Hilton Macdonald Hassell
1910 - 1980
Born in March,1910 in Lachine, Quebec, Hassell spent his childhood in several locations in Southern Ontario before his parents settled in Port Credit, Ontario (now Mississauga). Hassell painted a of his parents in their later years in their family home on Mineola Road in Port Credit.
Hassell married Valerie Richardson neé Cockburn, (a teacher) and, with his father, built two houses in Port Credit. The first was on farmland. The second house was largely constructed by himself, working with his father; was trimmed with wood milled from a giant red oak cut on the property at 1261 Minaki Road in Port Credit. The house was a labour of love and is graced by many of his charming bas-relief woodcarvings. It was here that he raised his family, Christopher Hilton and Laurel Ann (Reigo), and had his studio.
During Hassell's early years, a Canadian art movement, formed by a loose fraternity of artists known as The Group of Seven, was beginning to emerge. Concentrating mainly on the Canadian landscape, they were dedicated to the belief that Canadian art must be truly inspired by Canadian nature itself. In 1929, Hassell studied under two of the original members of the group, JEH MacDonald and FH Johnson; as well as JW Beattie at the Ontario College of Art. They encouraged Hassell and, inspired by their work, Hassell went on to explore different styles, eventually blending the flow of forms which he ‘saw’ in nature. Later, AY Jackson and Hassell painted together on Georgian Bay. He became friends with another member of the group, AJ Casson.
Following a 1931 study trip to England and France, Hassell won the Canadian National Exhibition Poster Competition and embarked on a career, soon highly successful, as a commercial artist in portraiture, advertising, and book illustration, all the while continuing to paint landscapes. As both an art director of Maclean's Magazine and creative director of Brigden's Ltd., the techniques he had mastered as a commercial artist proved beneficial when, in 1953, he decided to devote himself exclusively to freelance painting and travelled to England with wife and children where he studied ‘figure’ and portraiture with Hayward Veal at the Heatherleys School for four months. There are a number of these figure studies which exist in the photo archive. He was subsequently commissioned to do portraits which included one of Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip on their first Royal visit to Canada in 1951. The Royal Square Dance at Rideau Hall, painted from a photograph, will be featured by the Victoria and Albert Gallery in London as part of the Royal Diamond Jubilee His portraiture was remarkable, capturing what seemed to be the essence or 'soul' of the subject.
Hassell was an artist who also enjoyed painting outdoors directly from nature; in the early days with oil, later, with quick drying acrylic paints, he was able to work in a way that suited him best. On-site, he captured the subject with either a quick pencil sketch or a small painting.
Two painters, Adrian Dingle and Tom Roberts, both lived close to Hassell in Port Credit and at times accompanied him on day-trips to local points of interest, where they sketched out-of-doors. Spring and Fall were favourite times for Hassell who loved the transparent filigree leaf growth of the early spring and the riot of colour in the Autumn as the trees transformed from opaque to translucent. Northern Ontario, especially in the Madawaska River area was a special favourite. One of the favourite summer painting spots was Gloucester, Massachusetts where Hassell, his family and various friends (Doug Elliott, Adrian Dingle, and Laughton Bird) set up tents on a grassy hilltop overlooking Gloucester harbour, from where they made day-trips to Rockport, Marblehead, and local sea-related spots. Hassell loved the sea and boats. Many of his paintings capture fishermen at work with their nets or tending their boats.
Hassell travelled widely in North America and, almost always, water was part of the theme. In the early years the area around Port Credit had many rural scenes. Day trips to these areas provided ample opportunities for subject material. Later, travel in Canada included the Maritime Provinces; Newfoundland was his favourite, the prairie Provinces, and British Columbia. International painting trips included visits to Spain, Greece, Ireland, France, and the British Isles.
Hassell was also an accomplished inventor. In the early years in addition to his house building he began work on creating the ‘perfect’ sketch box; one which would carry all his supplies, support the work while in progress and transport it safely home. There were at least six incarnations of these, each lighter and more functional than the last.
In his last years Hassell felt that his best work came from the austere and dramatic landscapes of the Canadian North. A third of the drawings in his estate are records of his trips to the Arctic between 1973 and 1978, arranged by Fednav Ltd. aboard the MV Tundraland in 1974 and again in 1977. Most of the paintings in the Fednav collection resulted from these two trips - the smaller ones painted on-board ship, and the larger ones painted in his studio where he referred to his on-site sketches and colour notes.
Despite his untimely death in 1980, Hilton Hassell's oeuvre, particularly as inspired by his love of the Canadian Arctic, is widely admired today.