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Toni Onley | A Landscape Defined

Onley was born in 1928 on the Isle of Man, just off the west coast of Britain. His father was an English actor. Toni attended St. Mary's primary school and Ingleby Secondary School, Isle of Man, then studied under a local landscape water colourist John Nicholson where he began his formal education in drawing, watercolour painting, and etching at the Douglas School of Art. (1942-46).

After World War II, difficult times forced Onley to immigrate to Canada in 1948 where he settled for a time at Brantford, Ontario. He took further study at the Doon School of Fine Art in 1951 under Carl Schaefer and it was here he also discovered the watercolours of David Milne. In his early work Onley was influenced by British painters John Cotman and Peter DeWint and did traditional landscapes. He married Brantford art critic and amateur painter Mary Burrows in 1950 and they had two daughters Jennifer and Lynn. He worked at a variety of jobs in order to support his family. Exhibiting in the Western Ontario Annual show of artists under 27 he won an award in 1955.

Following the death of his wife Mary, Onley moved with his children to Penticton, B.C., where his parents had retired. There he conducted classes for children Saturday mornings and taught adults nights at Penticton High School. He worked as a surveyor, draftsman for Meiklejohn Architects, commercial artist and continued with his own painting when time permitted.

In 1957 he won a scholarship offered by the Institute Allende, San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, where he took his two daughters. In order to pay for his trip Toni rented the Knights of Pythias Hall in Penticton where he hired an Okanagan cattle auctioneer who auctioned off and sold 250 works with many selling for $5 raising $1,300. Many of the works that make up our collection were donated to the gallery by the families who purchased them at this sale.

The proceeds afforded him the financial freedom to take his two daughters on Mexican sojourn where Toni found new inspiration in the vibrant arts community of San Miguel de Allende, Mexico where his work became freer and expressionistic. It is said that after a frustrating night he began tearing up paintings leaving them strewn across his studio floor and when he returned that the next day he saw in these fragments new relationships which he began to reform into new dynamic compositions comprising of irregularly shaped pieces of painted paper or canvas pasted to a backing or canvas.

Returning to Canada his work quickly caught the attention of the arts community and he quickly found himself thrust to the forefront of the contemporary art scene with a quick succession of exhibitions at the Coste House (Calgary, 1958), Vancouver Art Gallery (1958) and the New Design Gallery, Van. (1959). In 1961, Onley did a 90-square-metre mural for Vancouver's Queen Elizabeth Theatre and was one of seven artists chosen to represent Canada at the Paris biennial exhibition. In the years that followed he returned to objective basic shapes from nature giving full play to design with delicate colouring.

Onley spent a year in London returning to Canada in 1965, where he gradually returned to landscape painting. Onley took up flying in the late 1960s, a passion which enabled him to travel to various remote locations, often sketched from the air before landing to continue work on a painting. By the early 1970s, flying became his sole obsession resulting in a prodigious output of new work ranging from watercolours, oils, lithographs, and etchings. These works were highly abstract at first, but as his landscapes evolved over the years, they were to become increasingly figurative while simultaneously retaining impressionistic and abstract qualities. In 1978, the Vancouver Art Gallery held a huge retrospective of his work, comprising both his purely abstract works of the 1960s and his new evolving landscape works. 

In 1980, Onley shot to national prominence when a realtor known only as the Fraser Valley Phantom bought 800 of Onley’s works for $930,000. At the time, it was the largest purchase of works by a living Canadian artist. With the publication of Toni Onley: A Silent Thunder, in 1981, secured his reputation as one of Canada’s leading landscape artists.

In the early 1990s, Onley returned to pure abstract form, producing small paper collages in parallel with his watercolour landscape work. Flying remained an integral part of Onley’s professional life as a painter; it was how he reached the British Columbia landscapes that he painted.  He also traveled widely by conventional means, painting in such diverse places as Japan, China, Switzerland, England, Spain, Arabia and India.

Onley's life ended tragically on February 29, 2004 at the age of 75 when a massive heart attack caused him to lose consciousness and his airplane crashed into the Fraser River.

The Penticton Art Gallery holds the largest public collection of Toni’s work, but we sadly lack examples of his works from the 1960’s and the early 70’s and this hole will impact the future study and understanding of his life and work. If you have a work or works from this period and would be willing to consider donating them the gallery please contact Paul Crawford at:  (250) 493-2928 or by e-mail:


Earlier Event: September 16
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