Before coming to Canada, Barker Fairley (1887-1986) won a county scholarship to Leeds University where he read Modern Languages. He graduated with First Class Honors in French and German. He took a further three years of study in Jena, Germany.
He came to Canada and taught German literature at the University of Alberta. In 1915 he accepted the post of professor of German at the University of Toronto. In the years that followed his mastery of German was to earn him an international reputation as a scholar, and acknowledged authority on Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Germany’s most famous poet, dramatist, novelist, and leading figure in the Romantic movement. He became a member of the Arts & Letters Club of Toronto and a good friend of J.E.H. Macdonald.
At the Club he met all the members of the Group of Seven. He became a collector of art and acquired fourteen paintings by the Group. He travelled with them on their painting expeditions and became a champion for their cause and their work. In 1920 he founded The Canadian Forum. With his first wife Margaret, he used the publication to defend the Group’s work which was under fierce attack by the critics of the day.
The Forum provided extensive commentary on varied cultural issues. It wasn’t until Fairley was 45 that he began to paint. His friend Robert Finch, poet and painter, and colleague in the University of Toronto French Department, invited him to go sketching one morning in 1932. Fairley reluctantly went along but soon realized how much he enjoyed painting.
He became an enthusiastic painter formulating his own personal approach to his subjects. He spent four years in the 1930’s as Head of the German Department at the University of Manchester where he also painted works in oils which recorded the grim social conditions in that English industrial city.