Philip Surrey, self-portrait, 1928
Born near Calgary in 1910, Philip Surrey studied in the evening classes at the Winnipeg School of Art. In 1929, he moved to Vancouver where he studied under the direction of Frederick Varley at the Vancouver School of Art. The Varley who influenced him at this time had long previously diverted from the original Group of Seven landscape tradition. Varley was now primarily interested in painting people. Later, Surrey moved east to New York for intensive study of the techniques of classical old master painting under Alexander Abels at the famous Art Students League. Here some of the techniques he used were developed. This included a method of tempera underpainting which helps to keep his paintings fresh over a long protracted period of completion of a work, and a way to achieve aglow to the colour used to depict the cold glare of streetlights, and the warm colourful glare of neon lights and stoplights shown so often in his “cityscapes”.
In 1937, he moved to Montreal, and in the following year he began a long career as a photo editor for the Montreal Standard and later for Weekend Magazine. His journalism career provided the necessary livelihood while ensuring enough independence to allow him to unflinchingly pursue and develop his own unique vision.
Within the next few years, in the early 1940’s, Quebec experienced a new experience of painting, with the emergence of the Contemporary Art Society. The Society was founded by John Lyman who declared that “the real Canadian scene is in the consciousness of Canadian painters, whatever the object of their thought”. Philip Surrey was a founding member of this group that sought to expand Canadian art consciousness beyond the Group of Seven with landscape. He died in Montreal in 1990.
Surrey painted the angles of streets and the edges of buildings, automobiles and trams, street lights and traffic signs, puddles, snowbanks, the glow of red tail-lights in the dusk, exhauts trails in the winter air and the individual in the streets.
Surrey made several studies in acrylic on paper and oils, modifying each by varying mass, spaces, figures and colour until he believed the work best represents the original idea. He usually had more than one work in process at the same time, returning to each painting to improve or complete it when the time was right.
Philip Surrey’s works are represented in many public collections including in the National Gallery, The Musée National des beaux-arts du Québec, The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, the Art Gallery of Ontario, the Art Gallery of Hamilton, The Winnipeg Art Gallery, The CIL Collection, the Department of External Affairs, and the Bezalel Museum in Jerusalem.
Source: Donald C. Robinson, “The Art of Philip Surrey” in The Canadian Art Investors Guide, Volume 6, no. 1, Spring 1980