Norman Antony Onley

Norman Antony Onley, "Toni," painter (b at Douglas, Isle of Man, UK 20 Nov 1928; d near Maple Ridge, BC, 29 Feb 2004). Onley received his early art training in Douglas on the Isle of Man, and also became an apprentice to a local architect.

Norman Antony Onley

Norman Antony Onley, "Toni," painter (b at Douglas, Isle of Man, UK 20 Nov 1928; d near Maple Ridge, BC, 29 Feb 2004). Onley received his early art training in Douglas on the Isle of Man, and also became an apprentice to a local architect. His family immigrated to Canada in 1948, and he worked at various occupations in Ontario, later moving to Penticton, BC, where his parents had settled. In 1957, he was awarded a one-year scholarship to attend the Instituto Allende at San Miguel de Allende in Mexico. To enable him to leave his position with a Penticton architectural firm where he was employed as a draftsman, he organized an auction sale of 250 of his works at the local Knights of Pytheus Hall. The proceeds ($1300) allowed him to attend the Instituto Allende. He studied there with the artist James Pinto and his work became increasingly abstract. The opportunity of a second year at the Instituto saw him return to Penticton where another auction was held. On his way back to Mexico, via Vancouver, he showed his paintings to Alvin Balkind of the New Design Gallery and to Bob Hume, Curator of the VANCOUVER ART GALLERY. A one-man exhibition at the Vancouver Art Gallery in the autumn of 1958 was the result. Onley returned to Mexico and continued to exhibit his work in Canada, gaining recognition.

He returned to Canada in 1960 and settled in Vancouver. Successful shows in Vancouver and Toronto brought him greater national attention. In 1961, he was awarded a Canada Council grant and attended the EMMA LAKE ARTISTS' WORKSHOP in 1962, led that year by the New York critic, Clement GREENBERG. A second Canada Council grant in 1963 allowed the artist to return to Great Britain, where he was able to visit the more important collections in London, rediscovering the great artists of the British watercolour tradition. In London, he turned his attention to etching as well.

He returned to Vancouver in 1964 and soon began painting spare, formal landscapes that were so successful he was soon able to earn his livelihood exclusively from his art. In 1966-67, he took flying lessons and soon purchased his own amphibious plane which made remote locations for his landscape painting more accessible. His search for remote locations eventually led him to the Arctic which he first painted in 1974 aboard the icebreaker CCGS Louis St. Laurent. He returned to the Arctic the next year in his own plane, where he taught lithography to Inuit artists at Cape Dorset.

In August 1980, Onley made national headlines when he sold 800 works for $900 000. In October 1983, Onley made national headlines again when he threatened to burn an inventory of 1000 original prints as a protest against Revenue Canada's rules governing the taxation of artists as "manufacturers," essentially not allowing expenses in the production of art work until it is sold, and assessing an artist's inventory for tax purposes. This eventually led to some tax reform beneficial to artists, including provisions allowing the donation of their works to designated institutions under the Cultural Properties Import and Export Act. Two years later, in September of 1984, Onley made headlines again when he crashed his Polish-built Wilga 80 on a glacier in Garibaldi Provincial Park. He had bought the plane in 1981 to access the pristine environment of the glaciers for his painting. Fortunately, he and his passenger escaped with minor injuries and were rescued.

In 1985 he collaborated with George WOODCOCK to produce a book, The Walls of India, sales of which, along with sales of Onley's original watercolours used for the illustrations and matching grants from CIDA, were to generate revenue for the Canada-India Village Aid Association, which provides public-health services in rural Indian villages.

Onley's watercolours are always done on location and are the spontaneous reaction to the landscape forms he sees. He works in broad washes, usually using a large Chinese brush. The watercolours are the basis for studo oil paintings or silk-screen prints.


Further Reading

  • Roger H. Boulet, Toni Onley: A Silent Thunder (1981).