War Art of Atlantic Canada pt.1


East Coast Depictions

by Laura Brandon

Arts Atlantic 49 Vol. 13, No. 1 (Spring/Summer 1994), 35-37.

THIS YEAR CANADA IS CELEBRATING the 50th anniversary of the D-Day landings. The assault, which commenced on June 6, '44, marked the beginning of the end of the Second World War. In '95, numerous events across the country will commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Allies' ultimate victory.

Because Canada made such an important contribution to the war effort in terms of personnel, and manufactured many of the supplies, weapons, and ships, the events of '39-'45 had an enormous impact on this side of the Atlantic, particularly in the east coast harbour cities of St. John's and Halifax. As operational headquarters, these ports were gathering places for the many convoys of men and goods sent to cross the Atlantic. Those who ventured out were subject to great danger, as U-boat activity was incessant, and these successfully penetrated as far up the St. Lawrence as Cap Chat. Indeed, torpedo ships anchored off Belle Isle.

Canadian artists captured the course of the war on paper and canvas from its onset, but particularly after '43 when an official programme, the Canadian War Records, was launched. Thirty-two artists were commissioned by the Crown, and several more received commissions from the National Gallery of Canada. Others chose to enlist as ordinary servicemen, and painted and sketched in their spare time.

The paintings and drawings that came out of this programme are now in the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa, along with examples of war art and military art from the 19th century to the present day, including the noted Canadian War Memorials of the First World War. The collection now numbers 11,000 works in a huge range of media.

Because the east coast was so central to Canada's role in the war, and because so many war artists are associated with the region, it seems appropriate, in these anniversary years, to focus both on the east coast as a subject in wartime and on the contribution of Atlantic artists to the war art programme.

Thirteen war artists, representing approximately one third of the commissioned artists who portrayed Canada at war, worked in New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Newfoundland and Labrador. Most were attached to the Navy. Those who can be considered to have made an extensive pictorial contribution to the record of east coast operations include Harold Beament (1898-1984), Leonard Brooks (1911--), Albert Cloutier (1902-1965), Paul Goranson (1911--), Anthony Law (1916--), Donald MacKay (1906-1979), Moses Reinblatt (1917-1979), Campbell Tinning (1910--) and Tom Wood (1913--). Several others produced only a few compositions, but many of these works are of significant interest.

The art produced by those artists attached to the Royal Canadian Navy predictably highlights the harbours of Halifax and St. John's. Viewing these works leaves one with a very clear picture of military life during the latter years of the war. In a majority of the images, it is the winter climate which predominates. Many artists, had they compared notes at the time, would have been amazed at how often they chose the same subjects. In scenes of Halifax harbour, for example, the same large crane is often the focal point.

Harold Beament's east coast paintings are based on his experiences on convoy duty and in Newfoundland. In a number of paintings of St. John's harbour he depicts it smothered in snow and ice, emphasizing its chilly wartime bleakness. St. John's from Signal Hill (CWM 10061)*, however, is a panoramic view of the city in more clement weather, its harbour filled with shipping.

Leonard Brooks' east coast subjects record, equally well, the frigid reality of Canadian operations out of Halifax and St. John's. In North and Barrington Streets (CWM 10147), naval personnel trudge uphill from Halifax harbour through the still, cold city.

While Tom Wood was no more disinclined to paint Canada's east coast harbours as forbiddingly cold than his colleagues, there is, in much of his work, an emphasis on the human dimension. He also ranged further, producing scenes of Sydney, Shelburne, and Lunenburg, Nova Scotia; Saint John, New Brunswick; Bay Bulls, Newfoundland; and the Gaspé. In German Prisoners Leaving their U-Boat, Bay Bulls, Newfoundland (CWM 10571), he takes advantage of the Germans' unshaven and drawn appearance to create a dramatic image of the captured enemy.

Anthony Law became a full-time war artist after VE Day. As a serving naval officer, he had made sketches of his experiences which he was able to translate into oil paintings in peacetime. A large proportion of his east coast work also deals with the decommissioning of naval vessels. Decommissioning, Rainy Weather, Sydney, N.S. (CWM 10258) is an almost impressionistic rendition of such an event.

Signal Flag Hoistspacer

A principal of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, Donald MacKay, worked entirely on the east coast. His conté sketches and paintings of sailors at work provide a vivid picture of the human side of harbour life. Perhaps, as a native, he was less overwhelmed by the climate, for his Signal Flag Hoist (CWM 10443) is a jaunty image.

Michael Forster (1908--) produced only two works on the east coast, but as one of the most modern of all our war artists, his work is of significant interest. His Explosion in Plant (CWM 10210) is an ink and wash study of workers reacting to an explosion in what is likely a Halifax armaments factory. Forster contradicted the official "Instructions to War Artists" (which emphasized accuracy and detail) more than most of his colleagues, preferring to seek out the abstract and surreal.

The extraordinary drawings of Merchant Navy artist Jack Nichols (1921--), with their notable emphasis on the human element, are of interest, although only three directly relate to the east coast. Merchant Ship Leaving at Night (CWM 10519) is an example of this artist's sculptural approach to drawing. He melds his figures into tightly arranged compositions in which every inch of the paper is used.

Albert Cloutier was attached to the R.C.A.F., and his numerous studies of the Radio Unit at Brig Harbour in Labrador form a remarkable series of works. In watercolours such as Wharf and Moorings, June 15, Brig Harbour (CWM 1107 1), he too pays homage to the endurance of winter.

In highly detailed compositions, Paul Goranson left a record of some of the more unusual wartime jobs. In Pigeon Loftman (CWM 11427), Sgt. G. W. Threlfall baskets his pigeons in preparation for a flight at R.C.A.F. Station Dartmouth.

Moses Reinblatt worked at a number of R.C.A.F. stations in New Brunswick. While much of his output is in the form of drawings, he also produced works on canvas of significant interest. In Weighing Down the Tail, Scoudouc, New Brunswick (CWM 11647), Reinblatt emphasizes the nature of the weather and the difficulty of the operation by exaggerating the gestures of his three figures. The result is a composition of imposing theatricality.

Campbell Tinning was the only artist stationed on the east coast who was attached to the Army. Much of his work in Halifax and St. John's documents Canada's defences, and records the nature of the training exercises undertaken by new recruits. He also captured scenes of troops on board ship and waiting to sail. The sometimes harsh landscape of the region makes its presence felt in Officers Quarters and Guard Room RCA Battery (CWM 13959).

Canadian Destroyersspacer

With or without an official programme, artists were determined to record Canada's war. In '41, Edwin Holgate (1892-1977) 'unofficially' painted Canadian Destroyers (CWM 11489) in which two ships are tied to a Halifax jetty while the snow gently falls. Holgate later became an official war artist with the R.C.A.F., and was stationed in England.

Evidence of work by women war artists on the east coast is not to be found in the collections of the Canadian War Museum. Indeed, there weren't very many in the first place. Pegi Nicol MacLeod (1904-49) painted for the National Gallery in Ottawa, but her paintings of military personnel in Fredericton were completed when she was teaching at the UNB Art Centre there, and were not part of the Gallery commission. They are now largely to be found in private collections.

There are at least 100 works in the Canadian War Museum's war art collection that take the east coast in wartime as their subject. (This excludes the many paintings and drawings of the ships and personnel on convoy duty in the Atlantic.) These are not very well known and only a few of the artists are figures of national stature. Yet, as a body of work, it fascinates. Not only does it capture the nature of the region at war but it demonstrates, through the treatment of similar subjects in many different styles, the wide variety of artistic approach that was emerging during these transitionary years in the history of 20th century art in Canada.

*All coded numbers refer to the permanent collection of the Canadian War Museum.

spacer IndexHistoryWar Graves CommissionVeteransCredits