War veteran; artist. Born April 21, 1912 and died November 10, 1997 in Toronto.
We affectionately called Julius Griffith the "Jimmy Stewart of the Art Business". Everyone agrees he was a true gentleman - quiet, reserved, elegant, diplomatic, gentle. And a great friend.
Julius was born in Vancouver to a father who was from an army family in England and a mother who grew up in Montreal. HIs maternal grandfather collected art. This had an early influence on Juliusw who was always fascinated by the paintings when he visited his grandparents in Montreal.
After receiving his Senior Matric at 16 he was supposed to follow the army tradition of his father's family and go to the Royal Military College in Kingston. However, he was too young by one year and they wouldn't take him. Instead, he gladly went to the Vancouver Art School - his artistic career began here.
Shortly after, his family moved to England where he was enrolled in the Slade School. However, Julius' education was interrupted by the Depression and the need to find work. Julius returned to Vancouver to do some commercial work.
Robert Cromie, the owner of the Vancouver Sun offered him the task of painting two murals in the entranceway of the Sun Tower. Mr. Cromie, being a great promoter, asked various groups to come and watch Julius paint while on the scaffolding. He asked the Board of Trade to a wine and cheese party to watch the young artist at work. The art school was also invited. In walked Fred Varley (one of the original members of the Group of Seven) with his art class. They got to know each other as Julius took oone of Varley's night school life drawing classes.
By 1935, Julius was anxious to further his artistic talents. He was accepted at the Royal College of Art in England - once again, Julius was going across the pond. By the end of his fourth year, his father was very ill so he returned to Vancouver. His mother and Julius wanted to return to England as the beginning of the war was imminent and as Julius stated, "war really changes people's lives".
Initially Julius was with Air Raid Precautions but later he joined the Red Cross. In the winter of 1940/41, Julius was stationed at a country house which became a hospital in Sussex. As the Germans didn't invade Britain, his services weren't needed. He heard the British were short of people who spoke Russian - Julius decided to teach himself the language.
When he felt competent in his endeavour he arranged a meeting in London with the Admiralty, passed an oral test and was asked if he would like to become a Sub-Lieutenant of the British Navy and be stationed in Russia. As Julius had this "awful sense of duty" he accepted and off he went to Russia until the end of the war. "It was the greatest experience of my life" he said.
Julius never spoke much of this time in his life as he was part of British Intelligence and took a 30 year oath of secrecy. During this time, Julius sketched what he saw in Russia. A Russian sentry would not allow him to draw so Julius would draw from memory at night over a poorly-lit desk. Only after the 30 years did he show them to the Canadian War Museum. In 1983, they purchased 90 of these drawings. The British War Artists Collection purchased several as well.
After the war, Juliius returned to Canada with his new bride Lialia to start a new life. It was always endearing to see these two together with Julius being 6 ft 4 in. and Lialia was 5 ft tall. But Julius seemed to develop a slight lilt to the left. Everyone said it was because he would put his left hand on Lialia's shoulder and lean to hear or speak to her. The two were always together. They settled in Toronto and had four sons.
Julius spent the next 51 years devoted to his family and the further of Canadian art and the artistic community. He became a member of the Royal Canadian Academy, the Ontario Society of Artists, the Canadian Society of Graphic Art. He became President of the Canadian Society of Painters in Watercolour and was very active in these societies until his death.
The artworks reflected Julius' personality. He became known for not only his printmaking but for his watercolours and oil paintings. The Griffiths bought a place in the Hockley Valley north of Toronto where they would spend summers and weekends. Julius got much of his inspiration from the area. His paintings would reflect country life - the Mennonites going to church; the farmer plowing the field; the children bicycling.
His works hang in the following collections: The National Gallery of Canada, the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto City Archives, Douglas Duncan Collection, British War Artists Collection, Canadian War Museum, Glenbow Museum of Calgary, Art Gallery of Hamilton and the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria to name but a few. He was also commissioned by several corporations to creat oil paintings for their Skydome boxes. These paintings showed children playing baseball.
On two occasions, Julius Griffith's name was put forth for the Order of Canada for his unfailing contributions to the arts. Twice it was declined. Julius was never aware of this. His friends wanted to surprise him - they also didn't want him to be disappointed by the country he so loved. Canada has now lost the opprotunity to honour a great but humble man.
By Anne Libby of Libby's of Toronto who was Julius Griffith's art dealer