- Still Life, 1972
- 11" x 15" watercolour
1928 - 2004
Price range: $700-$45000
A multi-awarded Canadian art legend and recipient of the Order of Canada, Toni Onley is best known for his watercolour landscapes of Canada’s West Coast. Born on the Isle of Man, he was influenced by traditional English landscape painters, particularly J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851) and Archibald Knox (1864-1933). He emigrated to Canada in 1948, studying first at the Doon School of Fine Art in Ontario.
After moving to British Columbia in 1955, Onley was awarded a scholarship to the Institute Allende in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. There he studied under James Pinto (1907-1987) whose abstract impressionistic paintings inspired him to experiment with non-objective painting and collage, and later to produce his major period of abstract painting during 1961-1965.
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In 1958, while Onley was still in Mexico, he had his first solo exhibition at the Vancouver Art Gallery, featuring his new abstract works. He returned to Canada permanently in 1960. In 1961 he completed a landmark 90-square-metre mural for the Queen Elizabeth Theatre in Vancouver, his largest abstract collage, which still hangs there today. In 1963 his large Polar #1 collage, part of his vortex series of 40 Polar collages, was selected by the director of London’s Tate Gallery for its permanent collection. In 1964 he won a Canada Council grant to spend a year in London, where he learned etching and aquatint, and printed the London Set of 13 etchings. He also created dozens of mixed-media abstract collages and paintings, including his Zone and Limit series, which were later exhibited in London at Canada House.
Onley’s abstract work of the 1960s is considered by fine art historian Roald Nasgaard to be part of the Vancouver-centered movement he terms lyrical abstraction (Nasgaard, Abstract Painting in Canada, 2007). The Vancouver Art Gallery owns examples of these works, including the 70”x91” Joie des Enfants (1961). The Audain Art Museum in Whistler has a 45”x55” collage, Juno (1962), in its permanent collection. This collage is included in Masterworks from the Audain Art Museum (2015) by Ian Thom, senior curator at the Vancouver Art Gallery, who considers it “a brilliant example of one of [Onley’s] minimal but elegant abstractions.” In the 2004 documentary, Landscape Revealed: The Art of Toni Onley, Thom describes Onley’s 1960s abstract collages as “amongst the most interesting work that was being produced in Canada. It was bought by the Tate Gallery, it was recognized as being very significant.”
After Onley came back to Vancouver from London in 1965, he gradually returned to landscape painting. By the early 1970s, it became his sole obsession. This new work ––produced as watercolours, oils, lithographs, and etchings –– was highly abstract at first, but as his landscapes evolved over the years, they were to become increasingly figurative while simultaneously retaining impressionistic and abstract qualities. In 1978, the Vancouver Art Gallery held a huge retrospective of his work, comprising both his purely abstract works of the 1960s and his new evolving landscape works. By 1981, with the publication of Toni Onley: A Silent Thunder, Onley’s landscapes had gained him a new reputation as one of Canada’s leading landscape artists –– the reputation by which he is best known today. In the early 1980s, the Heffel Gallery in Vancouver, Onley’s main gallery at the time, encouraged him to produce landscapes on the same scale as his largest 1960s collages. The result was a series of as many as 147 large oil-on-canvas landscapes painted in the 1980s and 1990s, the largest of which, In the Eastern Lead, Baffin Bay (1987), measures 66”x96”. In the Eastern Lead is now in the permanent collection of the Kamloops Art Gallery, while a reproduction of it forms the cover of Onley’s autobiography, Flying Colours (2002).
Many viewed Onley’s return to landscape as a departure from the abstract collages that had first gained him international recognition, but Onley saw things differently: “The attitude that goes into my collages goes into my landscapes: it’s the same, I don’t see any big difference, except that, with one I’m dealing with a subject matter, with the other I’m dealing with pure abstract form.”
In the early 1990s, Onley returned to pure abstract form, producing small paper collages in parallel with his watercolour landscape work. By the time of his death in 2004, he had created hundreds of new paper collages, most notably the small notebook-sized Offering series and his wildly colourful 22”x30” magazine collages. Ian Thom believes that “some of [Onley’s] finest late works are small paper collages that recall his experiences in Mexico.”
Onley’s consistent use of a degree of abstraction in his landscapes gives them a timeless quality –– one of the defining features of his art. Onley once explained how “It’s the timeless things that I’m looking for, it’s the things that don’t date. The things that are there now and have always been there –– this is what feeds my art.” (Landscape Revealed, 2004).
From 1974 to 1986, Onley travelled three times to the Arctic. In 1989 he published Onley’s Arctic: Diaries and Paintings of the High Arctic, which has over a hundred of his watercolours, oils, silkscreen prints, lithographs, and drawings reproduced in colour. Onley often kept a diary of his travels, which he usually illustrated with watercolour sketches. The diaries of his visits to Japan, China, and Venice are now part of the University of British Columbia’s Special Collections.
Onley loved to fly, and flying was an integral part of his professional life as a painter: it was how he reached the remote BC landscapes that he loved to paint. He also travelled widely by conventional means, painting in such diverse places as Japan, China, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, India, New Zealand, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Egypt, Greece, Italy, Spain, Switzerland, the British Isles, Brazil, Mexico, the Caribbean, and the USA. Although his BC watercolours are his most sought-after work, he was really a world landscape painter. The last exhibition planned before his death, of his recently-completed Arabian landscapes, was in Dubai.
Onley’s life ended tragically when a sudden heart attack caused him to crash his Lake Buccaneer amphibious airplane into the Fraser River near Maple Ridge. A year before his death Onley wrote, “Alongside of my abstract work in collage, I continue to paint watercolors out of doors and oil landscapes in my studio. I have painted landscape since I was a teenager on the Isle of Man, and always will. All my ideas come from landscape.”
HONOURS & AWARDS:
1964: Elected a Fellow of the Royal Canadian Academy of the Arts
1977: Awarded the Queen’s Silver Jubilee Medal
1999: Appointed an Officer of the Order of Canada
2000: Awarded a D.Litt. by Okanagan University College, Kelowna, BC
2002: Awarded the Queen’s Golden Jubilee Medal
2002: The Isle of Man Post Office issued a set of stamps of Onley’s Manx watercolours
2007: Island Mountain Arts in Wells, BC, renames its summer art school (the Wells
Artists’ Project) the Toni Onley Artists’ Project in memory of him
Agnes Etherington Art Center, Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario
Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, BC
Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto
Audain Art Museum, Whistler, BC
Confederation Centre, Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island
Dalhousie University, Halifax, Nova Scotia
Library of Congress, Washington, DC
London Museum, Ontario
McMichael Conservation Gallery, Kleinberg, Ontario
Memorial University, St. John’s, Newfoundland
Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Quebec
Montreal Museum of Contemporary Art, Quebec
Museum of Modern Art, New York City
National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa
Seattle Museum of Fine Arts, Washington
Simon Fraser University, Burnaby, BC
Sir George Williams University, Montreal
Tate Gallery, London, UK
University of British Columbia, Vancouver, BC
Vancouver Art Gallery, BC
Victoria & Albert Museum, London, UK
Willistead Gallery, Windsor, Ontario
Winnipeg Art Gallery, Manitoba
York University, Toronto
And many private and business collections across Canada
Toni Onley: A Silent Thunder, by Roger Boulet (Prentice-Hall, 1981)
The Walls of India, with George Woodcock (Lester & Orpen Dennys, 1985)
Voyage en Arctique: Toni Onley, Claude Péloquin (Éditions Depratto Onley Parisien Péloquin, 1987)
Onley’s Arctic: Dairies and Paintings of the High Arctic (Douglas McIntyre, 1989)
Toni Onley’s British Columbia: A Tribute (Raincoast Books, 1999)
Flying Colours, the Toni Onley Story, with Gregory Strong (Harbour Publishing, 2002)
Watercolors by Robert Murray and Toni Onley, November 21 - December 31, 1976 (Olympia Galleries, Philadelphia, 1976)
Toni Onley: A Retrospective Exhibition, with Ted Lindberg (Vancouver Art Gallery, 1978)
Toni Onley: Major Works from the Sixties (Heffel Gallery, 1981)
Onley’s True North (Kamloops Art Gallery, 2004)
Landscape Revealed: The Art of Toni Onley, by Mehdi Ali (Fountain Productions, 2004)
This award winning film can be viewed on www.tonionley.com
Toni Onley Solo Exhibition e-Catalog 2020
February 1 - March 4, 2020
Opening Reception: Saturday, February 1; 2-5 PM
This exhibition will span and exhibit works over the extensive and prolific career of Toni Onley. Almost a retrospective, this collection of works shown will range from the early 60s to the early 2000s.