Born in London, England, on Nov. 25, 1887, William John Hopkinson studied art there as a young man but he was mostly self taught.
W.J. Hopkinson immigrated to Canada in 1912, moving to Newmaket, Ontario, north of Toronto.
The art of W.J. Hopkinson – he was known as Bill to his friends, but signed his paintings with his initials – exemplifies the Canadian School of landscape painting. He is best known for his plein air oil paintings that display a bold hand with a palette knife. He only liked to paint what he saw.
At times, W.J. Hopkinson exhibited with the Royal Canadian Academy and the Ontario Society of Artists, but, for some unknown reason, he never became a member of either during his estimated 40 plus years of painting. He also exhibited painting at the Canadian National Exhibition and with the Nova Scotia Society of Artists.
Although W.J. Hopkinson’s talent was respected, he never achieved the same level of recognition as some other artists of his generation. This may have been due, in part, to not having an art gallery or patron behind him. He also didn’t become a full-time artist until late in life.
W.J. Hopkinson’s life and art overlaps with several members of the Group of Seven – he even emigrated from England around the same time as Arthur Lismer and Frederick Varley – but he wasn’t influenced by French Impressionism like some of them. He only liked to paint what he saw, and he was more literal than other artists.
W.J. Hopkinson worked mainly in oils throughout his life, but some watercolours and pencil sketches have also survived.
He painted extensively in the Newmarket and Haliburton areas, near Algonquin Park. He also painted on trips to Canada’s East and West coasts, and to the Eastern seaboard of the United States. W.J. Hopkinson also made one trip back to his home country of England in 1964 – 52 years after he emigrated – but he only returned with a few paintings of London (these are part of his family’s collection).
W.J. Hopkinson painted a variety of subjects – from seascapes to docked boats, churches, farm fields and winter scenes – but his landscapes showing forests and isolated lakes are probably the most plentiful.
He was known to travel into the bush and forests in the Haliburton area and paint plein air oil paintings on Masonite panels using palette knives, laying on thick layers of colour. This technique was suited to portraying the ruggedness of the landscape around him, showing unstylized fallen trees, dense forests and unspoiled lakes under dramatically coloured skies.
There are few examples of W.J. Hopkinson painting on canvas, and paintings from the early part of his career are rare. He painted these with a brush.
W.J. Hopkinson also painted a few florals as a favour to his wife, Florence (they married in 1917 and later had two children, Violet and Clarence).
Throughout his life in Canada, W.J. Hopkinson had a number of jobs or businesses, though information is sparse. He worked for a large leather manufacturer in Newmarket, The Davis Leather Company, for years, illustrating the firm’s published history and other material. He also worked as a contractor, painting churches, homes and barns, and owned a paint store. During these years, W.J. Hopkinson painted art on a part-time basis but he turned more attention to his calling as he got older, especially in the last decade of his life.
He also taught art. W.J. Hopkinson taught at the St. Croix School of Art in New Brunswick in the early 1960s – many of his seascapes are from this time – and at several centres in Ontario. He also taught art at night classes at high schools in the Newmarket area and offered private lessons in his home.
Despite his long career as an artist, the first known solo exhibition of his paintings was at the Main Branch of The North York Public Library in 1966. The show moved to other North York library branches that year. He previously had his art shown at several small galleries in Toronto and York Region.
W.J. Hopkinson was most active in art circles in the Newmarket area. He was a founding member of the Newmarket Arts Club, which started in 1946.
Despite not being a full-time artist until late in life, W.J. Hopkinson was prolific and created hundreds of paintings. A number of his paintings were reproduced as Christmas cards in the 1960s by leading card publishers Coutts-Hallmark and Austin Marshall Ltd.
His paintings were sold extensively in the Newmarket and Toronto area, and were acquired by many companies and private collectors. One of his admirers was the actor Vincent Price, who owned at least one painting and included many others in the gallery he established with Sears in 1968.
W.J. Hopkinson died on Feb. 21, 1970 at age 82.
A retrospective of W.J. Hopkinson’s art took place after his death, with fellow artist and pupil Isabelle Van Zant sketching his portrait (shown above) for the cover of the card for the exhibit. Another posthumous exhibit took place in 1985 at the York Fine Art Gallery, featuring paintings from his family’s collection.
Biography sources: Interview with family and information from family scrapbook. 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, Artists in Canada database.
Biography courtesy of FineArtCollector.ca