In 1961 Toronto painter Harold Town (1924–1990) made the cover of Maclean’s, and the following year the Toronto Telegram Weekend Magazine carried a two-part feature by his friend Jock Carroll, which included anecdotes about Town’s outrageous exploits. The press was fascinated both by his notoriety as a dandy and party animal and by his reputed earning power as “the hottest sales property in English-speaking Canada.”
Through the 1950s the growing concentration of wealth in Toronto had set off a local art boom. Openings at art galleries drew large, socially mixed audiences and regular press commentary. New dealers were emerging, willing to show young experimental artists and groom upcoming local art patrons, and lively interest in abstract art was spreading across Canada, generating debates on the relative merits of the art scenes in Montreal, Toronto, and Vancouver.
Town, invited to represent Canada twice at the Venice Biennale and selected as one of 361 leading world artists by the curators of Documenta 3 in Kassel, Germany, in 1964, emerged as a leading figure in the new scene. By 1965 his large canvases were fetching up to $4,000, a record price for contemporary Canadian work, and he was dubbed the “artist with a tax problem.” In 1969 he was on the cover of the Canadian edition of Time magazine. Throughout the decade he was referred to as “synonymous with art in Toronto” or “Canada’s most famous artist.”
Town’s large canvases of the early 1960s precipitated frenzies of acquisition by corporate and private patrons, first at the Laing Galleries in 1961 and then at Town’s famous double openings in 1966 and 1967 in Toronto, when he launched distinct bodies of work simultaneously the Mazelow Gallery and the Jerrold Morris International Gallery. Young newspaper critics found his work exciting to decode, and Robert Fulford and Elizabeth Kilbourn became keen champions, reviewing his shows and contributing exhibition catalogue essays.
Proof of Town’s status as an established member of Toronto’s cultural elite was his membership in the exclusive (and oddly spelled) Sordsmen’s Club. Defined in its charter as “devoted exclusively to the pursuit of pleasure, superb food, fine wine, exceptional women, and conversational excellence,” the club was limited to fifteen permanent members, including author and broadcaster Pierre Berton, publisher Jack McClelland, architect John C. Parkin, Alan Jarvis (then editor of Canadian Art magazine and national director of the Canadian Conference of the Arts), and CBC TV producer Ross McLean.
The painter wrote book reviews for the Globe and Mail, and contributed a regular cultural column to Toronto Life magazine during 1966–71. He became engaged in the conflicts that attended the rapid pace of urban development. Town supported Mayor Phil Givens, who led the public fundraising campaign to purchase the sculpture by Henry Moore (1898–1986) now in front of Toronto City Hall and acquired contemporary Toronto canvases for the building’s interior (a large Town was hung behind Givens’s desk). Town protested against the inroads of the automobile and the destruction of Toronto’s historic buildings; he contributed posters for the 1969 campaign opposing the Spadina Expressway and for reformer David Crombie’s 1972 mayoral campaign and bid to save Toronto’s neighbourhoods. With his sharp wit, conversational skills, and wide reading, Harold Town defended abstract art in the face of Canada’s conservatism, injecting glamour and élan into Toronto’s cultural scene.
This Essay is excerpted from Harold Town: Life & Work by Gerta Moray.