Chapter 3: Essay

Lorne Pierce and the Arts and Letters Club

Editor Lorne Pierce, described late in his career as “the grand old man of Canadian trade publishing,”1 influenced – and was influenced by – many members of the Arts and Letters Club of Toronto, an institution that has been promoting literature, architecture, music, painting, and sculpture for more than a century.

The Story of the Club, title page

The driving force behind the founding of the Arts and Letters Club was noted journalist Augustus Bridle, who is credited with having organized its initial meeting of some seventy individuals, mostly local Toronto merchants and professionals, and mostly men, held “on March 23, 1908, at the St. Charles Hotel on Yonge Street between King and Melinda.”2 In April 1908, Bridle wrote in Canadian Magazine of a second “gathering of gentlemen who met [at a gallery used by the Ontario Society of Artists] to weigh the advantages that might result from frequent association of ideas, motives, temperaments, and aspirations, all, of course, tracing their sources to at least one of the higher arts – painting, literature, architecture, sculpture, music.”3 Following a third meeting held in May 1908, the Arts and Letters Club was officially established in late October 1908.4

In 1920, soon after he joined Ryerson Press, Pierce was invited by Bridle to his first lunch at the Club. Also at the lunch table were Club members Lawren Harris, Group of Seven painter, and Vincent Massey, patron of the arts and future Governor General of Canada. Bridle knew of Pierce’s community work as a preacher in Brinston, Ontario and convinced Pierce of the cultural opportunities that lay before him in Toronto, especially as they pertained to publishing.5

The Flower in the Dusk, Ryerson Poetry Chap-Book no. 121

Pierce became a member of the Arts and Letters Club three years after he was introduced to what became his “favourite lunching and networking venue.”6 Indeed, the Club was a valuable resource. Over the span of his publishing career, Pierce availed himself of the services of more than 150 prominent members of the Club. It seems that whenever Pierce was in need of an author or editor, designer or illustrator, or someone to write either a foreword or preface to a new publication, he found the ideal person at the Club. In fact, hundreds of Ryerson Press titles were written, edited, designed, and reviewed by Club members.

Pens and Pirates, front cover

Journalists were asked to contribute manuscripts. History professors were contracted to contextualize events, past and present. Poets submitted their verse, playwrights their plays, and literary critics provided positive (as well as negative) analysis. Artists were commissioned to illustrate books about Canada’s history. The art of Group of Seven painters was featured on cover designs and endpapers.

Mother Marie of the Incarnation, drawing by C.W. Jefferys

One of the first people Pierce came into contact with at the Arts and Letters Club was artist Charles W. Jefferys. C.W. Jefferys was one of Canada’s most frequently reproduced illustrators, best known for his visual reconstructions of Canadian history. As biographer Sandra Campbell notes, between 1925 and 1931 Pierce “commissioned Jefferys to create over two hundred illustrations, maps, and charts for the Ryerson Canadian History Readers.”7 Pierce admired the painter’s capacity to depict “great scenes of history”8 and knew that Jefferys could bring Canadian history alive for school children. Pierce helped advance Jefferys reputation “as Canada’s premier historical illustrator,” and the two went on to form a lasting “personal and professional alliance” that was founded on “on a shared vision of Canadian nationhood.”9

Pens and Pirates End papers
Pens and Pirates, endpapers

Other Club members, such as Group of Seven painters J.E.H. MacDonald and Frederick Horsman Varley, were also employed to decorate and design covers and endpapers for Ryerson Press publications. The 1923 edition of journalist William Arthur Deacon’s Pens and Pirates, for example, depicts decorative cover and endpaper art of an open pirate’s treasure chest brimming with loot. The initials F.H.V. – for Varley – are clearly visible on the lock of the chest. Varley also designed books of poetry for Ryerson, among them E.J. Pratt’s debut work Newfoundland Verse (1923), Charles G.D. Robert’s The Iceberg and Other Poems (1934), and Earle Birney’s first collection David and Other Poems (1942).

In addition to featuring the work of prominent artists associated with the Arts and Letters Club, Ryerson Press brought out numerous books written by Club members. These included such works as Libraries in Canada: A Study of Library Conditions and Needs (1933) by George H. Locke, chief librarian of the Toronto Public Library from 1908 to 1937; The Commercial Empire of the St. Lawrence (1937) by historian Donald Creighton; In the Village of Viger (1945) by writer Duncan Campbell Scott; Painters of Quebec (1946) by folklorist and ethnographer Marius Barbeau; Artist at War (1956) by painter Charles Comfort; and I Brought the Ages Home (1958) by Charles T. Currelly, first director of the Royal Ontario Museum, each of whom received various honours for their contributions to Canadian culture.

The Arts and Letters Club was not only a meeting place and cultural hub; it also became a cultural institution in its own right. Membership in the Club afforded Pierce the opportunity to cultivate invaluable professional connections, which he brought to Ryerson Press. That advantage was reflected in the design, illustration, and content of many of the books published under the Ryerson imprint.

1 Sandra Campbell, Both Hands: A Life of Lorne Pierce of Ryerson Press (Montreal/Kingston: McGill-Queen’s UP, 2013) 489.

2 Margaret McBurney, The Great Adventure: 100 Years at The Arts & Letters Club (Toronto: Arts and Letters Club of Toronto, 2007) 1.

3 Bridle quoted in McBurney 2.

4 McBurney 2, 3.

5 Campbell 162.

6 Campbell 162.

7 Campbell 320.

8 Lorne Pierce, New History for Old (Toronto: Ryerson Press, 1931) 59.

9 Campbell 327.