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The Way It Is

The Life of Greg Curnoe

by James King

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artists, architects, photographers, canadian, painting
list price: $45.00
also available: eBook
published: 2017
publisher: Dundurn Press
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The long-awaited biography of one of Canada’s most intriguing and beguiling artists.

Do artists really thrive in big cities, or do they just learn to imitate New York? Is it a contradiction for an artist to be fiercely local and profoundly identified with international art movements? If the brilliant colourist and regionalist pioneer Greg Curnoe stood for any one thing, it was making trouble. An intriguing rebel throughout his life, he challenged ideas about what art should be, and pushed it in radical new directions — including away from Toronto, a city he rejected while succeeding masterfully in its galleries.

His untimely death in 1992 cut short a career of constant reinvention. This first biography of Curnoe recaptures in vivid detail the public and personal life of an iconoclast who was called a “walking autobiography,” as his work seemed to document his endless struggle against many of the core tenets of the art of his time. An anti-establishment firebrand and a fierce opponent of American dominance in Canadian culture, Curnoe, in his conceptual practice, constructed a stunning body of work that remains a hallmark in late-twentieth-century Canadian art.

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Greg Curnoe had a supremely happy childhood and cherished memories of it his entire life. As a man and an artist, he fed off those recollections. Unlike some who experience idyllic happi¬ness as youngsters and then feel deprived by the rigours of adult experience, he was never cut off from his early formative years. In fact, he refused to part with them. Even as an adult when faced with failure, sadness, and anxiety, he retained a childlike surety that his was a blessed existence. He had a confidence that he could overcome any obstacle thrown in his way. This sense of security he received from his parents. For him, his childhood home was, in many ways, a place of refuge.
He was born a bit after his due date on Thursday, November 19, 1936, in Victoria Hospital in London, Ontario. Despite his tardy appearance, mother and baby were fine.
Greg was the first child of Nellie (1909–99), née Porter, and Gordon (1909–85; always called Gord) Curnoe. Gord’s father, Richard, arrived in London, Ontario, in 1879 at the age of nine with his parents, John and Elizabeth, née Rowe, from Sunny Corner, County Gwennap near Redruth, Cornwall. The sur¬name Curnoe is derived from Old Cornish and signifies a person originating in Cornwall. John had been a miner and immigrated to Canada when the tin mines in his native county were shuttered.
The parents of Richard’s wife, Sarah, née Cundick, had immigrated to Canada in 1869 from Westminster, Dorset. Her sister, Emily, was born in England in 1869, but Sarah was born in Canada in 1871, probably in Watford. The two sisters moved to London, where they worked in a laundry. There, the two sisters met two brothers: Richard Curnoe married Sarah, and John Curnoe married Emily. John and Emily operated a bakery and had eleven children. Richard and Sarah had four children: Verna, Hilda, Gord (Greg’s father), and Lorne.
Richard, a painter and striper (someone who paints stripes on railway cars), was employed as a foreman at A.B. Greer Carriage Makers until 1917, when he left that firm for the London and Port Stanley Railway. He died in 1936 of, according to family legend, lead poisoning. Apparently, he was miserly. “Dick doesn’t give me much money,” Sarah com¬plained. As a result, she would secrete money in various parts of the house, even behind picture frames. However, Richard did purchase, in 1917, a Model T Ford. As an older woman, Sarah developed diabetes and when gangrene set in, one of her legs was removed above the knee. She was apparently active in local women’s groups and would “even lend her best Bridal Rose china to the church for social events, not caring if they came back chipped.”
Richard and Sarah’s son Gord attended Chesley Avenue Public School and then London Central Collegiate, where he completed junior matriculation (grade ten). He then became the office boy at The Farmers’ Advocate, originally a populist magazine devoted to the concerns of farmers. He took night classes to learn about the printing trade and eventually became office manager. As a young man, he was known for his dapper clothing and good looks.
Nellie was the fourth child of William and Grace, née Peak, Porter, who immigrated to Canada in 1907. Like his father and grandfather, William also came from the docks area in East London and Bromley and was a carpenter and joiner specializing in making the wood-lined cabinets for passenger ships. In 1898 he married Grace Peak in Ilford, northwest of London. When William wanted to move to Canada, Grace demurred, largely because she did not want to be separated from her mother. Eventually, the elder Peaks agreed to go with them.
In Canada, the Porters and Peaks settled in London but then moved to the more rural area of Glendale, south of the city. When their prospects living on the land did not improve, the Porters moved back to London, where William established William Porter and Son, a building company. He built a number of small and large houses, some of them extremely expensive. However, during the Depression, when several contractors he had worked for declared bankruptcy and could not pay him, he suffered severe financial losses.
When Nellie was ten, she and her parents moved from Glendale to London, where she went to Wortley Road Public School and then Beal Technical, where she completed grade ten. She then found employment in the office of Smallman and Ingram, London’s largest department store. For three years her steady boyfriend was Seth Trusty, to whom she wrote every other day. When he moved to Chicago for further schooling, their romance trailed off, and she took up with Gord Curnoe after they met ice-skating at the London Arena.
Nellie, who was performing in a play, invited Gord to attend. He did. They met again after another play at Hyatt Avenue United Church. After a three-year engagement, they married, both age twenty-six, on June 29, 1935. They had decided on a lengthy engagement because Gord wanted them to be financially secure when they began married life. Nellie cashed in an insurance policy and Gord added in money from his savings, and they purchased a plot of land in South London on Langarth Street, where Nellie’s father would build their house.
Eventually, Gord and Nellie became well-suited to each other, but that was not the case at first. Gord found it difficult to adjust to married life. He had been hesitant to set a date for the wedding because of money worries. Nellie wanted to give notice at Smallman and Ingram, but Gord procrastinated. In addition, in their early married days, Nellie found Gord “vague, distant, and unable to explain to her why he seemed upset. The carefree beau she had known had changed into a worried husband.” She was very upset when he somewhat offhandedly remarked one day: “We can always get a divorce if we don’t get along.” Early in his marriage, Gord went to his mother’s home for dinner every noon (his father had died in 1936). His mother, Sarah, had to remind him: “Your place is with your wife.”
Gord and Nellie did not like the damp, sour-smelling house they rented on Springbank Drive, near the Coves, a closed loop of the Thames. Gord, anxious to be rid of that place, drove every day to Langarth Street where William Porter was building the house for his daughter and son-in-law.
The house was ready at the end of August 1935. Although the couple had wanted to construct their house of brick, they could not afford this luxury. Instead, they settled for a blue-painted stucco that was given a half-timbered treatment at the front of the bungalow. The roof was steeply pitched, the entrance red brick, and a small elevation made it slightly higher than nearby residences. With her father’s assistance, Nellie designed the interior: a central hall, a small kitchen, a dining room, a large living room, a large master bedroom with a walk-in closet and another bedroom overlooking the backyard.
William Porter installed baseboards and a living room man¬telpiece from chestnut; there was a bevelled-glass-panel door in the front vestibule; the kitchen counter was inlaid with tiny diamond-shaped ceramic tiles. Most of all, Nellie treasured the three leaded glass front windows.
Langarth Street is on a grid pattern, and most of the houses were bungalows on small lots. Many had been built piecemeal by local contractors; a few homes looked like simple cabins. Some of these houses in the forties and fifties still had outhouses in their backyards. Wharncliffe Road, where Grandmother Porter lived, was west of the house. To the east was Wortley Public School, to the north the Thames and the London Arena. Farther north was the downtown section of the city.
Two months after the Curnoes moved to their new home, their first baby arrived. Greg believed he was named after Gregory Peck, although it is possible he was named after a character on the long-running (1933–60) radio soap opera The Romance of Helen Trent. Greg’s cousin Gary Bryant was named after Gary Cooper and is of the opinion that the Curnoes used a similar process in naming their eldest child.
Gord and Nellie’s marriage became much more harmoni¬ous after the move to Langarth Street and Greg’s birth, but there remained a marked difference between them, originating in the fact that they were from slightly different social classes. Nellie considered the Curnoes a bit rowdy; they were certainly earthier than the Porters. Gord constantly felt he had to prove himself a good manager of the limited resources available to him; if, as is likely, he felt he had married above his station, he wanted to do everything in his power to prove to Nellie that she had made a good choice in selecting him. He remained a worrier whereas Nellie was a much more poised and self-assured person. As a couple, they worked well together. Gord did everything he could to sustain his family; Nellie assured Gord that his efforts were the right ones.
Nellie and Gord took the baby with them everywhere they went, especially the Porter home on Wharncliffe Road and the Curnoe home on Hamilton Road. After the great London flood of 1937, the three of them — Greg on Nellie’s lap — drove to Springbank Drive, where water rose to the top of the verandah of their old home.
On the day Greg was christened at Hyatt Avenue United Church, the Curnoe family church, Gord, a derby hat roguishly perched on his head, smiled at the camera as he held the infant aloft. The baby had to have a regular schedule, the new mother had been told. So when Greg slept through the four hours allotted between feeds, Nellie would wake him up. Later she remarked, “That’s why he always hated regimentation.”

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Contributor notes

James King is the author of six novels and nine biographies, including books on David Milne, William Blake, Margaret Laurence, Jack McClelland, Farley Mowat, and Lawren Harris. His biography of Herbert Read, The Last Modern, was nominated for the Governor General’s Literary Award, and Inner Places, about the life of David Milne, received a Hamilton Arts Council Literary Award in 2017. A fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, James lives in Hamilton, Ontario.

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Editorial Reviews

James King’s perceptive book leads the reader through Curnoe’s career, from his early interest in Dadaism to his family life, many successes, clashes with critics, and political activism.

— Quill & Quire

An essential piece in the puzzle of one of the most innovative and engaging artists of the late 20th century.

— Border Crossings

The originality of his work, his prolific output and his astonishingly effective use of colour are examined, and a portrait emerges, in a well-researched and beautifully illustrated book, of a gifted renegade who left his mark on the Canadian art scene.

— London Free Press
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