The soldier as artist

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Anglican Chaplain Geoffrey Cyril d’Easum’s sketch of a ruined Abbe of Mont St-Eloi near Arras in the north of France in 1919 was part of the special World War I art exhibit at the Canadian War Museum. Photo: Abbey of Mt St Eloi CWM 19990069-001 Beaverbrook Collection of War Art © Canadian War Museum
Anglican Chaplain Geoffrey Cyril d’Easum’s sketch of a ruined Abbe of Mont St-Eloi near Arras in the north of France in 1919 was part of the special World War I art exhibit at the Canadian War Museum. Photo: Abbey of Mt St Eloi CWM 19990069-001 Beaverbrook Collection of War Art © Canadian War Museum

In a rare moment of calm in an acute environment, some will scribble a poem, some might grab a harmonica and others will pick up any materials at hand and draw. It is the last group that, in the 100th anniversary year of World War I, the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa honoured with a special exhibition.

Witness-Canadian Art of the First World War examined how ordinary Canadian soldiers, as well as official war artists, depicted the landscape of armed conflict. Witness ran from April to September, and parts of it will travel, but its artists and their work can also be accessed online in the catalogue of the same name. [Go to http://bit.ly/1oh47l8]

On offer were never-before-displayed works, ranging from massive official canvases painted in London studios to, perhaps most poignant, quick, private drawings sketched in trenches and prisoner-of-war camps. Whatever the medium, each work was chosen to deepen the viewer’s understanding of the personal sacrifices and national impact of this historic conflict in which almost 62,000 Canadians lost their lives.

According to historian Dr. Laura Brandon, curator of the museum’s war art, many enlisted soldiers had art-related peacetime occupations in design, drafting, illustration, photography and architecture. Artists ranged from celebrated Group of Seven painters such as A.Y. Jackson-who became an official war artist-Arthur Lismer and Frederick Varley to rank-and-file soldiers who were millwrights and grocers. The exhibit also included drawings by Canadian architects, including George Lister Thornton Sharp, designer of Vancouver’s Burrard Street Bridge. Most items came from the museum’s Beaverbrook Collection of War Art, one of the largest such collections in the world.

Among the soldier-artists featured in Witness was Captain Geoffrey Cyril d’Easum, an Anglican chaplain in the Canadian Expeditionary Force. Enlisting in 1916, he first served with the B.C.-based 131st Battalion under Lt.-Col. James D. Taylor and was eventually sent to the French front with the 8th Battalion, Winnipeg Grenadiers. He later received the British Military Cross for “conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty.” Born in 1870 in Poona, India, d’Easum died in Victoria in 1954.

In one almost bucolic drawing, the padre-soldier-artist shows Hospital Corner, the medical station at Vimy Ridge. The date is May 1917, a few weeks after the fierce April battle and hard-won victory that some say consolidated Canada’s identity as a nation. In the distance is The Pimple, the northernmost tip of the ridge.

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nterestingly, says Brandon, “There’s lot of crossover in the imagery of religious art and war art.” Motifs of sunrise, sunset, nocturnes, sacrifice, crucifixion, blasted trees and ruined buildings occur in both. “Society then was very respectful of death and the impact that knowledge of death could have on wartime civilians,” she says. In addition, the propaganda messages from the front were very tightly controlled by the government and depicting the landscape of war had to be approached carefully. Despite differences of skill and scale between official war art and soldier art, “there was no difference in the visual language they used to describe the war,” she says.

Response to the private drawings of soldiers was very positive. “Families just thrilled to see their great-grandfathers’ art work on display,” says Brandon. “I think people have gained a new respect for a different kind of visual response to the war…the value of the soldier’s sketch as well as the big official painting.”

In Toronto, the Cathedral Church of St. James is marking the centenary with the exhibit Called to Serve: An Exhibit Honouring Canada’s Military Chaplains of All Faiths, a unique look at past and present conflicts through the lens of armed forces clergy. It runs from Nov. 6 to 16, with a special symphony concert honouring The Unknown Soldier on Nov. 14. In a rare moment of calm in an acute environment, some will scribble a poem, some might grab a harmonica and others will pick up any materials at hand and draw. It is the last group that, in the 100th anniversary year of World War I, the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa honoured with a special exhibition. Witness-Canadian Art of the First World War examined how ordinary Canadian soldiers, as well as official war artists, depicted the landscape of armed conflict.

Witness ran from April to September, and parts of it will travel, but its artists and their work can also be accessed online in the catalogue of the same name. [Go to http://bit.ly/1oh47l8]

On offer were never-before-displayed works, ranging from massive official canvases painted in London studios to, perhaps most poignant, quick, private drawings sketched in trenches and prisoner-of-war camps. Whatever the medium, each work was chosen to deepen the viewer’s understanding of the personal sacrifices and national impact of this historic conflict in which almost 62,000 Canadians lost their lives.

According to historian Dr. Laura Brandon, curator of the museum’s war art, many enlisted soldiers had art-related peacetime occupations in design, drafting, illustration, photography and architecture. Artists ranged from celebrated Group of Seven painters such as A.Y. Jackson-who became an official war artist-Arthur Lismer and Frederick Varley to rank-and-file soldiers who were millwrights and grocers. The exhibit also included drawings by Canadian architects, including George Lister Thornton Sharp, designer of Vancouver’s Burrard Street Bridge. Most items came from the museum’s Beaverbrook Collection of War Art, one of the largest such collections in the world.

Among the soldier-artists featured in Witness was Captain Geoffrey Cyril d’Easum, an Anglican chaplain in the Canadian Expeditionary Force. Enlisting in 1916, he first served with the B.C.-based 131st Battalion under Lt.-Col. James D. Taylor and was eventually sent to the French front with the 8th Battalion, Winnipeg Grenadiers. He later received the British Military Cross for “conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty.” Born in 1870 in Poona, India, d’Easum died in Victoria in 1954.

In one almost bucolic drawing, the padre-soldier-artist shows Hospital Corner, the medical station at Vimy Ridge. The date is May 1917, a few weeks after the fierce April battle and hard-won victory that some say consolidated Canada’s identity as a nation. In the distance is The Pimple, the northernmost tip of the ridge.

Interestingly, says Brandon, “There’s lot of crossover in the imagery of religious art and war art.” Motifs of sunrise, sunset, nocturnes, sacrifice, crucifixion, blasted trees and ruined buildings occur in both. “Society then was very respectful of death and the impact that knowledge of death could have on wartime civilians,” she says. In addition, the propaganda messages from the front were very tightly controlled by the government and depicting the landscape of war had to be approached carefully. Despite differences of skill and scale between official war art and soldier art, “there was no difference in the visual language they used to describe the war,” she says.

Response to the private drawings of soldiers was very positive. “Families just thrilled to see their great-grandfathers’ art work on display,” says Brandon. “I think people have gained a new respect for a different kind of visual response to the war…the value of the soldier’s sketch as well as the big official painting.”

In Toronto, the Cathedral Church of St. James is marking the centenary with the exhibit Called to Serve: An Exhibit Honouring Canada’s Military Chaplains of All Faiths, a unique look at past and present conflicts through the lens of armed forces clergy. It runs from Nov. 6 to 16, with a special symphony concert honouring The Unknown Soldier on Nov. 14.

 

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Diana Swift
Diana Swift is an award-winning writer and editor with 30 years’ experience in newspaper and magazine editing and production. In January 2011, she joined the Anglican Journal as a contributing editor.

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