Opening of the Canadian War Exhibition 2
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Topical Film Company
Sir Robert Borden receives the freedom of Cardiff while opening an exhibition of Canadian War Photographs, July 1918. Borden, the Canadian Prime Minister, is shown with the mayor and officials of Cardiff seated in the picture gallery with the Canadian photographs on the walls behind them. Directly behind them is a famous 'over the top' photograph by Ivor Castle, the Canadian Official Photographer (which was in fact at a training exercise). A portrait shot of Borden.
Pieces of History
Canada’s First World War Art Collection
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
The 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
He 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
Walker 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.
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.
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.
Sir Robert Borden
Borden was a self-made man. After a brief formal education, he spent 5 years teaching at private academies in Nova Scotia and New Jersey. Returning to NS in 1874 to article in law, he was admitted to the bar in 1878 and by 1890 headed a prestigious Halifax law firm. He was elected to Parliament in 1896 and in 1901 was selected by the Conservative caucus to succeed Sir Charles Tupper as leader of the Liberal-Conservative Party. Over the next decade he worked to rebuild the Conservative Party and establish a reform policy (the Halifax Platform of 1907).
In 1911 he led the opposition to the Reciprocity Agreement negotiated by Sir Wilfrid Laurier's government with the US and forced a general election. By skilful political management Borden brought together a coalition of anti-Laurier groups (Liberal businessmen opposed to Reciprocity, French Canadian Nationalistes opposed to the Naval Service Act, Conservative provincial administrations and his own parliamentary party) which defeated the Liberal Party.
Borden's leadership during WWI was remarkable. At home, his wartime government was responsible for the Emergency War Measures Act (1914), the first measures of direct taxation by the Ottawa government (the Wartime Business Profits Tax, 1916, and the "temporary" Income Tax, 1917), the nationalization of the Canadian Northern Railway as the first step in the creation of the CNR and, after the collapse of the voluntary recruiting system, the Military Service Act, 1917. Conscription was accompanied by the creation of a union government of pro-conscriptionist Conservatives and Liberals which won the bitterly contested general election of 1917.
Overseas, the Canadian Expeditionary Force grew from one division to a full Canadian Corps commanded after 1917 by a Canadian, Lieutenant-General Sir Arthur William Currie. Borden believed that the distinguished record of the CEF at Ypres, Vimy Ridge and Passchendaele and in the final 100 days was the ultimate proof of the maturity of Canadian nationhood.
Principal author of Resolution IX of the Imperial War Conference of 1917, he argued that Canada and the other dominions deserved recognition "as autonomous nations of an Imperial Commonwealth." As leader of the Canadian delegation at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, he was primarily responsible for international recognition of the autonomous status of the Dominions.
Borden retired as PM in 1920. In his last years he was recognized as an international statesman and firm advocate of the League of Nations. He pursued a successful career in business and served as chancellor of Queen's 1924-30.
Borden, Robert Laird, Sir. Canada in the Commonwealth: From Conflict to Co-operation. Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1929.
---. Canadian Constitutional Studies: The Marfleet Lectures, University of Toronto, October, 1921. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1922.
---. Letters to Limbo. 2 v. Henry Borden, ed. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1971.
---. Robert Laird Borden: His Memoirs. 2 v. Henry Borden, ed. Toronto: Macmillan, 1938.
Brown, Robert Craig. Robert Laird Borden: A Biography. 2 v. Toronto: Macmillan of Canada, 1975-1980.
Author ROBERT CRAIG BROWN
Reproduced with permission from The Canadian Encyclopaedia, Historica Foundation of Canada