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Harold Town

by Iris Nowell

Harold Barling Town, Canada’s “enfant terrible” over the course of an artistic career that spanned the 1950s to the ’80s, was a celebrity in his day. A compulsively prolific artist with a theatrical, over-the-top personality, Town was known as a master printmaker, but would go on to produce more than 9,000 paintings, collages, assemblages, sculptures, and murals in a huge variety of styles. Toronto author Iris Nowell – whose previous work includes the 1992 memoir Hot Breakfast with Sparrows, about her personal life with Town – takes the reader on a fascinating, whirlwind tour of the artist’s oeuvre via an examination of Toronto’s shifting cultural landscape.

harold townBorn in 1924, Town started drawing at age three, channeling his nervous energy into art. He hungered for inspiration, bolstering his studies at Toronto’s Ontario College of Art with visits to the Royal Ontario Museum and Buffalo’s Albright-Knox gallery, which exposed him to key influences, including painter Willem de Kooning.

An abstract expressionist long before the style was accepted in Toronto’s conservative art circles, Town co-founded the Painters Eleven in 1953, after which collectors warmed to his work. From the mid-1950s onward, his exhibitions would regularly sell out, earning him a very decent living over his career. By the time of his long-awaited retrospective at the Art Gallery of Ontario in 1986, Town was ill with cancer, from which he would die in 1990.

Nowell spends considerable time detailing Town’s artistic process, which, alongside quality reproductions and perspectives from art critics of the day, conveys a strong sense of his work. She explores Town’s extraordinarily varied series paintings, including Smokes, made with candle smoke on board; Enigmas, highly detailed caricatures in white ink on coloured paper; Silent Lights, a series of op art–influenced paintings inspired by broken Christmas ornaments; and the Snap paintings, made with paint-covered strings pulled taut then snapped against the canvas.

Nowell’s book, though comprehensive, leaves unanswered a key question: why would such a legend in his time be so little known today?