Canada’s First World War Art Collection

Laura Brandon
Curator of War Art, Canadian War Museum

Canada’s First World War collection of nearly 1,000 paintings is known as the Canadian War Memorials Fund (CWMF). It was the first official war art program in the world and boasts the largest number of oversize paintings of any collection of its kind. Most of the CWMF paintings are in the custody of the Canadian War Museum (CWM). The National Gallery of Canada (NGC) transferred the collection to the museum in 1971. The NGC retained in its collection, however, a number of the most modern paintings. Eight of the largest CWMF paintings have hung in the Senate Chamber on Parliament Hill since 1921.

The Contribution of Lord Beaverbrook

Lord BeaverbrookThe First World War collection was the brainchild of Sir Max Aitken (created Lord Beaverbrook in December 1916). Born in 1879, he was raised in New Brunswick. After relocating to Britain in 1910, the millionaire newspaper owner moved easily into its highest aristocratic and political circles. Always a Canadian at heart, however, Beaverbrook’s genuine nationalist fervour contributed to his decision in 1916 to initiate and take personal responsibility for a project to record the war from Canada’s point of view through the Canadian War Records Office (CWRO). By this time, the First World War had been ongoing for two years.

Aitken’s media interests made him ideally suited to the task of documenting the conflict in film, photograph and print. His experience with a mass circulation daily paper, the Daily Express, meant he also knew what engaged people’s interests. A single event turned him in the direction of documenting the war in art: the horrific German gas attack on the Canadians at the Second Battle of Ypres in April and May 1915. For a variety of reasons the event was not photographed, so in November 1916, Aitken commissioned a huge 3.7 x 6 metre painting from the British artist and illustrator Richard Jack through his new art organization, the Canadian War Memorials Fund. Undoubtedly, the success of this venture, combined with the prevailing belief that the lifespan of a photograph was limited, contributed to his decision to commission more artists to record Canada’s war experiences for posterity.

Artists on the Battlefield

Stationary Hospital at Doullens, Gerald MoiraHe and his war art advisor, the Hungarian-born art critic P.G. Konody, worked essentially from two angles. First, they commissioned big pictures from important British artists such as David Cameron, Louis Weirter, Gerald Moira, and C.R.W. Nevinson. Beaverbrook thought initially that the oversize works might contribute to the decoration of the new Houses of Parliament in Ottawa, the original buildings having been largely destroyed by fire in 1916. But he was also responsive to the idea that artists should spend time on the battlefield making sketches of documentary value that, ultimately, might be turned into larger works. He employed soldiers who were artists, such as Thurstan Topham. He also provided opportunities to his newspapers’ graphic artists, men like H.J. Mowat. The French-Canadian Battalion – the 22nd – was painted by a Belgian official war artist, Alfred Bastien, who was seconded to the Battalion for three weeks. The medical services overseas were captured in paint by artists such as the painter and printmaker Cyril Barraud.

It was his special interest in size and impact and his preference for British artists that brought Beaverbrook into conflict with officials in Ottawa, in particular with the National Gallery of Canada. The main player there was Sir Edmund Walker, president of the Canadian Bank of Commerce and the chairman of the gallery’s board of trustees. Working with him at the gallery was the Englishman Eric Brown, its first director. While they appreciated Beaverbrook’s extraordinary drive in founding and funding the Canadian war art program, they had different views on what form the record should take. The gallery’s interest lay in field study, not grand studio composition. It also worried that the program recommended too many commissions for British artists. Such nationalist sympathies were hardly unique. While Canadians were still British subjects, many craved an identity, in politics and in art, which would be distinct from their associations with the mother country.

The Group of Seven

Olympic with Returned Soldiers, Arthur LismerWalker corresponded with Beaverbrook concerning the employment of Canadian artists. Beaverbrook was receptive and gradually hired more Canadians, such as future Group of Seven member A.Y. Jackson. Walker was instrumental in hiring another future Group painter, F. H. Varley, who was among four artists – another was Maurice Cullen – given the rank of captain and attached to the Canadian Corps.

Walker and Brown were responsible for including future Group members in another aspect of the war’s artistic record: the home front. Arthur Lismer created memorable images of Halifax, Nova Scotia, in wartime, producing vibrant portraits of dazzle-painted ships in the harbour. Frank Johnston worked for several months documenting pilot training at various bases in Ontario. His watercolours of Curtiss JN–4 aircraft joyously looping-the-loop above the tranquil fall farm landscape uniquely convey the idea of flight and show that, for some, war was not a grim business.

Female Artists

Land Girls Hoeing, Manly E. MacDonald For the most part, female artists were assigned to represent women at work on behalf of the war effort. During the war the work of women evolved as thousands performed tasks previously performed by men. Montreal artist Henrietta Mabel May, enthusiastically depicted women filling shells in a moving impressionist composition, while Manly MacDonald composed a colourful composition of girls cheerfully hoeing in a field.

The Canadian War Memorials Fund paintings were thus the product of a group of people with a vested interest in Canadian success, from both a professional and a business point of view. Their goal was a painted record of the conflict in which Canada, despite a high casualty rate (more than 60,000 Canadians were killed), was clearly seen as a major contributor to the war’s successful outcome. On the whole, topics were allocated to the artists selected, and painting styles that were too modern were generally frowned upon. Instead, compositions were to combine sober reality with traditional values.

The first major exhibition of war art commissioned by the Canadian War Memorials Fund opened at Burlington House, home of the Royal Academy in London, on January 4, 1919. On display were the plans Beaverbrook had commissioned for a war memorial art gallery in Ottawa. A second touring exhibition followed in 1920. The National Gallery mounted more exhibitions in 1923 and 1924. During this period, Walker lobbied the government for a different building in Ottawa to house both the gallery’s collection and the war art. A decade of lobbying by protagonists of both schemes produced neither building. Instead, Beaverbrook lost interest in his project, feeling generally that his wartime work for Canada had been under-appreciated. The National Gallery assumed the increasingly onerous burden of custody. Subsequently, the war paintings were little shown until the Second World War. After the end of this war, they were rarely seen for the next fifty years.

With the opening in May 2005 of the new Canadian War Museum, much is now on display. In some respects the dreams of both Beaverbrook and Walker have come true.

Selected Bibliography

The Housing of the Canadian War Memorials. London, 1919.

Brown, F. Maud. Breaking Barriers: Eric Brown and the National Gallery. Ottawa: The Society for Art Publications, 1964.

Cork, Richard. A Bitter Truth: Avant-Garde Art and the Great War. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994.

Fussell, Paul. The Great War and Modern Memory. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975.

Jackson, A.Y. A Painter’s Country: The Autobiography of A.Y. Jackson. Toronto: Clarke, Irwin and Company, 1976.

Oliver, Dean, and Laura Brandon. Canvas of War: Painting the Canadian Experience, 1914–1945. Vancouver: Douglas and McIntyre, 2000.

Robertson, Heather. A Terrible Beauty. Toronto: James Lorimer and Company, 1978.

Taylor, A.J.P. Beaverbrook. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1972.

Tippett, Maria. Art at the Service of War: Canada, Art, and the Great War. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1984.

Wodehouse, R.F. Check List of The War Collections. Ottawa: National Gallery of Canada, 1968.

Laura Brandon
Curator of War Art, Canadian War Museum

Laura BrandonPrior to her present appointment in 1992, Laura Brandon worked as a freelance curator, writer and critic, and taught art history at the University of Prince Edward Island. She has lectured extensively in North America and overseas and has written more than one hundred catalogues, articles and reviews. She is the author of the biography Pegi by Herself: The Life of Pegi Nicol MacLeod, Canadian Artist (2005) and is the co-author of Canvas of War (2000). Art and Memorial: The Canadian War Museum’s Art Collection as a Site of Meaning, Memory, and Identity in the Twentieth Century will be published in June 2005. As curator of War Art, she has added over 2000 works to the war art collections. Her exhibitions include: The Art of War (1993), Normandy Summer (1994), Vimy Remembered (1997), Memento Mori (1997), Remembering the Holocaust (1998) and Paragraphs in Paint (1998). Her exhibition Canvas of War (2000) received the Canadian Museum Association’s Award of Excellence. She is the curator of Pegi Nicol MacLeod: A Life in Art (2005) and co-curator of Edwin Holgate: Master of the Human Figure (2005). For the new war museum, she is co-curator of Art and War: The Second World War Art of Australia, Britain, and Canada. She is also the curator of The Royal Canadian Legion Hall of Honour. She holds a BA (Honours) in History and Art History from the University of Bristol, an MA in Art History from Queen’s University and a PhD in History from Carleton University. She is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts.