Blind Contour Homage: “Old Mine Shaft, Cobalt” 1930 Bess Harris
What we know about the painter Bess Larkin Housser Harris is so dwarfed by the life and art of her second husband, Lawren Harris, that research excavates almost no information, despite the fact that Bess’s paintings were displayed as part of several Group of Seven exhibitions, and praised by her contemporaries for their groundbreaking stylistic accomplishments.
Born in Brandon, Manitoba, Bess Larkin eventually pursued education in Toronto. She was a self-taught artist, although she took lessons from Frederick Varley. Bess married her first husband, F.B. Housser, and together they promoted the work of the Group of Seven, publishing a book about Lawren Harris, as well as several articles about the revered artists—in fact, the couple is partly responsible for the celebrity status that the Group attained during the early part of the twentieth century.
When Bess realized that Housser was having an affair with Yvonne McKague, another artist in the Toronto art circle, she sought comfort from Housser’s best friend, Lawren Harris, who had himself been married for twenty years. When Lawren left his wife Trixie and their three children for Bess, Trixie’s family threatened legal action. The quick rearrangements of the Housser and Harris households caused a scandal in Toronto, with many artists and public figures taking Trixie’s side and effectively banishing Lawren and Bess from their social groups. To escape the din of controversy, Bess and Lawren relocated for a brief period to New Mexico before finally settling in Vancouver, BC.
By all accounts, Bess’s marriage to Lawren was sexless—Emily Carr expressed scorn for the marriage, both because of its adulterous origins and because of its rejection of sexual love. But Bess and Lawren saw their relationship as a “meeting of minds and souls.” Like many of their peers, they were deeply fascinated by theosophy, seeking ideas of unity in their philosophy, spirituality, and art. While in New Mexico, Bess studied “Dynamic Symmetry” with Emil Bisstram; she was excited by “the study of area … based on various possible configurations of the square and its diagonal” (Davis 123). As with other aspects of her life, her art searched for ways in which space was imbued with an underlying mystical element that united all existence.
Bess’s paintings hang in prestigious galleries around the world, but—overshadowed by a man whose legacy she helped establish—very little is known about her later years. She died in 1969, a year before Lawren. Their ashes were buried together on the grounds of the McMichael Canadian Art Collection in Kleinburg, Ontario.
1890 – Brandon, Manitoba
1969 – Vancouver, BC
Davis, Ann. The Logic of Ecstasy: Canadian Mystical Painting, 1920 – 1940. U Toronto P, 1992.
Govani, Shinan. “How Lawren Harris Scandalized T.O.” Toronto Star, 2 July 2016, E1.
McBride, Jason. “The Mystic.” Toronto Life, 30 June 2016.