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Canada Remembers World War I

The War Paintings in the Senate of Canada’s Parliament Building The eight paintings featured here are a part of a collection of art that was commissioned by Canada to pay homage to the sacrifice of Canadian troops during the Great War, 1914-1918.  Today they are displayed in the Senate Chamber were they have been displayed … Continued

The War Paintings in the Senate of Canada’s Parliament Building

The eight paintings featured here are a part of a collection of art that was commissioned by Canada to pay homage to the sacrifice of Canadian troops during the Great War, 1914-1918.  Today they are displayed in the Senate Chamber were they have been displayed for over eighty years, until they were taken down for restoration.   In 1998, at a rededication to their installation, the Speaker at the time, the late Honorable Gildas Molgat said: “Today we gather here to rededicate the war paintings following their restoration.  We solemnly recognize, however, that the message of heroic bravery and sacrifice never needed restoration.”

The eight paintings are part of nearly 1,000 works that were originally to be housed in a commemorative art gallery and war memorial in Ottawas, but unfortunately the project was never realized.  After successful exhibitions in London, New York, Toronoto and Montreal, the paintings were stored at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa.

The Canadian War Memorials Fund, the First World War art collection consisted of works by over 110 artists, with more than a third Canadian.  The paintings powerfully capture Canada’s part in this tragic “war to end all wars.” The collection was the brainchild of Sir Max Aitken, later Lord Beaverbrook. Born in Canada, he moved to Britain as a rich businessman. Always a Canadian at heart, Beaverbrook’s nationalist fervour contributed to his decision in 1916 to initiate a project to record the war from Canada’s point of view. The result was the creation of the Canadian War Memorials Fund.

A single event, the horrific German gas attack on Canadian troops during the Second Battle of Ypres in 1915, convinced him that the war should also be documented by art, since the event had not been photographed. So, in November 1916, Aitken’s new organization commissioned a huge 3.7 x 6-metre painting from British society artist Richard Jack. The success of this venture, combined with the prevailing belief that the lifespan of photographs was no more than twenty-five years, contributed to Aitken’s decision to commission more artists to record Canada’s war.

Source: Article by Laura Brandon, Canadian War Museum, 2000 and http://www2.parl.gc.ca/sites/lop/aboutparliament/warpaintings/index-e.asp

All of the paintings that are displayed in the Senate Chamber are presented here with descriptions of each.

Returning to the Reconquered Land

In 1918, the Canadian War Memorials Fund commissioned the British artist George Clausen to paint a large canvas focusing on the subject of agriculture behind the lines in France. Clausen was a well-known landscape, figure and portrait painter.

However, his journey to France in the winter of 1919 had a great impact on him and, instead of agriculture, the resulting painting shows the artist’s impression of people returning to their destroyed homes after the Armistice.

The Landing of the First Canadian Division at Saint-Nazaire, 1915

The artist, Edgar Bundy, was a well-known British historical and genre painter. The Canadian War Memorials Fund commissioned him to paint two large canvases, one of which depicted the first landing of Canadians in France.

The title of the work refers to their arrival in the French port of Saint-Nazaire in February 1915. The Division consisted of 18,500 men, many of whom were very young recruits. On the waterfront, the pipe band of The Black Watch (Royal Highlanders of Canada), led by Pipe-Major David Manson, plays the troops ashore. The steamship Novian, which transported the troops from England, is seen in the background. To the right, officers, troops and townspeople watch the arrival.

A Mobile Veterinary Unit in France

Talmage’s painting depicts a scene near the Cambrai front in France. A Canadian Mobile Veterinary Unit is shown taking wounded horses from the front line of battle back to an evacuating station. The mobile veterinary units were part of the Canadian Veterinary Services and worked in the field to collect and give first aid to wounded, sick or overworked animals before transporting them by train to base hospitals.

Algernon Talmage was born in Fifield, Oxfordshire, England, and was exempted from active service in 1914 because of a gun injury to his left hand in his youth. When the Canadian War Memorials Fund commissioned two paintings from him, he was already well known in England for his landscapes and animal paintings.

Railway Construction in France

The painting by the British artist Leonard Richmond depicts the construction of a railway built in the deepest trench in France by the Canadian Overseas Railway Construction Corps. Railway construction and repair during the First World War frequently took place under difficult conditions, often near front lines. While the location of this scene was some distance behind the front, the soft soil of the area created many engineering problems.

Leonard Richmond, born in Somerset, England, was an established landscape artist and poster painter. He came to the attention of the Canadiian War Memorials Fund through his contributions to Canadian War Records Office publications.

Arras, The Dead City

In 1917, the Canadian War Memorials Fund commissioned Major James Kerr-Lawson to journey to the battlefields of France and Belgium to paint two large canvases of the ruins of Arras and Ypres. These two historic cities had suffered greatly in the shelling. In Arras, The Dead City, the ruins of Arras Cathedral are shown as they were in 1917.

James Kerr-Lawson was an established painter at the time of his commission for the Canadian government. Although he was born in Anstruther, Fife, Scotland, the artist had emigrated to Hamilton, Ontario, with his family at the age of three. Kerr-Lawson lived much of his life in London, England, and maintained many links with the Canadian artistic community that he had forged early in his career. Kerr-Lawson was well known as a portraitist, painter and decorator.

On Leave

In 1917, the Canadian War Memorials Fund commissioned the British painter, Clare Atwood, to execute a large picture depicting the life of the Canadian Expeditionary Force in England. Appropriateness of subject matter for women artists was still a consideration during the 1914-1918 conflict, and they were not commissioned to depict the battlefield. Portraits and scenes of home front activity were assigned to female artists. Nevertheless, Atwood, who had gained recognition for her interior scenes, was chosen for the commission.

The Fund arranged for her to visit the military camp at Folkestone in Kent, England, to gather ideas for the work. However, the artist chose to illustrate a YMCA canteen at one of London’s railway stations, where enlisted men await a train that will take them to camps or to the front.

The Cloth Hall, Ypres

Kerr-Lawson’s painting shows the destruction brought about by repeated shelling by air and artillery fire. Only the central tower of the guild Hall remains recognizable in the rubble; on the right, the Cathedral is in ruins. The central tower and one wing of the Hall were eventually rebuilt, and the debris of the other wing was cleared away, leaving some original pillars standing as a war memorial.

Before its destruction in the First World War, the Cloth Hall in the Belgian city of Ypres was among the surviving marvels of medieval architecture in northern Europe. Originally built by the wealthy Flemish cloth guilds, the Hall was a splendid example of Gothic civic architecture.

The Watch on the Rhine (The Last Phase)

The painting was originally exhibited in Canada in 1920 as part of the Canadian War Memorials exhibition. The painting’s many symbolic elements represent the defeat of Germany and the triumph of the Allied Forces. In the foreground, a British howitzer faces out across the Rhine River. The painting’s powerful imagery is reinforced by the prominence given by the artist to the enormous gun. A British sentry stands on guard to one side. The 1920 exhibition catalogue notes that, behind the sentry, old and new Germany are represented by ancient hills and the new factory chimney.

The artist, William Rothenstein, was born in Bradford, Yorkshire. He worked as an official war artist for the Canadian War Memorials Fund and he served as an official artist with the Canadian Army of Occupation in Germany from 1917 to 1920.

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