Article from Arabella Magazine’s Spring 2015 Edition. “Spring Awakenings”
Written by Lorie Lee Steiner. All courtesy of Arabella Magazine
Anthony J Batten was born in the UK in 1940 and began making great strides at an early age. Through the years, his outstanding creative talents, endearing sense of humour and generous nature have afforded him success in all walks of life – in particular, a serendipitous ongoing adventure with a rather magnificent “Royal entourage,” and a painting career launched in Spain on a credit card. His latest claim to fame being named a People’s Choice Award Winner in the ARABELLA Canadian Landscape Contest for his impressive Toronto-based work ”The Trillium at the Foot of Yonge Street.”
Recognition of his gifts came initially in school when young Tony qualified to attend the famed Christ’s Hospital School in Sussex, England. In the mid-1950s, good fortune followed him to Quebec, Canada, where he moved with his parents and brother and resumed his education in fine form.
“I actually took some classes with Arthur Lismer, of Group of Seven fame, at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts School,” says Tony. “My post-secondary education included degree programs at Sir George Williams University [now Concordia]. L’école des Beaux Arts and the University of Toronto. Political and social history, art and architectural history and literature all interested me, as did architecture. But that was doomed by poor marks in calculus and trigonometry. At the time, inherent design skills were not considered in a potential architecture student’s portfolio.”
Money however was an important factor. The economic reality was that Tony had to work to pay for school. He had a variety of day jobs – insurance, banking and then chemical engineering with C-I-L’s plastics division. University was done at night, three evenings a week. On the social scene, Montreal had much to offer this ambitious artist. Tony became a member of the Junior Associates of the Montreal Museum, [J.A.M.M.] making some great friends from diverse backgrounds. Involvement in a serious amount of volunteer activities started then, and has continued for much of his life.
At a time when the idea of restoring “Old Montreal” was first gaining steam, certain influential people at C-I-L discovered that Tony was drawing in the old area of the city on weekends. “They commissioned me to research and prepare a ‘Tourist’s Walking Map of Old Montreal’ he recalls. “there was nothing like that available and the resulting map was distributed in both official languages, right through Expo ’67.” Tony was also involved in design work at the restoration of the “DelVecchio House Museum” in the core of the old city.
In his late twenties Tony moved to Toronto, where he attended U of T and became an educator.. “for a few years.” That was the plan. In actuality, it was nigh on three decades. “For some years I taught evening classes at the CBC’s Institute of Scenography at their old Queen Street East studios,,” Tony relates. Students were CBC employees seeking accreditation. “The experience taught me to think on my feet and develop a sense of humour. I also designed sets for fledgling theatre companies. Marlene Smith [producer of the historic 1980’s run of “Cats”] recalled our early connection and years later invited me to stage a major solo show at the Elgin Theatre, during the long run of that hit musical.”
Never one to rest on his laurels, Tony taught watercolour painting at the Royal Ontario Museum, was a demonstrating artist in historical studies at U of T and became Head of Arts at Sir Oliver Mowat Collegiate Institute. But the three years spent as resident artist, instructor and lecturer for the Canadian School at Cambridge University in the UK was a highlight of his career.
Finally in the 1990s, Tony left education to paint full time.
ROYALTY UNDER THE BED!
Tony’s “big break” came in 1980 when he had two watercolours accepted into the annual juried show of the historic “Canadian Society of Painters in Water Colour” [CSPWC] and won a major award. Until then, he had never heard of the Society. Tony was welcomed into the group, ultimately serving on the executive for thirty years, with two years as President. “Unbeknownst to me,” Tony jokes, ”I was becoming ’an old fart and bona fide member of the art establishment’ that is what someone once told me.”
In the mid-1980s, the CSPWC celebrated its 60th anniversary. To mark the Diamond Jubilee it was suggested that a body of juried paintings be compiled and placed in a significant national institution. A competition was arranged and the requisite sixty works, each by a different CSPWC member, were selected. “Happily I made it through the rather daunting process and, like the others, awaited word as to where our work would be housed. “It was not to be that easy,” says Tony.
Politics among the country’s major galleries and founding art societies had turned once warm relationships into cold shoulders. The galleries all said “no” to the society, unless their own curators did the selection process AND each work had to come with a cash endowment. At that point, Tony was quietly asked by the Society’s then President to explore alternative solutions –after all, having to return the selected works to the artists because they had not found a suitable Canadian repository would be a total institutional embarrassment. “I contacted all of the former “contacts’ once more” says Tony, “but it was the same dispiriting round.. Meanwhile, the sixty juried works were wrapped carefully in garbage bags and deposited at my apartment … under my bed.”
Fate intervened on a plane to Fiji, while Tony was reading an art history book about the British monarchy and their collecting habits. “I was in the final chapters, on the House of Windsor, when an idea took hold. India, Australia and New Zealand were all noted for their significant gifts to the Royal Collection but there were precious few mentions of the ‘senior Dominion’ of Canada. Just a few individual Canadian pieces that had been purchased or gifted over the years.”
With nothing to lose, Tony wrote a letter to the book’s author [who was also the ‘Keeper of the Queens’ Pictures” and the “Royal Librarian”] inquiring if the Royal Collection would be interested in a ready-made collection of sixty contemporary watercolours by some of Canada’s most distinguished living artists? The letter was mailed from Fiji.
“I returned home to a completely unanticipated response stating that, if the paintings were to be offered to the Royal Collection, they would not only be kept in perpetuity within the Royal Library. with their famed DaVinci , Michelangelo and Raphaels – but that Her Majesty had consented to accepting the gift from Canada, thereby correcting an imbalance in their Commonwealth collections. I had sixty paintings belonging to the Royal Collection under my bed!”
Those initial sixty watercolours were received in London in 1986 and displayed in the Queen’s Gallery at Windsor Castle for fourteen months. Tony notes “with such enthusiasm on their part I was subsequently able to get a commitment from the Royal Collection to accept another forty works – bringing the Canadian Collection up to one hundred. Fifteen of those went over in 2001, each done by a living artist unrepresented in the original sixty works.. The presentation to Prince Charles, acting on behalf of the Queen, took place at Canada House and, amazingly, he invited the artists to join him at Highgrove House a few days later to see his watercolours. That spontaneous day with the Prince at his country home is, over a decade later, still a cherished memory.
The twenty five works yet to be added to the Windsor Castle collections will be juried and exhibited in 2025 to celebrate the CSPWC’s centennial. Says Tony, “after happily having the project left in my hands all these years I hope to be involved in that grand finale – even if I am in a walking frame.”
DON’T LEAVE HOME WITHOUT IT
Decades ago, Tony and two colleagues got together for lunch after a summer of busy university course work. Lamenting the fact they would soon be back in the classroom, they decided spur of the moment, to take off on a holiday to southern Spain. It was a glorious two week break and Tony volunteered to put all the common expenses on his ‘Amex’ card. “We opened the bill at work” he admits, ”shocked at the enormous amount. Seeing our reaction, one of the secretaries urged me to bring in my portfolio , certain the staff were wanting to acquire my work. Next morning, I did just that, and later the same day I learned that my part of the bill was already covered. Since then, I always credit ‘Amex” with my launch as a successful artist!’
Today Tony belongs to a painting quartet called “The Pords” – a group of former art educators who began painting and sketching together at places such as the annual Scarborough Art Camp, near Bancroft, Ontario. That evolved into major painting trips across North America and abroad. “The ‘gang’ has been crucial in developing a working relationship with the craft that we share” says Tony. “The team effort that supports our exhibition endeavours gives each of us the confidence to put ourselves out there into a world that is not particularly receptive to any art field, and certainly not one as traditional as my own”.
ALL THE WORLD’S A STAGE
Tony’s father taught him the rules of perspective at an early age and the confidence that that particular skill gave him in his youth carried him for years. He is blown away by the painting ability of Corot, Shishkin and Canada’s Franklin Arbuckle, as well as the work of John Singer Sargent, David Roberts and J.W.M. Turner, all of whom travelled widely and reacted on canvas and paper to what they saw.
Tony’s studio is a surprisingly compact, office-like work space – a painting centre – and a lot of the work is actually done elsewhere in his apartment. “I live in a bit of a stage set” he says, ”where the art that creates much of the ambiance was done by artists I have encountered over the decades. Depending on the size of the canvases, I often paint in my small galley kitchen, where I have a sink, coffee maker and good overhead light. I make a terrible mess around me while creating. That can only be tolerated for so long, then a major clean up becomes necessary and cathartic.”
Describing his own work as “unabashedly traditional” viewers recognize it has a patina or mood different from that of other artists. Someone once observed that his paintings look as if they have been created by “an old soul”. Tony took that as a tremendous compliment. “I do a lot of washes and textural effects that create an illusion of a great amount of detail,” he explains, “but get close and my work is rather sketchy. I often joke that my slowly failing eyesight has done a lot for the development of my sketch-like style. That is how I see the world most days!”
He also plays with lighting. For example, if a scene showing the south side of a street would look more dramatic to have a it lit by a source from then north, he will consider that. “I try to come up with a new approach to familiar structures or urban scenes. I am after a good image, not necessarily reality. I have worked in in pencil and graphite, ink and ink washes, watercolour and oil. I think it is really healthy to be most enthralled with what you are presently working on, at the moment that is discovering the potential of acrylics.
When drawn to a subject, Tony makes a number of sketches and takes random photos, as source materials. “I try to include figures for a sense of scale, and local ‘streetscape furniture’ such as lamp posts, benches, bollards that are typical of the area. I always do a rough painted sketch before attempting a big canvas. Here, I try to work out the lighting plan for the finished work. I am never limited by reality, at this stage, and have found that inventive lighting has brought my better images to life. These sketches are later sold and have proved popular.”
On a large canvas, Tony first blocks in the major shapes and planes of space, then observes from a distance to be sure there is an emerging centre of interest and a good balance. “Colour massing comes next. I like to look at the work in a mirror to check that verticals are vertical and that the composition works. From there, it is usually a slow slog to get to the finished work. Layering washes of colour to give a patina of age to buildings and surfaces, Softening hard edges to create the ‘haze’ of depth.” Amazed at how often faults are found when he comes back to a painting with a fresh eye he prefers to put the work away for a while before it “goes out”.
TALES OF A TRAVELLING ARTIST
A past CSPWC President once introduced Anthony J Batten as “one of the few modern interpreters of the 18th and 19th century tradition of the travelling artist.” Certainly, the results of those paintings excursions shine through in Tony’s captivating visual narratives. He especially likes surprises, such as suddenly encountering a great work of art where he never expected to see it. “That was so true of encountering Michelangelo’s Madonna of Bruges. I was in Bruges, but hadn’t thought about the sculpture being there, and then encountered it on a side altar in one of the main churches. A breathtaking experience, so much more moving because it was not in a museum of fine art but still in the place it had been acquired for!”
Spontaneous trips have energized some of Tony’s best work, impassioned by the built environment… old time worn structures with character. Favourite destinations include Newfoundland, New Zealand, Rome, Venice, Munich, Vienna and Boston. At home he is “very fond of the Club” -Toronto’s historic Arts & Letters Club.
Tony is just starting a project, involving Canada’s sesquicentennial, that will come to fruition in 2017-2018 and promises to be another career-defining move. In the evolutionary world of art, Anthony J. Batten is, indeed a royal-treasure.
The following are Tony’s paintings featured in the article by order of appearance.