Frederick Coates

Frederick Coates
1922 - 1935

Frederick Coates (1890-1965) was a sculptor, painter, sketcher, and architect who served an art director for Hart House Theatre on two separate occasions. He was largely responsible for coordinating and creating the visual look of a production, from lighting effects and stage designs to costumes and playbills.1

Frederick Coates was born and raised in Nottingham, England, the eldest of the four children of Frederick Charles Coates and Abigail Dexter Coates. As the only son in a family growing up in Edwardian England, Frederick Charles Coates insisted that his son would become a chemist like himself, and even forbid his son from becoming an artist. Fred was too excitable to become a chemist, however: it was only after Fred impulsively mixed a batch of chemicals and caused a disastrous accident, his father finally relented and gave him grudging permission to go to art school. Fred went to the Nottingham School for art at around 1909, taking courses in drawing and architectural history. His artistic potential germinated as he travelled France in 1910, which was a stronghold for sculpture since the 1880s, visiting tourist sites and studying classical and Beaux-Arts sculpture at the Louvre and at the Tuileries gardens. By 1911 he enrolled in the Royal College of Art (RCA) in London where he won a bronze award for the design of a bronze pedestal in 1913.2

1913 was also the year Fred Coates decided to settle in Canada to work as a model maker and sculptor, eventually sharing studios and getting acquainted with Toronto’s small sculptural circle, including Margret Scobie, Walter R. Duff, Lorna Reid, and Louise Brown, his future wife and long-time collaborator. Fred’s work was exhibited for the first time in Canada in the Art Museum of Toronto (now the Art Gallery of Ontario) in 1915, and again in 1917.3 Indeed, Fred was so good at sculpture that during the First World War, he enlisted in as a private in the Canadian Army Medical Corps, remoulding the faces of soldiers that were disfigured by shrapnel from the Western front. As one journalist put it: “Dozens of operations were often required on one man, and all the time Frederick Coates acted as the ‘facial architect.’ The doctors knew how to graft flesh and bones; [but] Coates knew what a remodelled face should look like.”4

Fred was able to purchase a wooded lot in the Scarborough Bluffs in 1919 from a friend he had met before the war. Although the land was largely undeveloped, he and Louise decided early on that they wanted to use it to build their own house: after all, Fred was trained as an architect. Enlisting a carpenter, a stonemason, and a bunch of their neighbours, Fred and Louise finished their happy home dubbed “Sherwood” by 1922—a home styled as a medieval cottage complete with a secret passage. Once the home was finished, Fred and Louise became notorious for hosting large and lavish parties, masquerades, and charades. The parties were so famous that they attracted influential people: among them Vincent Massey and Bertram Forsyth.5

How Fred met Forsyth is unknown; but their first collaboration—and one of their most successful—came on June 6, 1922 with Hart House Theatre’s first production of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Fred and Bertram’s production was lauded in the press, at home and aboard, as “the climax of the Hart House season that year” and “a play well calculated to transport the beholder from the everyday rut to the world of imagination and fancy.”6 Fred’s stellar work on The Tempest got him the job as art director of Hart House Theatre, and a few weeks later, on June 22, Fred and Louise married.7 Of course, Fred was not just a set designer and costume designer, he also was in charge of lighting effects, playbills, and the administration of general theatre workshops.8

After The Tempest, Fred Coates and Bertram Forsyth became nigh inseparable: Fred himself even began to teach students in the art of stagecraft. A change in Hart House Theatre’s art policy in 1924, however, resulted in set design becoming a course taught at the Ontario College of Arts under the Group of Seven, enticing Fred to leave Hart House Theatre and tour with Forsyth to tour with his splinter cell Players’ Club. But even with the Players’ Club, Fred Coates won broad critical acclaim as a modernist, fantastic, surrealist, and “futurist.”9 Their success as a team, however, was cut short by Forsyth’s suicide in 1927, and two years later, Fred Coates found himself returning as the art director of Hart House Theatre.

Fred Coates resigned in 1935, but not before he crafted his magnum opus—an homage mural to the 1922 production of The Tempest. Carved from a solid piece of linoleum 9 feet wide and 12 feet high, and painted to look like a stained glass window, Coates begun this massive linocut in the summer of 1934. When he finished it was a year later, his creative energy worn out.

Fred Coates said he chose to make a linocut of The Tempest because it was his first success in the theatre, when he captured the imagination of audiences both at home and around the globe. The same linocut still remains in the Hart House lobby, immortalizing the magic of a production that those who saw it never forgot. For the remainder of his years, Fred Coates became a part-time teacher for model making at the University of Toronto’s school of architecture. He died in 1965.10


Show 10 footnotes

  1. Paul Makovsky, The Stuff Dreams Are Made Of: The Art and Design of Frederick and Louise Coates, (Toronto: University of Toronto Library, 1996), 15.
  2. Makovsky, The Stuff Dreams Are Made Of, 15-16.
  3. Ibid., 15-16.
  4. Toronto Star Weekly (Toronto, Ontario), 18 April 1934. Quoted in Makovsky, The Stuff Dreams Are Made Of, 18.
  5. Makovsky, The Stuff Dreams Are Made Of, 37.
  6. Quoted in Makovsky, 49. Anonymous, “Charming Play at Hart House,” The Globe (Toronto, Ontario), Jun. 7, 1922: 19.
  7. Ibid., 20.
  8. Ibid., 49.
  9. Ibid., 50-51.
  10. Ibid., 61-62, 78.