War Art of Atlantic Canada pt.2


Atlantic Artists at War

by Laura Brandon

Arts Atlantic 50 Vol. 13, No. 2 (Fall 1994), 31-33.

The intent of the first part of this two-part article was to introduce the range of Second World War art within the collection of the Canadian War Museum that takes the region as its subject. The purpose of this second part is to introduce the significant numbers of war artists who can be considered Atlantic Canadians and who found themselves painting either at home or in the various active theatres of war. Their contribution is an impressive one and demonstrates the extent to which the programme encompassed the country as a whole.

Of the thirty-two official war artists during the Second World War--those who were commissioned into a particular service and tasked to paint what they saw--Bruno and Molly Bobak can be considered Atlantic Canadian artists by adoption. Their fellow New Brunswicker, Miller Brittain, was born in Saint John, while Alex Colville grew up in Nova Scotia. Lawren P. Harris was closely associated with the School of Art at Mount Allison University, while Anthony Law retired to Halifax. Donald MacKay was born in Fredericton, and later ran the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design. William Goodridge Roberts grew up in Fredericton.

Of the unofficial war artists--those who received commissions from other institutions or painted as enlisted men or women--mention must be made of the work of Jack Humphrey of Saint John. The list would also be incomplete without reference to Pegi Nicol MacLeod, who worked at the Art Centre at the University of New Brunswick every summer during the war. While the art collection of the Canadian War Museum has no wartime representation from Canada's smallest province, Hubert Rogers was born in Alberton, Prince Edward Island, and was commissioned by the National Gallery of Canada to paint a historically significant wartime conference, as well as a number of portraits.

Sherman Tanks Taking Up Positions Under Artificial Moonlightspacer Bruno Bobak (1923--) enlisted in the Canadian Army in January 1943, and went overseas in April 1944 as a sapper. He was employed as a service artist until July. From October 1944 until July 1946 he served as an official war artist and held the rank of captain. He painted in England and in northwest Europe, and spent significant time attached to the 4th Canadian Armoured Division. Unsurprisingly, many of his paintings feature tanks. Sherman Tanks Taking Up Positions Under Artificial Moonlight (CWM 11973)* is an example, from his time in Germany, of one of Bobak's more dramatic depictions of armoured vehicles.

Molly Lamb (1922--), who was to marry Bruno Bobak, enlisted in the Canadian Women's Army Corps (CWAC) in November 1942, serving at a number of stations in Canada. She also designed costumes and scenery for the Army Show. From May 1945 she served for one year as an official war artist, with the rank of lieutenant. Her work as Canada's only official woman war artist encompasses subjects in England and northwest Europe after VE Day. Comedy Convoy (CWM 12023) provides, as the title suggests, an image of the lighter side of wartime.

Night Target, Germanyspacer

Miller Brittain (1923-1968) served as a bomb aimer in the RCAF from 1942 until February 1945, and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. From April 1945 until July 1946 he was an official war artist with the rank of flight-lieutenant. Most of his nine paintings and drawings in the war art collection deal with life at an English bomber station. However, Night Target, Germany (CWM 10889) depicts his intensely personal experiences of a raid. From three miles up he could observe the strange, perverse beauty of a bombing mission as flares glowed, bombs flashed, and targets burned. "A German city under bombing," he said, "often looks like a casket of jewels opening up."

spacer The wartime watercolours of Alex Colville (1920--) have a freshness and vibrancy that can be something of a surprise to those who may be more familiar with his tightly controlled paintings of recent decades. "B-1" Gun near Nijmegen (CWM 12198) is one of a number of evocative studies completed in Holland when the artist was with the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division during the winter of 1944-45. Colville had enlisted in the Canadian Army in 1942, going overseas in May 1944. He was an official war artist from November of that year to June 1946, with the rank of captain.

Night Air Attack Before the Hitler Linespacer

By contrast, the work of Lawren P Harris (1910-1994) was largely completed in the warmer climes of the Italian campaign in 1943-44. Harris had joined the army in February 1941 and served as an Armoured Corps officer. As an official war artist from December 1943 to June 1946, he produced small luminous watercolours which centred on the remarkable beauty of the landscape he was passing through. These he would later combine in oil paintings which are quite surreal in effect. Night Air Attack Before the Hitler Line (CWM 12706) is typical of his work in this genre.

Anthony Law's Graveyard, Sorel (CWM 10266) is an almost lyrical rendition of the final resting place for a number of Canada's wartime heroines--her corvettes. Law (1916--) served overseas with the Royal Canadian Navy for four years on motor torpedo boats. On June 5, 1945 he was appointed a special naval war artist. Posted to the west and east coasts he was charged with depicting scenes of the laying up of the Navy's ships. The sadness of this particular scene is intensified by the artist's use of the Easter colours of purple and yellow.

Helmsmanspacer The majority of Donald MacKay's works are in pastel, coloured pencil, or conté, and feature activities on board ships moored in Halifax Harbour. MacKay (1906-1979) enlisted in the Navy in 1939, and served as an official war artist for one year from 1943. Helmsman (CWM 10419) is coloured pencil drawing of a bridge scene.


Many war artists found that their assignment gave them the opportunity to do what they liked (and be paid for it)--an invigorating and creative experience. After the trying years of the Depression, a real livelihood through art was welcome. Goodridge Roberts was probably the only war artist who felt that he made no genuine contribution, although he served from September 1943 to February 1945. While his works perhaps contain little of the tension and punch found with other war artists, their delicate, sensitive brushwork and colouring give them a special quality. "A" Flight Dispersal (CWM 11652) is a typical example.

There are only two works by Jack Humphrey (1901-1967) in the Canadian War Museum. One of a Canadian soldier, and the other is a portrait of the noted New Brunswick Victoria Cross winner, Milton Gregg. The Gregg portrait was commissioned by The National Gallery of Canada and depicts him as a young and rather engaging individual.

Pegi Nicol MacLeod (1904-1949) completed two commissions for the National Gallery of Canada, in 1944 and 1945, which resulted in a body of work exceeding 100 pieces. Hers is a remarkable record of the daily life of the women's services in Ottawa. Enlisted women are shown typing, answering the phone, practicing drill, waiting at table, washing up, cooking, nursing, and taking a break in the beauty salon. About Requesting for Leave Passes (CWM 14214), a reviewer in The Washington Post wrote (of a recent exhibition that included this work), that "an impressionistic watercolor by Pegi Nicol MacLeod... deftly illuminates both the strain of wartime duty and the petty paternalism endured by Canadian WACS in World War II."

Hubert Rogers (1898-1982) served in the First World War after enlisting in a draft of reinforcements for the 5th Siege Battery in Charlottetown. After the war he trained as a graphic artist, and worked for a time at Holman's Department Store in Summerside. During the Second World War he designed posters for the Wartime Information Board, and also completed a number of portraits and a painting of the 1943 Quebec Conference. His poster design featuring Lt. Col. Dollard Menard, DSO (CWM 14889), is typical of his accurate and realistic style.

Even within a collection of work which features the war art of the artists of one region--one constituent part of a diverse country- it is possible to detect something of the different attitudes to conflict that prevailed within their circle. Some artists found no difficulty with the portrayal of the minutiae of the battlefield while others struggled to encompass the human dimension. In any survey of the war art collection of the Canadian War Museum, cheerful home front scenes contrast tellingly with landscapes filled with mobilized tanks in action. A beautiful countryside chills when seen beside a depiction of a bombed city. This is war as it was, fifty and more years ago, and elsewhere continues to be.

Laura Brandon is Curator of War Art at the Canadian War Museum, Ottawa, and has written for Arts Atlantic since '80.

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

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