Edwin Holgate was born in Allandale, Ontario. When he was three years old, his family moved to Jamaica where his father worked as an engineer. At the age of five, Holgate returned to Toronto to live with relatives and to begin his schooling. The Holgate family was re-united four years later and settled in Montreal, where Holgate began his art education at the Art Association of Montreal studying under William Brymner who was also A.Y. Jackson's teacher. In 1920, some of the Brymner graduates found a large building on Beaver Hall Hill in Montreal, a central location that could serve for a number of studios. Over the years Holgate continued to be involved with the Beaver Hall Hill group, as the artists who stayed there have become known.
Holgate continued his studies in Paris, returning to Canada at the outbreak of World War I and enlisted in the army. After the War, the artist returned to Paris with his new bride and remained there until 1922 when they returned to Montreal and became active in the city's cultural and artistic life. Having studied figure painting in France, Holgate began a series of nudes in northern landscapes. In 1928 he began teaching wood engraving at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. Holgate was instrumental in the founding of the Canadian Society of Graphic Artists in 1925, and it was as a graphic artist that he first began to attract wide attention. Asked to join the Group in 1930, Holgate had by then established a reputation for his figure paintings and West Coast and Laurentian landscapes.
Although he did execute landscape paintings, Holgate was better known for his portraits. He also painted many murals, the best known being his designs for the Totem Pole Room at Ottawa's Chateau Laurier Hotel. After the Group of Seven years Holgate took a teaching position at the Art Association of Montreal. Among the talents he brought to this post, were his skills as a book illustrator as well as a wood engraver. His lifelong interest in graphics, drawing and printmaking are evident in the strong lines and design of his painting.