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Forest of Delight

Take a walk through the wildflowers Canadian watercolourist Robert Holmes made his specialty.

Purple Loosetrife and Turtlehead

Robert Holmes. Purple Loosetrife and Turtlehead, late 19th-early 20th century. Watercolour on paper mounted on card, Overall: 49.5 x 34.3 cm. Gift by Subscription, 1931. © Art Gallery of Ontario 2030

At the eastern edge of Guild Park in Scarborough, Ontario, just off the path before the faux Grecian columns and carved friezes, there stands a quiet stone monument into which is carved the determined face of Canadian watercolourist Robert Holmes. He was one of Canada’s great floral painters, and it is a fitting tribute for an artist whose greatest joys were found in nature.

Monument for Robert Holmes
Robert Holmes, Foremost Painter of Canadian Wild Flowers, by John Byers, Resident Guild Sculptor, 1968-1970

Born in Cannington, Ontario, in 1861, Holmes abandoned a career in medicine to train at the Royal Academy of Art in London, England. He returned to Toronto and spent the next forty years teaching, first at Upper Canada College alongside the humourist Stephen Leacock and then at the Ontario College of Art (now OCADU). It’s said his interest in painting wildflowers stemmed from a desire to interest students in their natural surroundings.

In 1916, J.M. Dent & Sons Limited of London, England, published Rambles with a Canadian Naturalist, a collection of nature essays by Globe newspaper columnist Samuel T. Wood. Illustrated by Robert Holmes, each chapter features a motif designed by his students.

During his lifetime, Holmes’s work was exhibited in museums across North America. Writing in Saturday Night magazine in 1928, critic Gertrude Pringle remarked that "Mr. Holmes's flowers have the appearance of being caught unawares in the woods. This is indeed the case. He knows all the wooded nooks in and around Toronto for many miles. Between the painter and the flowers, there is a real affinity…..While at first Mr. Holmes painted in oils, he now uses watercolour entirely, finding it more satisfactory in expressing the fragility of flowers and few have attained such command of this tricky, difficult medium as he."

Holmes died in May of 1930, the oldest faculty member at the Ontario College of Art. In his obituary, which was carried in The New York Times, it was noted that he died suddenly after having delivered a humorous address at the College, in which he described the graduating class as the "wildflowers of which he knew so much."

The AGO is home to more than 30 of Robert Holmes’s watercolours, most completed during the summer terms when he escaped the classroom to explore the woods and wilds of Ontario. Join us as we take a ramble through the woods with one of Canada’s great artists.

Robert Holmes. Wild Aster

Robert Holmes. Wild Aster, mid 19th-early 20th century. Watercolour on paper, Overall (sheet): 35.7 x 25.6 cm. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. R.H. Holmes, Akron, Ohio, 1957. © Art Gallery of Ontario CS49

Robert Holmes. Wild Aster
Robert Holmes. Wild Rose

Robert Holmes. Wild Rose, late 19th-early 20th century. Watercolour on paper mounted on card, Overall: 35.6 x 25.4 cm. Gift by Subscription, 1931. © Art Gallery of Ontario 2044

Robert Holmes. Wild Rose
Robert Holmes. Milkweed

Robert Holmes. Milkweed, late 19th-early 20th century. Watercolour and ink on paper mounted on card, Overall: 34.3 x 24.1 cm. Gift by Subscription, 1931. © Art Gallery of Ontario 2084

Robert Holmes. Milkweed
Robert Holmes. Cardinals II

Robert Holmes. Cardinals II, late 19th-early 20th century. Gouache on paper mounted on card, Overall: 34.3 x 23.8 cm. Gift by Subscription, 1931. © Art Gallery of Ontario 2078

Robert Holmes. Cardinals II
Robert Holmes. Pussy Willow

Robert Holmes. Pussy Willow, mid 19th-early 20th century. Gouache on paper mounted on card, Overall: 33 x 20.3 cm. Gift by Subscription, 1931. © Art Gallery of Ontario 2052

Robert Holmes. Pussy Willow
Robert Holmes. Cone Flower

Robert Holmes. Cone Flower, 1902. Watercolour on paper mounted on card, Overall: 35.6 x 25.4 cm.. Gift by Subscription, 1931. © Art Gallery of Ontario 2019

Robert Holmes. Cone Flower
Robert Holmes. Pitcher Plant

Robert Holmes. Pitcher Plant, mid 19th-early 20th century. Watercolour on paper mounted on card, Overall: 95.3 x 64.8 cm. Gift by Subscription, 1931. © Art Gallery of Ontario 2037

Robert Holmes. Pitcher Plant
Robert Holmes. Jack-in-the-Pulpit I

Robert Holmes. Jack-in-the-Pulpit I, late 19th-early 20th century. Watercolour and gouache on paper mounted on card, Overall: 35.6 x 25.4 cm. Gift by Subscription, 1931. © Art Gallery of Ontario 2013

Robert Holmes. Jack-in-the-Pulpit I

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