Great War 100 Reads

Commemorating the centenary of the First World War in books


Monday Monuments and Memorials – Canadian National Vimy Memorial, Vimy France

April 9 marks the 101th anniversary of the start of the Battle of Vimy Ridge, part of the Battle of Arras. On a snowy Easter Monday in 1917, the four divisions of the Canadian Corps fought together for the first (and only) time. Training and tactics won the ridge, but at the cost of about 3,600 Canadian lives.

While opinions differ on the importance of the battle itself, most would agree that Vimy Ridge is an important site of Canadian remembrance: a 250-acre memorial park on the former battleground is the site of the Canadian National Vimy Memorial. Continue reading

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Art or Memorial? and Beyond the Battlefield

My quest to learn about war memorials and war art has taken me down a longer trail than expected – eight books in all – with some interesting twists along the way. I take an expansive view of what belongs in my Monday Monuments and Memorials feature – statues, cenotaphs, plaques, grave markers, sculptures, ephemera and many other remembrances of the war. My aim is to put them in better context. (Always with the caveat that my summary review cannot do justice to the full analysis in these books.) 

Art or Memorial? The Forgotten History of Canada’s War Art

The crux of the issue is in the title of this book by Laura Brandon. She was in a good place see the role of the individuals, communities and government agencies – and the context of culture and politics – in the social construction of the memory of war. Until recently she was curator of the large collection of war art at the Canadian War Museum.

Beaverbrook started a war art program as propaganda and to commemorate the war. His vision of a memorial gallery to house the art didn’t come to fruition. Instead, local communities built statues and other memorials. They needed to forget the images of war.

Still, public opinions of the works evolve over time. Exhibits like A Terrible Beauty and Canvas of War, in the context of new-found patriotism in commemorating the 50th anniversary of WW2, helped to make the art a locus of memory.

Brandon concludes that the official war art collection “has functioned as an under-recognized war memorial or ‘site of memory’ but that concern with the works as art has obscured their deeper, collective significance.” (p xiii)


Beyond the Battlefield: Women Artists of the Two World Wars

Catherine Speck’s Beyond the Battlefield looks beyond official war art schemes to find “a womanly perspective on war and wartime.” (p 7) She introduces 62 women artists from Allied countries (Australia, Britain, Canada, New Zealand and the United States) and the prejudices that curtailed their working conditions and their oeuvres. Some have international reputations, others are more obscure. (I was introduced to many for the first time.) Together, they give visibility to women’s experience of the war.

Most of the women were not part of the official war art programs … they were subjected to the masculine idea that war artists needed personal experience of conditions at the front. And women would not be sent to the front. In Canada, some women artists were engaged to depict life on the home front. In Britain, the Women’s Work Subcommittee of the Imperial War Museum was tasked with documenting what women did during the war. So at least some of the official programs moved away from the battlefields. But the “home front” programs were not as well funded and the women were generally paid less than the men. Many artists (women and men) were expected to donate their work or accept meagre payment.

Speck’s chapters on WW1 look at women on the home front, behind the front and after the war. The home front art shows that “the stereotype that it was a place of inaction and ‘waiting’ is wholly inaccurate.” (p13) Behind the front, she challenges the perspective of a dichotomy of spaces, male-only front and female dominated home front. Women nurses and voluntary aides moved in an in-between space behind the front. Some of them were artists. Immediately after the war, some women artists ventured into the former war zones to paint the repairing landscape. Mary Riter Hamilton wrote of her time in France:

I feel it is very fortunate that I arrived before it is too late to get a real impression. The changes are taking place rapidly and even in the short time I have been here I can see a great change. In another few months there will be very little trace of the war. (p 97)

Speck provides brief biographies of the artists. The book is illustrated with colour reproductions of the art, but lacks information on where to find each piece. (The only clues are in the photo credits.) That will make it more challenging for me to seek out the works of the women artists of WW1 … Anna Airy, Claire Atwood, Martha Moffatt Bache, Cecilia Beaux, Anna Richards Brewster, Florence Carlyle, Evelyn Chapman, Edith Collier, Joyce Dennys, Olive Edis, Mary Riter Hamilton, Helen Hyde, Nellie Isaac, Lucy Kemp-Welch, Phyllis Keyes, Flora Lion, Beatrice Lithby, Frances Loring, Henrietta Mabel May, Dora Meeson Coates, Victoria Monkhouse, Olive Mudie-Cooke, Norah Neilson Gray, Hilda Rix Nicholas, Elizabeth Nourse, Jane Peterson, Margaret Preston, Isobel (Iso) Rae, Grace Ravlin, Helen Saunders, Grace Cossington Smith, Janet Cumbrae Stewart, Olive Wood, Ursula Wood and Florence Wyle.


Mary Riter Hamilton’s post-war paintings are now in the collection of Library and Archives Canada. LAC features many of them online in Mary Riter Hamilton: Traces of War.

According to LAC, “Hamilton refused to sell any of her battlefield paintings, choosing instead to donate the canvases to the National Archives (now part of Library and Archives Canada). She wanted them to remain in the hands of all Canadians for the benefit of war veterans and their descendants.”

Maria Tippett tells a different story: “Unable to find a purchaser for her collection, she presented it to the National Archives of Canada in 1926.” (By a Lady, p 58)

Wouldn’t sell or couldn’t sell … which account rings true to you?

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A Terrible Beauty and Canvas of War

It is logical that artists should be part of the organization of total war, whether to provide inspiration, information, or comment on the glory or the stupidity of war. (A.Y. Jackson, in Canvas of War, p 19)

War broke down old preconceptions, old inhibitions; it offered subject matter – death, mutilation, destruction – they had never dealt with before. They had to render the obscene tolerable, the ugly beautiful, create life out of death. Under the stress of this dance macabre, some painters created extraordinary and unforgettable works of art.  (A Terrible Beauty, p 15)

The Canadian War Memorials Fund (CWMF) was established with a view to immortalizing the Canadian contribution to the war. Now the Beaverbrook Collection of War Art of the Canadian War Museum, the ultimate collection is the largest visual record of the war.

Exhibits immediately following the war were popular, but interest quickly waned. Most of the works remain in storage, although more are on view in the new museum building that opened in 2005. Interest seems to increase on milestone anniversaries or when Canadians are once again at war.

From time to time the paintings and sculpture form the core of special exhibits. A Terrible Beauty and Canvas of War are catalogues from two major exhibits that dusted off some of the paintings and found different ways to make them relevant for new audiences. Both examined the war art programs from WW1 and WW2. I read the WW1 parts.

Temporary exhibits live on through catalogues. They are the next best thing for those who missed the main event, also engendering a hint of regret at not seeing the art in real life. 

A Terrible Beauty: The Art of Canada at War

A Terrible Beauty toured regional galleries across Canada from late 1977 to early 1980. Heather Robertson’s catalogue juxtaposes colour reproductions of the paintings (and a few sculptures) with an anthology of texts. The excerpts from letters, journals, memoirs, poems and the like are firsthand accounts by those who lived through the war, mostly on the front lines. (Not clear if the texts were part of the exhibit.) The selection of paintings shows CWMF work from the Western front and the home front.

Great concept, executed with varying success. At times, texts and paintings complement each other, giving greater context. At times, they are an odd and uncomfortable match – for example the account of a deserter shot at dawn opposite sculptures of munitions workers. Texts by the same author are scattered throughout the book, leaving readers to discover connections by chance.

Canvas of War: Painting the Canadian Experience, 1914 to 1945

Canvas of War, Masterpieces from the Canadian War Museum was a blockbuster exhibit, on display at the Museum of Civilization in 2000 then touring to eight other Canadian cities from 2001 to 2004. It was billed as the biggest touring show of war art ever mounted in Canada.

The accompanying catalogue is by Dean F. Oliver and Laura Brandon. In addition to the colour reproductions, it includes two essays about WW1. Born in Battle gives a brief history of the Canadians in the war zone and on the home front, as the foundation of the nation-building mythology. The Face of Armageddon looks at the role of the artists and the CWMF in that mythology. The authors also say that the artists’ war experience was a “major building block” in the evolution of Canadian art, most notably the formation of the Group of Seven.

Short of a visit to the National Gallery, the Canadian War Museum or a special exhibit where the war art is on view, these books are worth a look. A bonus is seeing colour reproductions that were only in black and white in Art at the Service of War.