Kenneth Forbes, RCA, 1892-1980

Kenneth Forbes painted prime ministers, battle scenes and
landscapes, and was a fierce upholder of “traditional” art

Biography

Kenneth Keith Forbes was born in 1892, the son of noted Canadian portrait artist John Colin Forbes (1846-1925). John Forbes painted a famous portrait of Canada’s first Prime Minister Sir. John A. Macdonald. The circa 1890 portrait is in the National Gallery of Canada (see blog post on John and Kenneth Forbes).

The younger Forbes would end up following in his father’s footsteps, becoming a noted portrait painter in his own right and painting a series of Canadian prime ministers: Robert Borden, R. B. Bennett, and John F. Diefenbaker.

Kenneth Forbes was recognized with the Order of Canada in 1967 for his contributions to Canada as a “landscape and portrait painter,” according to the official citation.

Growing up, Kenneth Forbes attended school in Montreal before studying art in England and Scotland. He earned scholarships to art schools in both countries.

Official War Artist

When the First World War broke out in 1914, Kenneth Forbes enlisted as a private with the 10th Royal Fusiliers of the British Army. He was wounded twice while fighting in France with a machine-gun corps and sent back to England to recuperate. He was promoted to lieutenant and returned to France and later became second in command of the 32nd Machine Gun Corps.

In 1917, Kenneth Forbes received a commission by Lord Beaverbrook (Max Aitken) to paint a series of official war pictures of the front. Kenneth Forbes was attached to the Canadian war memorial section as an artist, much in the same way A.Y. Jackson, later of the Group of Seven, was.

Photo of Kenneth Forbes painting Canadian Artillery in Action

Canadian Artillery in Action during the First World War, painted by official war artist Kenneth Forbes. Beaverbrook Collection of War Art, Canada War Museum. Photo by Mark Skeffington

Perhaps Kenneth Forbes’ most famous painting is from this time, showing an artillery unit firing a heavy gun, called Canadian Artillery in Action. The painting is in the Canadian War Museum, which also has other of his war-time paintings (see blog post Canadian Artists: Witnesses to War).

After the war, Kenneth Forbes became a well-known portrait artist. Subjects included Canadian prime ministers, Speakers of the House of Commons, Winston Churchill, businessmen E.P. Taylor and Harry Oakes, as well as many other public figures.

Portrait Painter

In late 1918, Forbes married his wife Jean Mary Edgell, who was also an artist.

Kenneth Forbes was commissioned by the Ontario Society of Artists to paint the portrait of Canadian artist Fred Brigden, with the painting displayed at the OSA exhibit of 1943.

Kenneth Forbes was a member of the Ontario Society of Artists and the Royal Canadian Academy, but he later had disagreements with both organizations.

As a traditional painter, Kenneth Forbes disliked the Ontario Society of Artists support of the abstract or modern Canadian art movement of the early 1950s and resigned from the OSA.

Against Abstract Art

In 1958, Kenneth Forbes and other artists – Manley MacDonald, Douglas Elliott, Marion Long and others — set up a new organization called the Ontario Institute of Painters.

Kenneth Forbes went on to later publish a 67-page book called Great Art to the Grotesque, upholding a traditional approach to art against the abstract movement in Canada.

Kenneth Forbes’ works are held in major collections, including the National Gallery of Canada, the Canadian War Museum and the Art Gallery of Ontario (including The Yellow Scarf and several portraits).

He died in 1980.

Sources:
Kenneth Forbes profile by Jennifer Morse, Legion Magazine, March 1997.
Joan Murray, Ontario Society of Artists: 100 Years, 1872-1972 as found on the CCCA Canadian Art Database maintained by Concordia University Fine Arts.
Wikipedia