Arthur Lismer, as with the rest of the Group of Seven, is most associated with their work in Ontario, particularly the Georgian Bay area, although of course he also painted in many other locations — Nova Scotia, PEI, Cape Breton, and, unbeknownst or ignored by many, … Long Beach. Visits to the west coast were much-cherished breaks with a landscape so different from those of central and eastern Canada.
I’m always expecting Emily Carr to appear from behind a tree.
– Arthur Lismer in “A Sheaf of Summer Sketches,” Canadian Art Magazine, 1956
At Long Beach, Arthur and Esther Lismer were summer guests of Joe and Nellie Webb, owners of the Wickaninnish Lodge (precursor to the original Wickaninnish Inn). The Lismers discovered the west coast late in their lives, but visited for 17 summers. Their first summer at Long Beach was in 1951, when Arthur was 65. Of his time on the west coast, art historian Dennis Reid wrote that Lismer’s “timely personal discovery of the rain forests of the Pacific coast presented…a landscape as generous as his own spirit.”
The Lismers spent up to six weeks every summer at Long Beach, renting the same cabin from the Webbs each year. Lismer’s paintings from the time often capture smaller scenes—a twisted root, a boulder at the forest’s edge, a single sea star—rather—than sweeping, panoramic landscapes. Beach Texture II, for instance, examines the myriad shapes and textures of a cluster of beach debris in a tidal pool—shells, driftwood, and other flotsam.
He was also drawn to one of the rainforest’s more flamboyant plants: the skunk cabbage, with its enormous leaves, brilliant yellow spathe and phallic efflorescence. “He was attracted in his drawings by way their large fleshy leaves flop in every conceivable position, and in his oil sketching by the fantastic colours they assume through the various stages of growth, decline, and decay,” wrote Reid in the book, Canadian Jungle: The Later Works of Arthur Lismer.
These weeks at Long Beach were a precious time for the Lismers and an important stage in his artistic career, even though it was late in his career. Reid writes on what an ideal retreat the coast provided, being “perfectly suited to the increasingly personal nature of his painting, which was dependent upon an intense and intimate familiarity with natural forms.” Indeed, many people remember Lismer at the beach, sitting for hours with his paint box or sketchpad, walking along the beach, always with his pipe.
Of course, Lismer wasn’t always working. In an article written in 1956, writer Robert Ayre describes how some days were passed: “Lismer swims and catches crabs, paints, and helps Joe cut trails through the jungles, choked with salal, ground sumac and skunk cabbage. You could get lost in the dense tropical growth of the cedar swamps, he says, if it wasn’t for the sea to guide you.”
Arthur and Esther Lismer spent 17 summers visiting Long Beach. Near the end of his life, it was the couple’s choice for their one and only annual retreat. Their last visit was in the summer of 1968; Lismer died the next year. For many locals the cove near his cabin will always be Lismer Beach.
If you are interested in learning more about Lismer and seeing some of the images from his time at Long Beach, you might try to find the out-of-print books, Canadian Jungle: The Later Works of Arthur Lismer by Dennis Reid or A Border of Beauty: Arthur Lismer’s Pen and Pencil by Marjorie Lismer Bridges.