Long­­lost paintings of Haliburton landscapes find a home

By Angela Long

Sept. 6 2016

The National Gallery of Canada Library and Archives website doesn’t say much: William John Hopkinson born in London England 1887 immigrated to Canada 1912 died in Aurora Ontario 1970. Painter.

Former journalist and art collector Mark Skeffington hopes to change all that. The art of W.J. Hopkinson has become his “pet project” Skeffington says in a phone interview from Brantford. Last month he launched a website dedicated to the painter “to ensure his beautiful art isn’t forgotten.”

A contemporary of several of the members of the Group of Seven Hopkinson painted the landscapes of Ontario en plein air toting Masonite boards and oil paints across the countryside especially the countryside of Haliburton County.

Skeffington discovered Hopkinson’s art three years ago. He says he was “struck by the quality of the work” by the bold palette-knife strokes and thick layers of colour depicting the ruggedness of “the classic Canadian landscape.” A blog post attracted the attention of Hopkinson’s grandson Dave Forsythe who had inherited the family collection from his mother and uncle. More than 50 paintings unframed were stored in the basement unseen for decades. Skeffington got out his chequebook.

Skeffington discovered more about Hopkinson through his grandson’s stories family scrapbooks and newspaper clippings learning how the Haliburton area was the artist’s favourite place to paint especially Eagle Lake. He learned the painter was “just an average guy.” Without a patron or the backing of a gallery a luxury enjoyed by other better-known painters of his time Hopkinson worked full time to support his family. Not until his retirement in the late ‘50s did the artist dedicate his life to painting traipsing through the bush in his 70s until his death at 83.

Hopkinson sold at art fairs to local doctors. He founded the Newmarket Art Club. He taught at the St.Croix School of Art in New Brunswick. His work was exhibited with the Royal Canadian Academy and the Ontario Society of Artists and once appeared at the Art Gallery of Toronto.

But according to a 2011 column of This Old Thing by antiques and fine art appraiser John D. Sewell “Hopkinson’s paintings have seldom fetched more than a $1000.” However Sewell also says “Now that the Tom Thomsons and the A.Y. Jacksons are priced out of reach for most of us Hopkinson’s work offers an opportunity to budding art collectors.”

Skeffington couldn’t agree more. The month-old W.J. Hopkinson website is already attracting attention. A woman from England sent Skeffington an email: “Do you know anything about Grass Lake?” While waiting for a stoplight in a small English village a painting in the window of a thrift store caught her eye. She purchased “Grass Lake” for five British pounds just under $10. The photo she sent Skeffington looked familiar. He found out why just a couple of weeks ago when he and his wife rented a cottage in Haliburton County a place they hadn’t visited for 10 years. While kayaking in the vicinity of the cottage the couple emerged onto a lake. Skeffington recognized the curve of hill the rise of forest.

“A coincidence?” he asks.

If you own a Hopkinson painting Skeffington would love to include a photo of the work on the W.J. Hopkinson website as part of “an online record of his hundreds of paintings.” Hopkinson in the Haliburton Highlands stories are also very welcome. Please email wjhopkinson@bell.net. Check out the website at wjhopkinson.ca.