s Subject), and the feeling was mutual. They were also close to A.Y. Jackson, who surmised that Banting became inspired to try his hand at wood carving after sitting for Loring during many companionable hours in the Girls’ dilapidated studio, known as “The Church,” in north Toronto in 1934.

Loring and Wyle would have been delighted at Banting’s interest in carving. They were generous in their support of aspiring amateur sculptors, giving lessons to friends and the neighbourhood children to supplement their meagre income, out of love of the art. Florence Wyle was herself a master sculptor in wood. Biographer Rebecca Sisler recalls in her 1972 study The Girls:

Wood was living matter to a sculptor like Florence Wyle. There was always a pile of it in the corner of the studio—lengths of sumac, cherry, apple wood, their ends sealed with protective paraffin, drying slowly until they were finally ready for the probing chisel…. She herself handled each rough piece with reverence. Choosing a length to suit the design at hand, she would begin with her tools: wooden hammer, an assortment of chisels, and even an unorthodox jacknife. She felt her way slowly, cutting lightly, exploring the possibilities of the grain, establishing key points, adapting her inspiration to the nature of the material. (Sisler, 80)

During his visits to the Loring-Wyle studio, Banting would have found Wyle’s models of West Coast First Nations totem poles of deep interest, and two little owl book-ends in painted cast-iron might also have caught his imagination. In 1927, as Banting and Jackson were touring the Eastern Arctic on the S.S. Beothic, Wyle and artist Anne Savage went to Skeena River in northern British Columbia to make models and drawings of the fast decaying totem poles still standing in the villages bordering the river. Sisler tells us that Florence “especially loved the unrestored poles—silver grey in colour, leaning at picturesque angles along the streets of the villages. One of the totems at Skeena Crossing, from which she modelled a delightful little owl, is still standing.” (Sisler, 41-2)

Florence Wyle, Owl Book-Ends, 1927

At left: Florence Wyle by Ashley & Crippen

Florence Wyle, West Wind, n.d.

Wyle also excelled at relief sculpture. Her painted plaster medallion West Wind would have appealed to Banting’s artistic imagination, both in form and subject. The stylized wind-blown pine recalled the Group of Seven and Banting’s beloved Georgian Bay landscapes. Banting would hold this inspiration at the heart of his own wood carvings.

By 1936, after Banting had purchased his new home on Rosedale Heights Drive, just a couple of blocks away from the Loring-Wyle studio in Moore Park, his interest in wood carving took flight. His friend Seale Harris, in a 1946 biography Banting’s Miracle, recollects:

He had always enjoyed whittling and working with a penknife, but he had never had gone at it very seriously until recently … The most ambitious of these efforts were in the field of woodcarving, a pursuit which he combined with cabinet-making (another of his hobbies) to produce such items as chests and humidors, all made by his own hands and then embellished with carved reproductions of his own sketches: Canadian scenes, perhaps, or designs portraying the practice of medicine by the Indians. During these periods of creative activity his study and his bedroom were littered deep with shavings and other odds and ends of the woodworker’s craft, but such temporary disorder worried him not at all … (Harris, 203)

Frances Loring recalled that Banting became so fascinated with wood carving that he cut down his favourite cherry tree to use the wood for sculpting. And writer and friend Percy Ghent noted, “We saw some of Banting’s wood-carving of superb artistry, one example being a painting of his own reproduced on wood to make the lid of a chest. It was a phase of his well-known versatility unknown to us until that day.”

After Banting’s death, the University of Toronto’s Hart House Gallery held a retrospective of some 200 of Banting’s artworks, including a selection of his wood carving. A walnut chest with a landscape in bas relief on the front and, on the inside of the lid, motifs representing North American First Nations practices of medicine, was the most ambitious of these. A second walnut box, a walnut humidor, a pipe-rack, and a pair of book-ends were also featured in the exhibit.

Banting House holds a fine collection of Banting’s bas relief wood-carved panels, a gift of Dr. William Franks in 2002. Banting had made these as part of a series of panels for his godson.

Through these wood carvings we watch the artist’s technique as it progresses from a pencil drawing (inspired by Banting’s own paintings of rural villages) onto a smooth prepared wood panel, to a light etching over the pencil design, to the beginning of the process of bas relief (or low relief), in which Banting carves out certain areas so that the desired architectural and landscape elements project slightly from the background, but are not detached from it.

Untitled Villages, n.d.
Banting House National Historic Site
Gift of Dr. William Franks, 2002

In November 2010 Banting House acquired Banting’s oil painting Village in Winter at auction. The inspiration and model for a fourth wood-carved panel in the Dr. Franks gift, Village in Winter was painted during a sketching trip Banting took with A.Y. Jackson to the mining town of Cobalt in northern Ontario in October 1932. Below are the two works side by side.

Untitled Village, n.d. (l) and Village in Winter, n.d. (r)
Banting House National Historic Site

In 2007, thanks to a gift of Mrs. Margot Montgomery, two wood-carved book-ends, each featuring a different Quebec church scene, possibly in St–Fidèle, further enriched Banting House’ collection of wood carvings:

Pair of Book-Ends, n.d.
Banting House National Historic Site
Gift of Mrs. Margot Montgomery, 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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