Dundas’ first Japanese resident was an artist of considerable ability. Yoshimori T. Saito (1865-1895), who occasionally went by Edward, moved to town in the summer of 1894 looking for a place to settle and paint while recovering from a period of poor health. His life story is a remarkable one.
According to the obituary published in the Dundas Star on March 7th, 1895, his father was a colonel in the Japanese army and was killed in the Satsuma Rebellion of 1877. When quite young, Saito resolved to see the world and came to Canada, landing in British Columbia without any money or knowledge of English. He struggled on for several years working in any job he could find, spending his free time practicing drawing and painting. Eventually he moved to Toronto, was married, and became involved in the photography business. At some point he received a letter from a wealthy relative in Japan asking him to send a picture to be donated to the collection of the Japanese Emperor. This resulted in Saito painting a large canvas which was shown at a Toronto fair and subsequently shipped to Japan. His work caught the attention of several Toronto landscape artists who introduced him to some of the region’s more picturesque areas, including Dundas.
Saito moved to the Town and began painting in earnest, but his health was quickly deteriorating. In the spring of 1895, Saito passed away at the age of 30. He left behind a wife and child: Annie Florence (nee Graham) Saito and Norinuchi Saito, who went by Norman. He also left behind a large collection of artworks which were purchased by local residents.
The following is a transcription of an article that was published in The Week on March 29th, 1895 and written by Bernard McEvoy. It includes transcriptions of letters sent by Yoshimori Saito to McEvoy describing his time in Dundas.
THERE died recently in a small country cottage, on a hillside, near Dundas, a young Japanese artist whose life, cut short so sadly by the rigors of this winter, had in it much to engage interest ; and in whose few pictures, now being shown in Toronto–some of them but half-finished–there is a note of pathetic struggle.
I first became acquainted with this wanderer from his own land–Yoshimori Saito–about three years ago. He had then, for a year or two, been married to a Canadian wife, and, with her and one chubby little boy, had taken up housekeeping. He was maintaining himself and his family by crayon enlargements of photographic portraits–work he disliked–and studying painting in intervals of leisure. He showed me a dozen works which evidenced considerable perception and ability, combined with a Japanese way of looking at things. I found him modest, alert and simple. He had the indefinable marks of good breeding, and I was not, therefore, surprised to learn afterwards that he came of a good family. The son of an officer in the Japanese army, who was killed in the last civil war, he had run away from home rather than be any tax on his mother’s pension. He had been a sailor, a saw-mill labourer, a helper in lumber camps, a farm hand, a charcoal burner. In all these labours he had cultivated the germ of art that was in him. He had watched the sea, studied the human form, gazed at sunrises and sunsets, absorbed the mystery and shadow of the woods. Finally he gravitated to Victoria, B.C., where he became a helper in a Japanese store. From thence he came to perform similar duties at a like store in Toronto. Here he began to draw and paint, night and morning, and to sell dozens of small sketches at prices ranging from twenty-five cents to a dollar, or a dollar and a half. He eventually drifted into the crayon enlargement business, and ultimately he ventured to send a picture or two to local exhibitions. He also made a few artist friends, among them being Mr. W. E. Atkinson, from whom he learnt much, and who was his firm friend and helper to the last.
It was soon after I first saw him that a great event happened in his life. He met one day, in Toronto, a fellow countryman who greeted him with demonstrations of surprise and pleasure, for, as he told Saito, he and all his friends in Japan had counted him as “dead in the sea.” The two friends had much to tell each other, and Saito’s compatriot announced his resolution of writing to the artist’s uncle in Japan, who had been the tutor of the Minister of the Interior, to tell him of his nephew’s steady following of the rugged path of art. Letter-writing followed ; the help of the Japanese Minister of the Interior was obtained, and ultimately Saito received a commission to paint a picture for the Emperor to see. He set to work with great vigour and painted a large landscape which was exhibited at the art gallery of the Industrial exhibition, and afterwards at the store of Messrs. Ellis & Co. in King Street. The picture excited much admiration, and it was subsequently despatched to Japan.
The following extracts from a letter which I received from him last June will be read with interest:
I have not seen you for many months and I should have been called to see how you are but I am ill ever since last March and could not do anything what I wanted to. Early part of March, one day it was very cloudy and very strong west wind blew although it was fine day. The various coloured clouds swiftly drifting by the strong gale was beautiful to see. at once I packed Paint box and canvas—took car down to high Park way and went near the Indian Road, sat and sketched, it was a most amusing to work, dush colors and sweep, the brushes was not quick enough to get form of the clouds but I succeeded to get effect but toward evening, I felt terrible chill and almost to drop brushes from my hand—I could not stay any length of time and pick up things to make ready to come home. but still chillness was growing worse and I called my friends house to get warm, no success, in returning home, I beggam gradually sick and ached all over my limbs—in a three day I could not stand either to walk a step. thus I laid in the bed until last week flat on my back. the good warm weather never helped me gaining strength, I did not know what to do, at last made up my mind to get electric treatment, so I did, I gaind considerable strength next day and I continieued quite few times and now I can move a few yards with crutches. now the time, to gaine, so I secured small cottage in Dundas which built in the hill and a few apples and cherry also many grape Vines climing on the fences—they say we can look down all over Dundas from that cottage and natural spring in the yard. I expect go there in a day or so, to stay all summer and if you ever happen to come over that direction, our humble cottage is your servise to you, almost any time. also Mr. Atkinson comes with us to sketch and I am going to make special study of birch, and flower subjects, if I get good one, will send it to you. In that case, I could not work larger canvas which you saw and I had miserable small exhibition last spring—however, two weeks ago I received letter from Japan and telling me that picture arrived safe and every thing in a good prospect. I may get medal in repay.
A short time afterwards he sent me tidings of his safe arrival at Dundas. On June 24th he wrote:
Your Kind answer and Newspaper have reached me in due and I thank you gratefully…. When I left Toronto on the 16th I left my family and furnitures behind me. as I am only in the road of their busy packing and shipping—I came to Hamilton on the boat but it was bad attempt for me, when I reached to Hamilton, I could hardly move, I had had some person to guide me to cab which took me to Dundas, I took hotel of Collins and they are most Hospitable people I could wish—they drove me to our secured cottage and round the town and Hilly mountain. I enjoyed more than in a nine years at Toronto. the country looks very rich, the trees and plants are much stouter and solid although many rocks and hills—I was drove to salpherspring about 3½ miles from Dundas and I drank as much as I can. water has very strong quantity of salpher and Idiod of potash, when you put 25c. silver pieces put in it at spring, it will turn to black within 3 minuts—I also drove to Ancaster where the town already situated before Toronto had any houses, they say it is an oldest village west of Niagara. then I saw a large waterfall which is most pleasing effect. some of old cemitery which have not taken care for many years, the ruined graces and fine roses brossom falling over it, and such, some cascade streams here and there. I think the views around her are just for us.
My cottage of Brown property in Cannon Hill is very cute small building, with sloaping orchard of about ¼ of an acre. 20 of chery, apples, prumbs and pear trees, the grapes and black corrents all round the fence, our varander looks down on the Dundas village and over Hamilton mountain. Our family, Mr. Atkinson and furniture, all arrived last Friday and Mr. A. went out early in the dawn on the bare feet and shirt tail hang out from his trousers and investigate views. he was more than delighted. I thing he will stay with us altogether—it is very dry as we are situated on the hill side and a good fresh air and spring water to drink. It is only a week or so since I came here but I am able to walk without crutches, and as soon as I am able to sketch round I will send you some good one. I also will be down to Toronto during the season and will have opportunity of seeing you—I thank you that you take so much interesting in me and sympathize on my painting—indeed, I would be pleased if you will mention again when I received some notice from Japan.
I have no more to tell you just now, and whenever you come this war, pray drop in as we are quite humble servant to you even pretty good Bohemian style.
At the end of last July I went over to see him as I wished to converse with him from a newspaper point of view on the Japanese War. I found him and Atkinson busily at work painting the charming scenery of the Dundas Valley. Saito appeared to be restored to a tolerable degree of health and was hopeful for the future. On the 4th of August he wrote:
It was great surprise to us that you steped in my Bohemian chanty and we wished that you could stay little longer. However, as you said that you will have some days to spare in meantime and hope you will run up here as we will try and show you very artistic landscapes in surroundings. Since, you left here, the weather keeps rather cool and in the evening it is almost too cold to open the windows, however in the day time, the sun shine is very strong and gives a good and bright feeling to the body.
I have received a letter from our Government, the day after you left here, and it is from Mr. H. Tsuchikata, “the Minister of Interior.” the letter states that
Your painting was forwarded to The Emperor according to the rules of our Government. The Emperor of his Majesty was much pleased of it and he said
“I am much pleased of the Canadian landscape. Saito is a representor of an original art.”
Indeed I hardly deserve it but they say there is many Japanese artists and other came to Foreign country but none of them worked up as I did for they need not have trouble, some, had money enough to study, some, were sent by Government expensis so that they studied very easily but Mine was altogether different Nature to them and the Emperor, and prominent officers are much admired my spirit—the painting was present June 1st, they said it has been arrived early enough but Yokohama custom officer did not inform it—therefore it delayed so much. it is no doubt that emperor is pleased of it. He told minister that he wants to have Frame fitted in his own choice and also he told Minister to exhibit it in our art gallery, and when the news was spred, all officers in the defferent department of Government were excited to see that Saito’s painting and first exhibiting say there were 600 peoples, they were nearly all Government officers—and carriages and jinrikishas filled outside of art gallery.
Now Emperor wants to know all my history in particular and my family history and my history of abroad have been written by Mr. N. Oki “the assistant Minister of Interior” and forwarded to the Emperor.
Above is all the news I get this time and farther I receive in meantime—My cousin and Mr. Shinagawa wrote to me that I will have a greatest honour and will be a good result very soon.
Lately the atmosphere is very gray and misty. I get such a fine cobalt gray, very fainted yet there is great strength of the foreground.
I heard nothing more of Saito until a week or two ago when I was shocked to hear that he was on a sick bed and not likely to recover. The winter, and the results of his former attack had done their work upon him, and the end came at last from heart-failure. Perhaps the falling-through of his hopes with regard to his picture for the Emperor’s palace at Yokohama preyed upon him. The outbreak of the war with China appears to have interfered with his receiving the recognition he expected. Yet as long as he could, he worked, and he made many friends in the neighbourhood he had selected as a home. About thirty-five of his sketches and paintings are now being exhibited at the gallery of Mr. Roberts, 79 King St. West, where they are on sale for the benefit of his widow and child for whom he was able to make but little provision. BERNARD MCEVOY.