We Go Back A Long Way!
Our Proud History
On a blustery March night in 1908, a group of writers, musicians, architects, academics and supporters of the arts, encouraged by Augustus Bridle, a journalist covering the arts beat, met to found an organization committed to championing of the arts in English-speaking Canada: The Arts & Letters Club of Toronto.
Celebrating both the creative and performing arts — and equally devoted to spirited, sometimes biased and often hilarious argument — the Arts & Letters Club quickly became a forcing-ground for ideas in all artistic disciplines. Into the Club’s embrace came people who would become prime movers in creating the artistic culture we enjoy today: great names such as Robertson Davies, Vincent Massey, Marshall McLuhan, Eden Smith, Wyly Grier, Ernest MacMillan, Mavor Moore and many, many more. Their contributions to the arts in Canada are legendary.
The avowed purpose of the club was to be a rendezvous for people of diverse interests to meet for mutual fellowship and artistic creativity. It was to become a “comradely haven for kindred souls.”
By the fall of 1909 permanent quarters were located at 36 1/2 King Street East, above the Brown Betty restaurant. One year and an eviction notice later, the Club moved to the second floor of 57 Adelaide Street East, the Court House of the County of York. Ten years and another eviction notice later, the Club rented, and extensively renovated, our present quarters at 14 Elm Street.
It became primarily a luncheon club. Sir Edmund Walker, before being knighted for his many contributions to Toronto’s cultural life, entered in his journal for Dec. 16, 1913: “Lunch, Arts & Letters Club, to meet Sir Wilfrid Laurier. First time I have met him since I opposed him in the Reciprocity Fight.”
Vincent Massey, later to become Canada’s first native-born Governor-General, took advantage of his two years as Club President (1920-1922) by defying the frowns against publicity. In his 1963 memoir, What’s Past is Prologue, he wrote:
“I spent many happy and refreshing hours at the Arts & Letters Club in Toronto. It had, and still has vitality and personality … The presiding genius of the Club for many years was Augustus Bridle, who fully embodied its spirit. One of his greatest contributions was to lose its constitution so that we were not duly concerned with machinery. The constitution did survive in musical form, having been set to plainsong by Healey Willan.”
Massey was at the helm in 1920 when the Club finally obtained permanent and conventional quarters by renting St. George’s Hall on Toronto’s Elm Street. Unbelievably, the Club was still renting the premises from the St. George’s Society 66 years later when, in 1986, the Society finally agreed to sell.
The Club’s Constitution requires that over 50 percent of members be professionals in the arts. Over the years these have included many prominent practitioners in the fields represented by the acronym LAMPS: Literature, Architecture, Music, Painting (including sculpture and photography), and Stage. Perhaps none has brought more prominence to the Club than the Group of Seven, the pioneering landscape painters who convinced art lovers that Canadian art did not have to copy the dark traditions of Europe but could celebrate our bright and vigorous Canadian vistas. All seven were members of the Club and, according to the late A.J. Casson, who liked to call himself “number eight of the Group of Seven,” they all would meet “just about every day, for company and a good meal.” On November 11, 1925, Casson and a group of dedicated fellow watercolorists founded the Canadian Society of Painters in Water Colour in the Club’s library.
Until 1985, the Club restricted its membership to men. The breakthrough to admitting women “to all forms of membership” took place at a landmark meeting on February 19, 1985. More than a hundred voting members turned up, a few with vociferous arguments against the motion. Bill Duthie held that there was “little doubt that women’s superior acumen and intuition would, in the end, take over the club, leaving the male members with no opportunities to develop their limited skills.” In favour of the motion was historian Jack Granatstein, who commented that “we should live up to the spirit of the Charter of Rights and it would be splendid if this could be done by the time that the Charter’s equality provisions come into force”. After a lengthy, and generally evenhanded discussion the motion was passed with a 64 to 38 vote.
With about 500 Members of both sexes, today the Club is full of activity. In 2008, the Club celebrated its centenary, gathering together the long list of names and accomplishments that have confirmed the vision of our founders in a lively book, The Great Adventure: 100 Years at the Arts & Letters Club, by Past-President Margaret McBurney, and released that year. Club newsletters, from 1908 to the 2009, are now available for research. These newsletters represent a rich source of information on key figures and events in Canadian cultural history.
Images on this page are cartoons created by Arthur Lismer over lunch at the Club. The full set of these may be seen in the Club’s Lismer Collection.