Kathleen ‘Kay’ Moir Morris
Among a group of men and women artists known as the Beaver Hall Group was Kathleen “Kay” Moir Morris. A gentle soul, she was born in Montreal in 1893 with cerebral palsy. Yet, in spite of this, Kathleen maintained a decided sense of humour and self-confidence. She chose joy. She chose self-actualization in the face of the significant odds against her. While she suffered, she nonetheless, with the great support of her mother, painted, thereby achieving her grand passion. She would, in the company of her mother, spend six weeks sketching in places such as the Laurentians and Berthierville, approximately 80 kms east of Montreal on the north shore of the St Lawrence River, home to approximately 4,000 people today.
One aspect of her work impresses upon us the absolute centrality of the horse in Canadian life and the Canadian landscape, especially in the urban, town or village, setting. It is as though her paintings are portraits of Canadian history. Consider, for example, her Sunday Church Service, Berthierville, Quebec (1924). Her portrayal of horses waiting for their families while inside the Church for Sunday service captures a moment that must have been a commonplace at the time. One man in the portrait appears to attend to his horse, or had he volunteered to look after all of them? The scene is otherwise devoid of anyone. It is a portrait of draped horses waiting patiently in front of the the grey stone walls of the Church in an otherwise empty village scene. Kathleen once wrote to a friend: “I once saw all those horses in front of the nice old church. Sometimes there were as many as three hundred all with different coloured blankets.”
While from our perspective her paintings are decided reminders of a former way of life, even at the time Kathleen had an acute sense of the social and technological change that transpired around her. She once commented to a friend:
“You know my picture of the old cab stand with the horses and sleighs and the old stone wall. The wall is gone. The horses are gone. Do you know what’s there now? A gasoline station.”
The Beaver Hall Group
Kathleen Morris belonged to a group centred on 305 Beaver Hall Hill, a house shared by French and English speaking Montreal artists who shared a modernist approach, but who were each a little at loose ends, having individually received rejection by the Art Gallery. The street itself is steeped in history as the road that led to the country seat, Beaver Hall, of Joseph Frobisher.
The house offered them a place of freedom and comfort, no doubt. They came together in the shared space, a house which became an artistic home for some of the most important artists in Canadian art history, artists such as Lilias Torrance Newton and Anne Savage. The time at the house was brief, however, as the group disbanded after only two years because of financial difficulties. Many of the friendships that were formed there, however, lasted for lifetimes.
In many ways the Beaver Hall Group worked in parallel with the better known Group of Seven, based in Toronto. The two groups shared some similarities, but there were also important differences. Chief among the differences would be the inclusion, even prominence, of women in the Beaver Hall Group. Moreover, there were, broadly speaking, also differences in subject matter in that while the Group of Seven has conveyed to us an imagination of the Canadian wilderness landscape, we find bequeathed to us from the Beaver Hall Group an imagination of early Canadian urban life.
AY Jackson, a member of the Group of Seven, the first president of the Beaver Hall Group, was a link between the two groups of artists. He, for example, arranged for works of the Beaver Hall Group to, on occasion, go on display with those of the Group of Seven. When Jackson described the Beaver Hall Group he did so thus: “’Schools’ and ‘isms’ do not trouble us; individual expression is our chief concern.” Yet, there seems at least some doubt on how well informed members of the Beaver Hall Group were of the activities of the Group of Seven. They seem to have developed essentially in parallel, with occasional sideways glances.
Recognition of the importance of the contribution made by this group of male and female artists is alive today, in contrast to their early reception. They were more enthusiastically received, for example, in the 1924 Wembley show in England than they were in their Canadian homeland. There is, for example, an exhibition planned of some of the female members of the group for next year at the McMichael Gallery in Kleinburg, Ontario, a primary home of works of the Group of Seven. The exhibition focuses on the women members of the Beaver Hall group and is entitled Uninvited: Canadian Women Artists in the Modern Moment (26 June 2021 – 8 January 2022). Here, works of the Beaver Hall Group will be exhibited alongside those of the Group of Seven.
Red Scarf Equestrian would like to sincerely thank Galerie Valentin, Montreal, for its kind assistance and permission to herein include a representation of Sunday Church Service, Berthierville, Quebec (1924).
Photo of Kathleen Moir Morris taken by Melvin Ormond Hammond, 1930.
Galerie Jean-Pierre Valentin
Evelyn Walters, The Women of Beaver Hall: Canadian Modernist Painters (Toronto: Dundurn Press, 2005).
Evelyn Walters, The Beaver Hall Group and Its Legacy (Toronto: Dundurn Press, 2017).