Our Current Inventory

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.

Viewing his work in 1978 Gary Michael Dault noted, “Now he is a painter whose work is more lean, more spare, more deftly economical and frequently more inventive than anything the Group devised.” Dault then quoted Fairley as follows, “‘I can’t go any further in simplification than I have done with these new pictures.'” Continuing, Dault noted, “There are, in fact, viewers who will find them empty and devoid of pictorial incident. But look again at their sensuous completeness. Look at the remarkable picture called Black Trees where, against a light green sky, Fairley has daubed five or six twists of black oil paint that turn into wonderfully distant and stalwart trees .

In the painting called Presqu’ile Point, a mopped rectangle of wet, blue paint turns into a lively crystalline sky and below it, a horizontal wiping of another rectangle of wet blue paint softens into a still reach of water. They’re all like this. Painting after painting. Each of them a moment in the life of the natural world, centred on canvas and held there by the force of Barker Fairley’s extraordinary will.

Fairley’s paintings have always been a delight.” He would finish a picture in a day and took only one two-hour sitting for a portrait. He would search for an aspect of the subject rather than a photographic likeness. His portraits include those of: Margaret Fairley; Peggy Clark; A.Y. Jackson; Earle Birney; Douglas Dryer; Margaret Du Bois; Hugh McDiarmid; Northrop Frye; Johan Aitken; Nan Purdie; Raynald Desmeules; John Pocock; Philippa Simpson; Eric Arthur; Angela Fellowes, Emil Gartner, Robertson Davies, Donald Creighton, Walter Bauer and many others.

In Fairley’s painting there is an affinity with the work of the prominent American painter Milton Avery (1885-1965) who drew his inspiration from the contours and flat forms of Matisse.


Fairley exhibited in shows and solos at the following: Picture Loan Society, Toronto; Robertson Gallery, Ottawa; Jacox Gallery, Edmonton; Upstairs Gallery, Toronto; North York Public Library; Galerie Wolfgang Gurlitt, Munich, Germany; Central Public Library, Toronto; Hart House, University of Toronto; Masters Gallery, Toronto; Gallery House Sol, Georgetown, Ontario; St. Lawrence Centre, Toronto; Lyceum Club, Women’s Art Assoc., Toronto (1972); Rebecca Sisler Gallery, Toronto (1975); Marianne Friedland Gallery, Toronto (1977) (1978) (1981) (1983) (critical selection, 1993).

He is represented in the following collections: Hart House, University of Toronto; CC Art Bank, Ottawa; AGO, Toronto; Nan (Purdie) Fairley; Edward Johnson Bldg., University of Toronto and many private collections.

Publications & Awards

He is the author of the following and other books:   Poems of 1922 (1922); A Study of Goethe (1947); Georgian Bay Sketches (1957); Goethe’s Faust in English (1970).

His awards include: Fellow, Royal Society of Canadian Artists; RCA (1979); OC (1979); seven honorary doctorates from Canadian and English universities; a letter of commendation from Thomas Mann (German scholar and one of the greatest novelists of the 20th century) for his book, A Study of Goethe.


  • Georgian Bay Sketches by Barker Fairley, UTP, Toronto, 1957
  • A Painter’s Country by A.Y. Jackson, Clarke, Irwin, Toronto, 1958, P.76-7
  • The Hart House Collection of Canadian Paintings by Jeremy Adamson, UTP, 1969, P.90
  • AGO, the Canadian Collection by Helen Pepall Bradfield, McG.-Hill, Toronto, 1970, P.109
  • Barker Fairley Retrospective 1932-1972, by Johan Aitken, Lyceum Club,
  • Women’s Art Assoc., Toronto, May 21 – June 4, 1972
  • The Ottawa Citizen, Aug. 9, 1975 “Professor came late to painting”
  • The Ottawa Citizen, May 21, 1977 “Even at 90, Fairley can accept life as it happens” by Hazel Strouts
  • Toronto Star, Nov. 25, 1978 “Artist’s new works are most handsome” by Gary Michael Dault
  • Today, Nov. 29, 1980 “Portrait of the Artist as an Old Man” by Hubert de Santana
  • Barker Fairley’s Portraits by Paul Duval, Methuen, Toronto, 1980
  • Film by Terence McCartney-Filgate, CBC, telecast January, 1981
  • Toronto Star, Dec. 6, 1981 “Barker Fairley, golden oldie” by Lynda Hurst
  • Toronto Star, Apr. 24, 1983 “People – Barker at 96 ‘just loafing'” by Christopher Hume
  • Canadian Art, Fall, 1987 “Decking The Halls” by Martin Hunter​
  • CC Art Bank Catalogue 1972-92, CCAB, Ott., 1992, P.67