hen albert and Mary austin returned to toronto after living in Winnipeg for
fourteen years, they decided to commission a local artist to design and execute the interior for the billiard room at Spadina, their home, located at the Davenport Road hill. The billiard room frieze at Spadina was an early commission for the great mural artist Gustav Hahn. While Hahn could be called a “Canadian artist,” he had in fact arrived from Germany only ten years before.
At the time of working for the Austins, in 1898, Hahn was living in west Toronto near High Park within an artists’ community that included the mural artist George Reid and architect Eden Smith. Hahn was surrounded by nature, which inspired his designs, but he was also an avid reader of artistic magazines from Europe, such as Jugend and The Studio, both of which served as his window on artistic developments beyond Canada, including, significantly for the Austin commission, the Art Nouveau style.
For the frieze that runs the length of the Spadina billiard room (a room that measures 24.5 feet by 34 feet), the Austins had in mind a design that was very contemporary in look. They chose a pattern of Art Nouveau—very modern at the time, but which turned out to be an aesthetically short-lived decorative style in Canada and most of Europe. One of the reasons the Austins chose the pattern they did was because, in this period, Spadina was very much in a rural setting. The mansion was at the centre of an 80-acre property surrounded by earthy greenery. With such deep foliage all around the estate, the new, playful decorative style of Art Nouveau certainly complemented the rural setting. For example, the motifs central to the frieze are apple trees. Apple trees had been on the Spadina property well before the billiard room was constructed. From his reading of European magazines, Gustav Hahn would have known that Art Nouveau designs were playful and youthful, favouring a light organic tracery found on languid vines and plant leaves.
By 1900, Art Nouveau had become virtually an international decorative style all over Europe. It was known as “Art Nouveau” in Britain, “Le Style Moderne” in France, and “Jugendstil” in Germany and the Vienna of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The commissions that Gustav Hahn filled in Canada are early examples of Art Nouveau and were contemporaneous with the British and European masters. For example, Charles Rennie Mackintosh had completed a series of Art Nouveau friezes and designs for a number of tea rooms in Glasgow, the Buchanan Street Tea Room in particular, circa 1897. What confirms the Hahn Spadina billiard room murals as Art Nouveau is the linear quality and the tracery. The apple trees and the doves in flight were made of string laid down onto canvas, and united with the use of gesso. The shimmering tracery patterns of the sky suggest the stained glass windows found in domestic interiors in many houses at this time.
Along with his frieze for Spadina, Hahn had previously executed a mural, circa 1897, for another billiard room, at Benvenuto (now demolished), the prominent Toronto residence of Simeon Janes. Two other surviving examples of Hahn’s work are the ceiling decoration in the Ontario legislature chamber at Queen’s Park, Toronto, and the 1902 mural at Holwood, the former house of Sir Joseph Flavelle, near Queen’s Park in Toronto. Hahn also contributed, circa 1906, one significant design, called Hail Dominion!, for the rotunda of the old Parliament Buildings in Ottawa; his contribution was part of an ambitious mural scheme, Canada Receiving the Homage of Her Children, which was the work of six artists in total.
The first summer Spadina was open to the public, in 1984, Sylvia Hahn, a daughter of Gustav Hahn, was invited to the house. It was hoped that she could confirm the billiard room frieze as the work of her father. She looked carefully at the frieze with wonder, scanning the billiard room with the fresh eyes of a child. She smiled, and the design seemed very familiar to her. She recalled visiting Spadina and the frieze some forty-odd years previously. Sylvia Hahn’s verdict was that the design, colours, and materials used were her father’s work. Sylvia had been a student of her father’s in interior design classes at the Ontario College of Art. Another prominent student who benefitted from Gustav Hahn’s knowledge was the young Franz Johnston, a future founder of the Group of Seven.
While Gustav Hahn was a comrade of the Wychwood Park artists’ set in Toronto, and worked mainly at the Ontario College of Art, he is remembered as the early Canadian interior designer who created the Hail Dominion! project for our national parliament in Ottawa.
James Austin S. Thompson is a lecturer, writer, and descendant of the austin family of Spadina.
Photograph: Juliane Wilbee, with permission of City of Toronto,
Museum Services, Spadina Museum