Tony Urquhart spent a lifetime creating some of this country’s most impressive works of art. And in those 87 years, there was simply no way to separate the man from the artist.
Urquhart passed away on Jan. 26, leaving an indelible mark on Canadian art, our city and our campus.
Born in 1934, Urquhart grew up in Niagara Falls, Ont., where his mother Maryon’s family owned a funeral parlour – his father was the manager. He was raised in a loving home that included his grandmother Mayme, a prolific gardener, and a Scottish nanny named Effie.
“He would talk about granny’s garden because she would always be out there changing things around…organizing spatially where things were, and he was aware of what she was doing,” said Aidan Urquhart, a well-regarded Canadian artist and Urquhart’s son.
“And his dad, my grandpa, was an avid photographer back in the day. He was always taking photographs, always had a camera with him. He was really good at it…That had a real influence on my dad,” Aidan said.
Urquhart began drawing at the age of four, even before he had mastered speech, and was encouraged by his family to pursue his creativity.
And so, he did – drawing constantly on the life experiences that surrounded him, including Mayme’s gardens.
A self-proclaimed “home body,” Urquhart would stay close to home, commuting daily from 1954 to 1958 to study at the Albright School of Art in Buffalo, New York, a short drive from Niagara Falls, and perhaps more importantly, just meters away from the Albright Art Gallery.
It was at the Albright Gallery where the works of modernist artists, like Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline and Mark Rothko, would influence Urquhart the student.
He completed his degree at the University of Buffalo in 1958 and attended Yale Norfolk University Summer School on a fellowship.
In a remarkable way, Tony was simultaneously learning his craft while launching a stellar career, and not just in Canada.
In 1956 he was asked to join the Isaacs Gallery, “one of Toronto’s most cutting-edge art venues” to emerge in the mid 1950s.
He was only 22.
Av Isaacs had a keen eye for Canadian talent with, Michael Snow, Joyce Weiland and Graham Coughtry on the roster – he would give Urquhart two one-man shows in January and November of 1957.
He would get married the next year to his first wife Madeleine Jennings, a Niagara Falls school teacher.
Through the late 1950s and in the 1960s, his work would be featured in some of the most prestigious international exhibitions and galleries, including the Guggenheim International in New York, the Pittsburgh Bi-Centennial at the Carnegie Institute, and the Museum of Modern Art.
Urquhart was making a name for himself as a pioneering abstract artist alongside other standout Canadian artists, like Coughtry, Jean-Paul Riopelle, Charles Gagnon and Jack Shadbolt.
It was at this same time that he answered his London, Ont., calling, creating quite a buzz with his arrival in the Forest City.
Thanks to an anonymous donor and the then newly formed Canada Council for the Arts, resources were made available to create Western’s first artist-in-residence.
“He had an idea that there were some artists already here working. And that would have been Greg Curnoe, Jack Chambers, Murray Favro. He had an inkling that there were these young artists in the community…he genuinely liked London. He enjoyed his time here. He loved the city. I think the draw was Western but also the art community that he could already see forming,” said Aidan.
Molding the McIntosh Gallery
At 26, Tony would start his professional career as artist-in-residence – a position he held from 1960 to 1963, and again from 1964 to 1965.
“And, it wasn’t just artist-in-residence,” said Catherine Elliot Shaw, curator at Western’s McIntosh Gallery for more than 35 years and current acting director. “There were no other staff at the gallery, so he did everything. He put on shows, looked after the collection, liaised with the greater London arts community, and taught art. And breathed somewhere between three and four in the morning, I think,” joked Elliot Shaw.
(Slideshow: Some of Urquhart’s work in the McIntosh Gallery collection)
Under Urquhart’s leadership, the McIntosh, the first university art gallery in Ontario, really took off.
Urquhart would launch more than 40 exhibitions in total, including the first to show the works of Curnoe, Walter Redinger, Ed Zelenak and John Boyle. He would also help acquire the first contemporary artworks for the McIntosh Gallery collection.
“It was a great opportunity to hone and to carve and mold the gallery into being much more contemporary,” said Elliot Shaw.
And it would be at Western where Urquhart would launch his teaching career as well.
With the opening in 1967 of the new department of fine arts, Urquhart became its first professor of studio art, a post he held until 1972.
“He was constantly seeing new students and new ideas. There was a constant flow that never stopped. I think he enjoyed that. And also, that he could impart his knowledge and share it with the students, but they taught him a few things as well,” said Aidan, who studied visual arts at Western in the late 90s.
Time at Western was not only good for Urquhart professionally, but artistically as well.
His studio was in the basement of the McIntosh – documented in a drawing he did that is now part of the gallery’s collection. There, he would explore and develop his signature box sculptures with multiple hinged doors that opened to reveal mysterious interior landscapes.
“Tony would take frequent trips to Europe, to travel around to look at classical art, the work of older masters and so forth. While he was on one of these trips, he was looking at sculpture and getting excited about three dimensional objects. He came back with the idea of becoming a ‘thing maker,’” said Elliot Shaw.
“And so, it started by taking a box and putting paintings on all four sides. From there he started incising the box. He added hinges and doors and created interior landscapes. He would draw the viewer in to participate in the experience.”
The results are truly unique works of art that can be hard to describe.
“They [the box sculptures] definitely have a certain sort of inheritance from surrealism,” said Patrick Mahon, professor and former chair of the visual arts department at Western.
“Tony wasn’t just interested in the box as a formal device. I think he was also interested in its potential to hold a story. They are marvelous and really personal in the sense that he was really giving of his artistic self and the kind of original thinking that he was capable of,” said Mahon.
For young Aidan, they were a playground.
“When I was a kid, I had Mattel metal cars. In his boxes I would open one side and put the car inside and drive it around. Put it to the other side and walk around and open the door and get the car out. Drive it up to the top of the sculpture,” he said.
Today, the McIntosh collection at Western is home to 30 Urquhart pieces — paintings, sculptures and drawings — including the first three-dimensional box sculpture he ever attempted, titled X-Frame.
The 1960s and 70s were an incredible time for art in London, Ont., and Urquhart was at the centre of it as a member of the Heart of London group, which includes Chambers, Curnoe and Favro.
Urquhart was also an activist and contributed in significant ways to the London art scene. Most notably was his role, along with Chambers and Kim Ondaatje, in founding Canadian Artists’ Representation /Le Front des artistes canadiens (CARFAC) – making Canada the first country to safeguard artists’ rights and copyright, providing a fee schedule for artists when their work was shown in exhibitions.
“Tony had become such an integral part of the art scene in London. Contributing to it in so many ways by showing local artists at the McIntosh, by helping to establish CARFAC, by creating the kinds of collaborations that were needed at the time to demonstrate that Western was a part of the community,” these are all elements of the lasting impact Urquhart made in London, and at Western, said Elliot Shaw.
It took effort, but Tony was up for the task.
“He had a natural personality that attracted people. He had a very positive personality. Being so young, and also being Western’s first artist-in-residence, working at the university opened up doors and allowed him to include people and bring people together,” said Aidan.
The 1970s brought about a lot of change for Urquhart. He would separate from his first wife Madeleine in the mid-1970s and at that same time made a move to become a full professor at the University of Waterloo, where he would continue to teach for three decades.
In 1974, he met prize-winning novelist Jane (Keele) Urquhart, a young widow at the age of 24 after her husband, artist Paul Keele, was tragically killed in a car accident. The two met at an art opening in Kitchener, Ont., for a show Urquhart was having with a mutual friend, Walter Bachinski. It was the start of a relationship that would last for more than 48 years.
The couple married in 1976.
Over the decades Tony would continue to produce art, and of course, he would draw.
It was much more than a career for him. Urquhart would, for decades, immerse himself, literally, in his work.
“When he got up in the morning, he had a cork board by the kitchen table. And on that cork board he pinned 25 to 30 drawings [that were] in the works. He would sit there and eat his breakfast, pull one [of the drawings] off and take it into his studio later that day. He would wake up in the morning and be face-to-face with his artworks. His mind was always active. What to change? What looks good? What’s not working? I could see the wheels in motion when I watched him doing this,” said Aidan.
He never stopped drawing, his son recalled.
“There’s a sense that drawing is the through line of his work as an artist. The sculptures and the other things that he makes are significant stops along the way but the thing that keeps going and going is drawing. Tony was a multidisciplinary artist and I think drawing was very much a baseline for him,” said Mahon.
Urquhart received the Order of Canada in 1995 and the Governor General’s Award in Visual and Media Arts in 2009.
He retired from teaching in 1999, focusing on family life, being a supportive father, grandfather, and even great grandfather.
In 2017, he was diagnosed with dementia and would eventually move into a care home in Peterborough, Ont., where, even in his 80s, he continued to draw – this time filling up a slightly smaller cork board.
“He was still involved in the creative act, right up until the end,” said Aidan.
In addition to his wife, Urquhart leaves his children, Allyson, Robin, Aidan and Emily; grandchildren and great-grandchildren. He was predeceased by his son Marsh.
“He was the number one fan of my work. I’ll miss his insight and his support. He looked at my art in a critical way – of course, I was his son. But he knew in his own eyes that I was doing good stuff and was really proud about that. And he told me so, which is nice,” said Aidan.
“I’m going to miss that we can’t walk in a gallery together anymore.”
As one of Canada’s most accomplished artists, Urquhart’s impact doesn’t end with his passing. His legacy lives on in big ways.
In addition to his hundreds of paintings, drawings, and sculptures, Urquhart’s illustrations bring pages alive visually in collaborations with Canadian authors, including his wife Jane, Rohinton Mistry, Michael Ondaatje and Nino Ricci.
The full collection of drawings for Ondaatje’s book, The Broken Ark, are in the McIntosh collection.
The Art Gallery of Ontario has 27 of Urquhart’s works, including some working drawings. And his work is held in collections around the world, including New York’s Museum of Modern Art, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, and the Bibliothèque nationale de France in Paris, among many others.
These are works that will no doubt inspire the next generation of Canadian artists, who can only hope to have the kind of success Urquhart achieved, all the while giving back to the very community that fueled it.
With background from The Globe and Mail, The Toronto Star, Walrus Talks @home, and a video portrait from the James Rottman Fine Art Gallery.
Terry Rice is a senior advisor in human resources at Western University and a graduate of Western’s fine arts program. He studied with Aidan Urquhart in the late 1990s.