For years, the professional connection between Franz Johnston, a founding member of the Group of Seven; his daughter, the painter Frances-Anne Johnston; and her husband, painter and illustrator (and Maclean’s cover designer) Franklin Arbuckle, went unknown. Now, a new exhibit at the Ottawa Art Gallery (OAG) is bringing their work together for the first time. And there’s an entire gallery wall dedicated to Arbuckle’s most iconic Maclean’s covers.
A Family Palette opens at the OAG on September 10, and its goals are ambitious. Not only does it function as a feminist recovery project, highlighting the little-documented career of Frances-Anne, whose creative identity has often been overshadowed by that of her husband and father, but it also seeks to redefine the history of art in Canada. New to the conversation, which has long been dominated by themes of sprawling Canadian landscapes, is an illustration-specific narrative, advanced in large part thanks to the cover artwork Franklin Arbuckle did for Maclean’s over the span of two decades.
Ahead of the opening, we sat down with OAG curator Rebecca Basciano to talk about how the exhibit was born, what the research process was like and the important role Arbuckle’s Maclean’s covers played in shaping Canada’s national identity. This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
Give us a bit of backstory. How did this all begin?
In 2015, Brenda Firestone, the daughter of Ottawa art collectors O.J. and Isobel Firestone, shared a few works with me that her parents had always stored separately from their larger collection. They were by Frances-Anne, who I didn’t know much about at the time. After a bit of research, I realized her connection to Franz Johnston and Franklin Arbuckle and thought to myself, Oh, wow. Three artists from the same family doing completely different things. Very cool. That’s how it started, and I’ve been researching them ever since.
When did you discover the Maclean’s connection?
During the research process, one of our assistants, Meghan Ho, was looking through the Maclean’s online archive and found a cover Arbuckle did from September 1960 of a boat in water. She recognized it because we have the original in our collection, which until then had been misattributed. We didn’t know much about it, but when she linked the sketch and the final cover together, we gained all this information on the work that we never had before. And it just kept spiralling from there.
Franklin Arbuckle started doing commissions for Maclean’s at a pivotal time in Canadian history. Tell us about that.
Franklin Arbuckle did his first cover for the magazine in 1944. This was after the Second World War, and Canada was really trying to build up this idea of nationalism to separate themselves from the United States. Under the direction of the magazine’s editors at the time, Arbuckle’s task was to show Canadians what this national identity looked like through his covers. He did an amazing job of that. He set across the country and did covers of landscapes, people and iconic locations.
He even did the interior decoration of a Canadian Pacific Railway car, which is really neat because that’s how you got to all these places across the country that he’s depicting in his covers.
Franklin Arbuckle did over 100 covers for the magazine. How did you decide which would be featured in the exhibit?
That was hard. I just tried to find a variety, frankly. I also tried to add a little bit of Ottawa content because I was thinking about the audience and what they would like. Apart from that, I really wanted to show his skill. In one cover you can see people in a children’s hospital; another, which features their family cat Charcoal, is more abstract. And then there are some landscapes, too.
Tell us a bit more about how the theme of family plays out in the exhibit.
Arbuckle used his family as models for a lot of his works. For instance, his daughter Robin, who I interviewed and spoke to, was the subject of a few of his covers. In one, which we have the sketch for, she’s reading a book. We actually have the book she’s reading. Robin said it was still on the family bookshelf! It’ll be on display with the sketch and the final design. In another cover, she’s older and reading a magazine. So in some ways his covers show his family evolving over the years.
And actually his other daughter, Candace, remembers her mother, Frances-Anne, having to entertain messengers from Maclean’s who were waiting impatiently to dash to the printer with the very painting Franklin was still finishing upstairs. I thought that was a really great memory.
A Family Palette runs at the OAG until February 5, 2023, after which it will embark on a tour to the RiverBrink Art Museum in Niagara-on-the-Lake (April 21 to August 19, 2023) and then the Judith & Norman Alix Art Gallery in Sarnia (October 6, 2023, to March 17, 2024).