Forbes Family Painted Prime Ministers

Canada has a rich history of artists following in the footsteps of their artist parents. This is one of a series of blog posts telling their stories.

Father-and-son artists John Forbes and Kenneth Forbes painted Canadian prime ministers, spanning decades of our country’s history.

John Colin Forbes (1846-1925) is considered one of Canada’s leading portrait painters.

Photo of painting by John Colin Forbes of Canadian prime minister Sir. John A. MacDonald

Canadian Prime Minister Sir. John A. MacDonald as painted by John Colin Forbes (circa 1890). National Gallery of Canada.

Among his subjects were prime ministers Sir John A. MacDonald and Alexander Mackenzie, but he also painted leading political figures and prominent citizens of his day. John Forbes also painted King Edward and Queen Alexandra under commission from the Government of Canada, but the portrait was lost in the fire that destroyed the Parliament buildings in 1916.

Kenneth Keith Forbes (1892-1980) was one of three sons of John Forbes and Laura Gertrude Holbrook, the only one who turned to art.

War Artist

Kenneth Forbes began drawing at the age 4, and received instruction from his father before continuing formal art training in England and Scotland.

While in England, Kenneth Forbes enlisted for the First World War. After being wounded twice, he was transferred to the Canada War Records office in London as a painter (see blog post Witnesses to War).

Several of Kenneth Forbes’ First World War frontline paintings, The Defence of Sanctuary Wood and Canadian Artillery in Action, are in the collection of the Canada War Museum. He also painted portraits of military officers.

After the war, Kenneth Forbes married Jean Mary Edgel, who was an artist in her own right. They had one daughter, also an artist, Laura June McCormack, also known as June Forbes McCormack (1921-1961).

Order of Canada
Photo of Kenneth Forbes painting of Canadian Prime Minsiter Sr. Robert Borden

Painting of Canadian Prime Minister Sir Robert Borden by Kenneth Keith Forbes (1947). House of Commons Heritage Collection.

Kenneth Forbes, wife and daughter returned to Canada a few years after the First World War. Kenneth Forbes turning to portrait painting, while also painting the occasional landscape. Portraits of his wife — The Earrings and The Artist’s Wife — earned Forbes praise and further commissions.

Kenneth Forbes went on to paint prime ministers R.B. Bennett, Sir Robert Borden and John Diefenbaker.

In later years, Kenneth Forbes became known for his stance in defence of the traditional school of art and painting, publishing a book against the acceptance of contemporary Canadian art called Great Art to the Grotesque.*

In 1967, Kenneth Forbes received the Order of Canada for “for his contributions to the arts as a landscape and portrait painter”.

June Forbes McCormack also followed in the Forbes family tradition of portrait painting during her short life, painting portraits of political and other important figures. Two of portraits hang in the Ontario legislature.

– Mark Skeffington, FineArtCollector.ca
Copyrighted material. Cannot be used without written permission.

Fuller biography of Kenneth Forbes

*Note: In 1974, Canadian contemporary artist Charles Pachter wrote an essay called Kenneth Forbes: Crackpot or Undiscovered Genius?Pachter argued it was still possible to appreciate Kenneth Forbes’s art even if one didn’t like his views on modern art.