Elora-born McGillivray Knowles was successful artist

The following is a re-print of a past column by former Advertiser columnist Stephen Thorning, who passed away on Feb. 23, 2015.
Some text has been updated to reflect changes since the original publication and any images used may not be the same as those that accompanied the original publication.

Local art aficionados, especially those in the Elora area, are familiar with the association of A.J. Casson and Elora and Salem. 

In the 1920s the Group of Seven member spent time there, and eventually produced a sizeable portfolio of work depicting scenes in Elora and environs.

Less well known today is F. McGillivray Knowles. His career overlapped that of the Group of Seven, but he was at his peak of artistic and commercial success in the two decades preceding the First World War. Knowles grew up in Elora, and made frequent trips to his hometown, often with groups of his students.

As an adult, Knowles tended to be secretive about his personal matters, so much so that he managed to obscure the date of his birth. Reputable art histories place the date as anywhere from 1857 to 1862. The true date is 1859. A few sources give his birthplace as Syracuse, N.Y. That is possible, since his mother may have been visiting there, but his parents had been permanent residents of Elora since 1855.

Farquhar McGillivray Knowles was the second child born to William and Jessie Knowles. He was Irish; she was Scottish, born either in Aberdeen or Quebec. William came to Elora as a cabinet maker, and established a prosperous business in the booming economy of 1850s Elora. With various partners and employees he turned out a full range of wood and upholstered furniture.

In 1861 Knowles quit cabinet making and opened a hardware store on Elora’s Mill Street. He enlarged the business several times. By 1867 he maintained an immense inventory, and ran a wholesale department, supplying smaller stores to the north and west of Elora. As well, he opened a branch store in Elmira.

By then he was one of the most prosperous merchants in Elora. He purchased Rosemont Cottage, the impressive Italianate stone house at the corner of Geddes and David Streets, and enlarged it into the finest residence in the area. The family had continued to grow, eventually to three sons and four daughters.

Young Farquhar Knowles was an energetic boy, but with delicate features and a slight frame. He was one of the better students at the Elora schools. One of his teachers was David Boyle, the pioneering geologist and archaeologist who served as public school principal in the 1870s. He inspired young Farquhar to set his horizons far and wide.

William Knowles ran into business troubles in the 1870s, when the railway to the north of Wellington cut severely into Elora’s trading area. Overstocked with inventory, and with a drawer full of uncollected bills, he declared bankruptcy late in 1875. He had plans to reopen on a smaller scale in 1876, but instead moved to Toronto and operated a store there.

By then young Farquhar was already in Toronto, working at the Notman-Fraser galleries, which sold both photographs and paintings. Preferring painting to photography, he studied under John A. Fraser, and later moved to Philadelphia to hone his skills and abilities as an artist.

By then he was using his middle name; presumably he thought that “McGillivray Knowles” had a more satisfying ring than “Farquhar Knowles.” For a while he added a couple of years to his age to give the appearance of greater maturity.

In 1885 (or 1890 according to some sources) Knowles married Elizabeth Beach of Ottawa. A big-boned, dark haired woman, she was quite the opposite physically of fine-featured Knowles. An artist in her own right, she had been one of his students, though only seven years his junior. She pursued a career along side her husband, specializing in miniatures and in pictures of domestic animals and wildlife.

During the 1880s Knowles taught painting and art at Toronto’s Westbound School and at the Ontario Ladies College in Whitby. In 1891 he and Elizabeth went to Europe for a trip. They remained there for five years. He undertook further studies in London and Paris, and showed some of his work at the Royal Academy in London before returning to Toronto in 1896. They would return to Europe many times during the next 30 years.

In Toronto the couple setup a studio on Bloor Street. Knowles and his wife were already well known amongst the tiny Toronto artistic community. Their combined residence and studio became something of a salon. Painters and writers regularly dropped in for conversation and to exchange gossip.

Professionally, the 20 years following his return to Toronto were his most productive. His landscapes and seascapes caught the public’s fancy, and sold quickly at ever increasing prices. Knowles also undertook portraits on commission, and that sideline soon became very lucrative for him.

In addition to his paintings, Knowles also undertook a number of murals in the residences of Toronto’s elite. The largest such commission was for the mansion of Sir John Eaton, the department store magnate. He also did work at the flagship store at Queen and Yonge Streets.

Knowles’ commercial success soon placed him in the centre of Canada’s artistic life. He was named an Associate of the Royal Canadian Academy, and a full member in 1899. Later he served on the executive of the Ontario Society of Artists.

He and his wife were very popular socially, both in Toronto’s creative circles and among the city’s social elite. It was then very unusual for a husband and wife to pursue their own careers, and consequently they gained something of a celebrity status.

By the end of World War I Knowles’ style had become a little dated, and the good commissions came less frequently. The couple, growing somewhat weary with the narrow social circles of Toronto, moved to New York in 1920.

Even then, Knowles did not completely abandon Canada. He visited Elora several times during the 1920s, and in 1922 the couple ran a summer school session in the Hespeler area and up the Grand River, with a class of 20 art students.

In the early 1920s they spent part of a summer in New Hampshire, and soon decided to establish a studio at Riverton, in the White Mountains. Elizabeth died there in the summer of 1928. After that, Knowles decided to return to Toronto for his winters, where he could socialize with old friends and colleagues. He moved into the then-fashionable York Manor Apartments on Jarvis Street.

Though he was slowing down, Knowles continued to paint, but by the late 1920s the more robust and rough-hewn expression of the Group of Seven had eclipsed his style.

Knowles married again in 1931, to a 45-year-old teacher at Alma College in St. Thomas. He gave his age as 69 – he was actually 72.

F. McGillivray Knowles died at the Jarvis Street apartment in April 1932. His funeral, from St. Paul’s Church on Bloor Street, was attended by the cream of Toronto’s artistic and literary circles.

Though he had frequently visited Elora, none of Knowles’ six siblings retained ties to Elora and Wellington County. His elder brother William G. lived his life in Toronto; the younger brother Arthur migrated to Sydney, Australia. All four of his sisters wound up in southern California.

Though he has been dead for 73 years, there may be a reader of this column who remembers McGillivray Knowles, either through his reputation or one of his visits to Elora. 

The old Knowles mansion remains one of the architectural highlights of the village, but the career of the boy who grew up there is familiar to only a few contemporary residents.

Though his work hangs in the National Gallery in Ottawa, his reputation has never recovered to the stature he enjoyed in the first two decades of the 20th century.

*This column was originally published in the Wellington Advertiser on Sept. 9, 2005.

Thorning Revisited