Lights of a City Street
by Frederick Marlett Bell-Smith
A certain painting in the Hudson's Bay Company corporate art collection has a great deal of admirers. Frederick Marlett Bell-Smith's Lights of a City Street is a veritable window onto another era of Toronto's history. There are those who make a special trip down to the foyer of Arcadian Court restaurant, on the 8th floor of the Bay, Queen Street, just to see it. For example, it features in some of the earliest childhood memories of Toronto historian and author, Mike Filey. "When I was I kid," he has written, "my mother would often take my brothers and me downtown to shop at the old Eaton's and Simpson's stores. During those many visits to the Simpson's store, I must have seen this particular painting over and over."
Lights of a City Street
In 1894, Bell-Smith began to paint this large scale work which measures an incredible seventy-seven by fifty inches. Its subject is a magnificently detailed view of the intersection of King and Yonge Streets in the late afternoon. When Bell-Smith was finished, he had produced what many Canadian art historians regard as one of the pivotal works of his entire career.
Bell-Smith's association with the art world began early in his life. Born in 1846 in London, England, his father was a portrait and miniaturist whose works often hung on the walls of the Royal Academy of England. Following in his father's footsteps, Bell-Smith studied at the South Kensington Art School and later in Paris. He emigrated to Canada with his family in 1866, settling in Montreal. Shortly thereafter, Bell-Smith began working as a photographer. This profession would later prove a significant source of inspiration for his documentary-like approach to painting. In 1867, both Bell-Smiths, father and son, were associated with the founding of the Society of Canadian Artists.
Bell-Smith lived and worked in Montreal until his marriage in 1871. Thereafter, he was active in Southern Ontario as an art teacher in public schools. Apart from teaching at several schools in London, he was Art Director of Alma College, St. Thomas, from 1881-1890 and Director of the Toronto Art School in 1889. During this time, his painting focused on a variety of subjects. These included figures, portraits, seascapes, and beach scenes as well as a number of definitive renditions of the Canadian Rockies. But one particular subject increasingly interested Bell-Smith: the ever-changing landscape of city life in downtown Toronto.
The final decade of the nineteenth century was a booming period for Toronto. Industry was steadily expanding and with this came new inventions and revolutions in technology. One of these was the electric streetcar. Its introduction completely altered the face of the city.
Bell-Smith and his family resided at 366 Jarvis Street, not far from the ever-present buzz of downtown life which provided a constant source of inspiration for his painting. In the fall of 1894, Bell-Smith began Lights of a City Street as his first experiment in what was, for him, a new artistic direction. With this work he turned his attention away from capturing the essence of the landscape which had been his main focus since his arrival in Canada. Lights represents Bell-Smith's new interest: the cityscape. This particular subject would occupy the majority of his artistic output for the rest of his career. The result of Bell-Smith's experimental work is an incredible view of the intersection of King and Yonge Streets, full of unprecedented realism and detail.
According to a clock on the main building located on the south-east corner, it is 4:58 p.m. The streets have been dampened by a light rainstorm passing through the city. Looking east, two of the new streetcars on the King route take on passengers. In capturing the temper of the times, Bell-Smith has replicated all of the names of the local businesses which have taken up residence at this busy intersection. We can clearly see the offices of the shipping company, Cunard S.S. Line, situated on the north-east corner, facing King Street.
If the faces of the numerous pedestrians milling about in the picture seem to be incredibly life-like, this is no accident. Bell-Smith set out to create a documentary atmosphere by incorporating real persons with whom he was familiar, both professionally and personally. The helmeted policeman, draped in his rain cape and directing traffic, is Constable John William Redford from the Toronto Police Force. Redford was a regular fixture at the corner of King and Yonge, routinely directing traffic as depicted in the painting. Upon retiring from the force, he worked as a security guard for the Simpsons department store on Queen Street at Yonge - an interesting little bit of HBC history!
Two other significant persons are portrayed elsewhere. The gentlemen being swamped by newspaper boys is the artist himself and the man seen raising his hat in greeting to the women passing by is Bell-Smith's son, the Reverend F.M. Bell-Smith.
Upon completion of Lights, Bell-Smith realized that he had arrived at a new juncture in his career. Unlike a photograph, Bell-Smith had not simply reproduced what stood before him. Through painstaking use of colours, tone and detail, the distinct atmosphere of past, present and future unravels before the viewer. Curiously, it appears that the painting was not exhibited publicly until 1897. When it was displayed, the instant praise and acclaim encouraged Bell-Smith to continue painting large scale documentary works. Indeed, the work ensured recognition of his talents and reputation. Canada Post commemorated Bell-Smith with a stamp bearing his likeness in 1928.
Simpsons Limited purchased the painting soon after its first exhibition and proudly displayed it at their Queen Street store. For a period of time, the work hung in the Palm Room, the predecessor to the Arcadian Court restaurant. The painting graced the walls of HBC's executive offices for some years before being moved to the Arcadian Court foyer. In 2012 the painting was moved to the Main Floor of the Queen Street store, facing the store elevators. Currently being conserved, the painting will once again hang at the Queen Street store once the work completed. Bell-Smith would likely be quite pleased to know that so many Torontonians take daily pleasure in admiring the very city he worked so meticulously to capture in this painting.