Historicist: Finding Comfort Through Hard Times
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Historicist: Finding Comfort Through Hard Times

Every Saturday at noon, Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters—good and bad—that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.

Toronto Stock Exchange, Trading Floor, 1930s. City of Toronto Archives, Series 1057, Item 461.

After a building boom altered the Toronto skyline over the course of the late 1920s, construction ground to a standstill during the Great Depression. Annual spending on construction, which had peaked at $51.5 million in 1928, dropped to a mere $4.5 million in 1933. The few projects that weren’t cancelled or disrupted were initiated mostly by banks and insurance companies seeking symbolic structures that emphasized institutional stability through turbulent times and faith in an economic turnaround.
Laying the cornerstone for one of the most important of these projects, the construction of a new Toronto Stock Exchange, TSE President H.B. Housser, said: “It is our hope that this building may stand as a mark to the country’s future prosperity, one that may be destined to perform a most useful service in the economic life of Canada.” Shortly after having merged with the Standard Stock and Mining Exchange, the TSE retained architect Walter N. Moorhouse of George & Moorhouse in 1935 to prepare a report on a new building. He was joined on the design team by his partner, British-born traditionalist Allan George, and the newest associate of the firm, Samuel Maw, who had just come from a seven-year stint with the T. Eaton Company, where he’d overseen the construction of the College Street store. Maw, who had won England’s highest architectural prize, the Soane Medal, was most responsible for the new Exchange’s iconic Art Deco design. It was also Maw who recruited painter Charles Comfort, a fellow member of the Arts & Letters Club, to design the stone frieze on the exterior and the murals overlooking the trading floor. Comfort’s decorative treatment seamlessly complemented Maw’s architectural design and, as Rosemary Donegan put it in the Summer 1987 issue of Canadian Art, “champion[ed] a belief in progress and modern industry.”

Charles Comfort as a War Painter in Italy, 1940s, from WikiMedia Commons.

Born near Edinburgh in July 1900, Charles Comfort immigrated to Winnipeg with his family in 1912. To help the family, at fourteen Comfort began working as a water-boy with a road paving company. But he spent all of his spare time painting. After he won first prize in a YMCA art contest, he was offered a three-dollars-a-week job with Fred Brigden’s commercial art studio. Over the course of his career in commercial art, Comfort did work for Eaton’s catalogues, Inco and Imperial Oil advertisements, as well as illustrations for history books—including J.E. Middleton’s volume celebrating Toronto’s centenary—and The Canadian National Railway Magazine, Saturday Night. Initially splitting his time between Bridgen’s Winnipeg and Toronto offices, Comfort relocated to Toronto with his wife Louise in April 1925.
Although Comfort would later claim that seeing the first Group of Seven exhibition in 1919 was a turning point in his artistic career and would travel frequently with A.Y. Jackson, Comfort always retained his own personal painting style. He was a constant student of emerging art movements and would be, for instance, influenced by abstract expressionism. But he never got carried away in any particular movement. As the director of the Winnipeg Art Gallery, Ferdinand Eckhardt, put it in the foreword to Charles Fraser Comfort Fifty Years (1972): “He was never afraid to recognize or to experience the new but neither was he seriously seduced to give up his personality and deliver himself to the uncertainty of uncontrolled experiments.” His philosophy on client-commissioned commercial art applied equally to his more personal artwork. “Be original,” he said in a 1931 speech, “but not as original as can be.”
Even as he developed a reputation as an accomplished painter for his watercolour landscapes and portraits (which captured the despair and disillusionment of the Depression), Comfort continued working as a commercial artist. After a stint with Rapid-Grip Ltd., where he secured a lucrative nine thousand dollar per year contract in 1929, he opened his own studio in 1932 in partnership with Will Ogilvie and Harold Ayres in 1932.

Design Exchange exterior by Michael Chrisman/Torontoist.

That same year, he received his first major mural commission. Following the influence of Mexican artists Diego Rivera, David Siqueiros, and Jose Clemente Orosco, Donegan notes in an essay in Take Comfort (Winnipeg Art Gallery, 2007) that muralism was becoming an increasingly popular art form and was seen as an opportunity for artists to step out of the isolation of the studio and the gallery. “Modern architecture, particularly modern institutional architecture,” Donegan writes, “was seen as the perfect scale and location for artists to find a wider general public.” With a background painting large-scale stage sets and a sharp ability to understand a client’s vision gained through commercial work, Comfort was well-suited for the shift to muralism when the North American Life Assurance Company approached him in 1932. Like the TSE, North American Life wanted to show it was weathering the storm of the Great Depression by building a new seven-storey head office at 110 King Street West. The twenty-four-foot by twelve-foot mural Comfort painted for the company’s foyer remained in place until 1975. It appears to have vanished (or have been destroyed) when the building was demolished to make way for First Canadian Place.
In 1936, Maw provided Comfort his next opportunity to design building-scale artwork. The TSE’s Bay Street facade is a suitably restrained example of Art Deco—or, more accurately, streamlined moderne—design with five central windows emphasizing vertical reach while racing stripes and other wall treatments emphasized the horizontal. The Maw-designed facade, according to Tim Morawetz’s essay in Designing the Exchange (The Exchange, 1994), “may be read as a blank canvas for the Charles Comfort frieze.”

Detail of the Exterior Frieze by Michael Chrisman/Torontoist.

Faced with this blank canvas—twenty-two metres long and one and a half metres high—and reasonable freedom in determining the theme and style of the frieze, Comfort created a full-scale drawing that was attached to the wall, perforated and traced onto the Indiana limestone. Peter Schoen used a pneumatic chisel to cut—rather than carve—the design and create its depth, shadows, and the contrasts of etched-line detailing. The thirty-six life-sized but highly geometrically stylized human figures were similar in style to Comfort’s commercial work. Marching in a tightly packed procession from right to left, the miners, farmers, businessmen, and stockbrokers were self-consciously intended, in Donegan’s words, as a symbol of “the power of industry, with both capital and labour working together to exploit Canadian resources.” The theme was perhaps undermined by one top-hatted stockbroker who—in what became known as “the best joke on Bay Street”—appears to have his hand in the pocket of the worker in front of him. For the remainder of his life, Comfort strenuously denied any intentional depiction of financial class thievery.
With a dining room and luncheonette on the main floor, and executive offices and committee rooms on the top floor, the new TSE building’s centrepiece was the well-appointed trading floor on the second floor. The enormous room’s walls were made of granite d’or marble (and acoustic tiles higher up) with detailing in stainless steel and maple. Five bands of lights under opal glass stretch up the end walls and across the ceiling and contain four murals—each measuring about eleven metres by five metres—at each end.

The Trading Floor during Doors Open by Miles Storey/Torontoist.

The TSE building committee was originally going to invite four different artists to submit sketches, but instead they awarded Comfort the contract for all eight murals. The artist’s intention, according to another Donegan essay in Designing the Exchange, was for the murals to “be bold and dynamic in conception while being grave and restrained in treatment.” The murals would depict industries whose stocks would be traded on that floor, including agriculture, construction, mining, smelting, oil refining, communications, and transportation. The human figures were stylized to match the exterior frieze just as they had been for the metal detailing on the exterior doors. Their placement within modern industrial landscapes in the murals again emphasized belief in progress and modern industry’s ability to overcome the Depression. The faith in progress evident in the murals was reflected in the cutting-edge technology in use on the trading floor, including mechanical displays of bid-and-ask stock prices—automatically updated from the basement—on each face of the nine hexagonal trading posts and large annuciator boards on the north and south walls that allowed traders at one of two hundred telephone desks to beckon their floor staff silently.
Upon the TSE’s opening in the spring of 1937, many critics considered Comfort’s murals to be among the finest in Canada. Writing in the Montreal Gazette, critic Robert Ayre heaped praise on Comfort for combining “a subtle appreciation of the true values of painting and an admirable integrity to them…with a robust and daring imagination and a very practical sense of the world around him.” “Comfort has felt the big drama of Canada,” the critic continued, “its materials and its men, [and] he has given them valid and thrilling form.”
Yet despite the success of the North American Life and TSE murals, Comfort had growing financial difficulties in the late 1930s. He turned to teaching at the Ontario College of Art from 1935 to 1938 and the University of Toronto from 1938 to 1960 (although briefly interrupted by his time overseas as a war painter). He continued painting murals for clients such as the Hotel Vancouver, National Library of Canada, and the Veterans Affairs building in Ottawa. After serving one term as director of the National Gallery of Canada from 1960 to 1965, Comfort was made an Officer of the Order of Canada in 1972. He died in 1994.
Additional Source Consulted: Margaret Gray, Margaret Rand and Lois Steen, Charles Comfort: Canadian Artists 2 (Gage Publishing, 1976); and G.R. Stevens, North American is a Way of Life: 1881-1956 (Toronto: North American Life Assurance Company, 1956)