Owen Staples (1866-1949)
3.5" x 3"
(matted to fit an 8" x 10" frame")
Owen Staples specialized in historical paintings and illustrations that chronicled Toronto’s past. He worked in oil, watercolour, pastel, etching, mezzotint and pen and ink. Many of his cartoons published in Toronto’s Evening Telegram were signed Rostap, a contraction of Jack Robinson, the editor’s last name, and Staples, the chief artist.
Owen Staples was born in Stoke-sub-Hamdon, Somerset, England in 1866, and was brought to Canada as a child of four. His family first settled in Hamilton, and then moved to Toronto in 1876. Upon the early death of his father, when Owen was ten years old, his family relocated to Rochester, New York, where his mother was employed as a nurse, but tragically she died in 1881 when Owen was fifteen. Owen worked at various jobs and was eventually employed as a messenger boy at the Rochester Art Club, where, already interested in art, he heard lectures that further inspired him.
Staples began his art training under Horatio Walker at the Rochester Art Club, and in 1882 he won first prize for an etching that enabled him to continue his studies there in 1884. Staples, and his brother Johnny, returned to Toronto in 1885 and found occasional employment with the Evening Telegram newspaper. In 1886 he continued his training, working with George A. Reid and taking classes at the Art Students’ League in Toronto. From 1886 to 1887 completed his artistic education at the Philadelphia Academy of Fine Arts, USA, (renamed the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts), under Thomas P. Anshutz and Thomas Eakins.
Upon returning to Toronto, Staples gained employment as an artist-reporter illustrator and political portrait cartoonist at the Toronto Evening Telegram where he was employed for over fifty years, eventually becoming art director. Staples not only captured the personalities of politicians and personalities of the day such as Sir Wilfrid Laurier, Sir Charles Tupper and Sir Oliver Mowat in characteristic poses, but also conveyed the essence of news events in lively drawings.
As early as 1885, Staples produced some of his first historical sketches of Toronto for the Evening Telegram, a subject for which he would become renowned. The publisher of the newspaper, John Ross Robertson, also commissioned Staples to create a series of illustrations depicting Toronto’s past, beginning with Muddy York for a six volume edition, Landmarks of Toronto; a collection of historical sketches of the old town of York from 1792 until 1833, and of Toronto from 1834 to 1914, published by Robertson from 1894-1914.
Staples was also commissioned by Robertson to paint seven large paintings for Toronto City Hall depicting historical events of the city’s past, (now housed at the Toronto Public Library, in the John Ross Robertson Historical Collection). One painting, Bird’s-eye view showing the arrival of the American fleet prior to the capture of York, April 27, 1813, commemorated the event’s centenary in 1913. Staples, as the official historical painter of the John Ross Robertson Collection, created hundreds of sketches and pictures illustrating Ontario’s historic past.
In 1923 Staples completed a major commission for Royal Canadian Yacht Club’s new clubhouse (Toronto Islands) which comprised two twenty-eight foot murals; one depicted the Royal Canadian Yacht Club fleet and the other showed the club’s historic quarters in the 1860s. He also received a commission to create paintings for the Main Building of the Hydro-Electric Power Commission, Toronto.
As a gifted book illustrator Staples’ etchings are found notably in C.H.J. Snider’s novel, The Story of the Nancy and other Eighteen-Twelvers, 1926, about Canada’s naval involvement in the war of 1812, E.J. Hathaway’s Jesse Ketchum and His Times, 1929,a historical narrative about early Canada, and Catherine Parr Trail’s The Backwoods of Canada, 1929.
In the 1920s and 30s Staples created over thirty etchings depicting the University of Toronto’s buildings and their architectural features that were reproduced in the yearbook Torontonensis from 1930-34. He also made etchings and sketches of other significant works of architecture such as the Parliament Buildings, Ottawa, and McMaster University, Hamilton.
As well as being a master etcher, Staples also worked with skill and sensitivity in watercolour in a style he called romantic impressionism. Staples also enjoyed painting portraits and making sketches of his wife and children. In the mid-1940s Staples suffered a stroke that left him without the use of his right hand, however he trained himself to use his left hand and worked mainly in pastels. He died in 1949, in Toronto.
Source: A Dictionary of Canadian Artists, volumes 1-8 by Colin S. MacDonald, and volume 9 (online only), by Anne Newlands and Judith Parker
National Gallery of Canada / Musée des beaux-arts du Canada