Known to many as the co-discoverer of insulin, Dr. Frederick Banting won the Nobel prize for Medicine in 1923. Banting’s artistic career, although lesser known, is equally notable.
‘It is a great rest and holiday. There is plenty of hard work to painting...It is tiring and makes one’s back ache at times. But!! after a day’s sketching one eats, sleeps and feels satisfied - even if the sketches are poor.’ - Banting, March 1931
Painting, no matter what the conditions, provided a rest and holiday for Banting. Whether it was to escape his loneliness and struggling practice in London, the controversy surrounding the discovery of insulin, or the failures in his laboratory and personal life, Banting’s painting excursions relieved the constant pressures placed upon him. Sketching and painting increased in importance to Banting over the twenty years before his death. Art became his favourite form of relaxation - it was his chance to escape (he would even go so far as to use the alias, Frederick Grant ).
The following selection of paintings does not represent his best, nor his worst works, but instead represents his growth as a painter into the style of the Group of Seven. This is clearly evident in the two paintings of the Canadian Rockies from 1926 and 1934 respectively. Whether drawing or painting, the personal enjoyment was what was most important to Banting. A.Y. Jackson, in his book Banting As An Artist, suggested that when viewing Banting’s work keep in mind:
‘The pleasure was in making them, in mixing up a lot of colours in a sketch box and all the adventures that led up to it, the freedom from responsibility, scrambling over unknown country, getting burned by the March sun, smoking a pipe before the camp-fire, or the welcome at the little hotel and the good meals and looking over the day’s work.’
Banting’s interest in painting began in London, Ontario in the summer of 1920. After seeing a print in a local shop, and having never seen an artist at work, he decided he could paint one just as well. With a struggling medical practice, he had plenty of time to paint between appointments. He wrote of his time in London: "My happiest hours of this period were spent thus trying to copy pictures mostly from old magazines or books." After leaving London, Banting continued with his new hobby, painting the Canadian landscape as he saw it.
In 1927, Banting met A.Y. Jackson, of Canada’s artistic group known as The Group of Seven, and a lasting friendship began. It is difficult to discuss the work of Banting without mentioning the name A.Y. Jackson. Banting was always concerned with the quality of his work. Questioning Jackson constantly about technique, brush strokes, and the use of colour, Banting always incorporated the advice given. Upon completion of a sketch he would hand it to Jackson and ask, "Now, what’s wrong with this?"
Over the years, Banting and Jackson embarked on many painting excursions. One of their first, between July 16 and September 4, 1927, found them in the eastern Arctic.
For Banting, this trip would provide not only an excellent opportunity to paint but also a chance to escape his lab in Toronto. In his diary he wrote: "When we cleared the wharf I ripped off my white collar and threw it overboard - went to cabin and put on my old army breeches and grey shirt, leggings, and boots and sweater - good-bye to civilization for two months at least ... I still feel very lazy and not inclined to think about research work."
Jackson and Banting aboard the BeothicJackson felt that Banting was showing promise as a painter. Seven weeks of studying, imitating, and constantly questioning his work proved essential in Banting’s development. His sketches were becoming more vivid and well designed. Coaching from Jackson, coupled with Banting’s abilities and desire to learn and improve, resulted in his development into a competent painter - one of Canada’s best amateurs.
In response to the critics of Banting’s work, Jackson would respond: "People say his paintings are like Jackson’s. Well, that’s natural enough. He would have overcome this in time when he started off on his own." A.J. Casson echoed similar sentiments: "One of the good things I admire Fred for is that he knew enough to draw. I’ve tried my best to get amateurs to draw...he had no professional instruction and so little time to devote to it; but he had the one thing that’s important for a landscape painter - he had a feel ... he was like the rest of us [in the Group of Seven] and painted what he had some heart and soul in."
As early as 1931, Banting expressed a belief that research was for young men. Jackson would ask him about retiring from science to paint full time, and Banting would reply, "When I am 50, that’s what I intend to do." Casson, reported that the last time he met him, Banting said that, "when the war was over he was through with being a doctor, that he was going to paint the rest of his life." Weeks later, while en route to England on a military mission, Banting was killed in a plane crash near Musgrave Harbour, Newfoundland. He was forty-nine.