Canadian War Artists, 1939-1945

Canadian War Artists

From the beginning, Canadian painters who participated in the Canadian War Records lived and worked closely with the armed forces, spending a great deal of time close to the front lines. Wherever they found themselves, they were expected to produce accurate images of fighting men, machinery, and the landscape of war. This they did by sketching in the field and later developing the sketches in watercolour or pastel. Only when they returned to their headquarters in London, or, after the war, to Canada, did they compose their studio works - the oils on canvas. (Canadian War Museum)

(Canadian War Museum (CN 12245)

Canadian Armour Passing through Ortona, Italy, by Charles Comfort.

(Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 3214156)

Captain C.F. Comfort, a Canadian war artist, Italy, 1943. Comfort's war began in October 1939 when he became a rifle instructor with the Canadian Officers' Training Corps. In February 1943 he was commissioned as a lieutenant in the Canadian Active Service Force to serve as an official war artist. He had supported the idea of a war art program from the beginning in the full knowledge that Canada had successfully pioneered such a scheme during the First World War.

In England Comfort depicted the Corps of the Royal Canadian Engineers and the 16th Battery, Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment. In Italy he joined the 1st Canadian Infantry Division, painting principally the Ortona and Liri Valley battles. The artist later published his war diaries in a volume entitled Artist at War (1956). (Canadian War Museum)

(Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 4232976)

Captain Charles F. Comfort, a Canadian war artist, Italy, 1943.

Coast Road before Ortona, Italy, by Lawren P. Harris.

(Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 4232977)

Captain Lawren Phillip Harris, Canadian war artist, Governor Generals Horse Guards.

(Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 3216583)

Captain Lawren Phillip Harris, Canadian war artist, Governor Generals Horse Guards, Ortona, Italy, December 1943. The son of Group of Seven artist Lawren S. Harris, Lawren P. Harris trained in Boston at the Museum School of Fine Arts and was encouraged to become an official war artist by the Canadian High Commissioner to Great Britain, Vincent Massey. The family connection of both to the Massey-Harris agricultural equipment firm was a factor in their initial encounters.

Harris served with the Governor General's Horse Guards (3rd Canadian Armoured Reconnaissance Regiment) during the first three years of the Second World War. As a war artist he remained with them in Italy as part of the 5th Armoured Division during 1944. Most of his war landscapes depict tanks in the spectacular hilly landscape near the Melfa and Liri Rivers and towards Ortona. (Canadian War Museum)

(Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 4232978)

Captain Lawren Phillip Harris, Canadian war artist.

Tank Convoy, by Bruno Bobak.

(Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 3194907)

Captain Bruno Bobak, Canadian war artist.

(Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 3941703)

Lieutenant Bruno Bobak, Canadian war artist, 8 March 1945.

Women in service, CWAC recruits learning to stand at ease, by 2Lt Molly Lamb.

(Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 3191978)

Second Lieutenant Molly Lamb of the Canadian Women's Army Corps (CWAC), a Canadian war artist, London, England, 12 July 1945.

Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 3217951)

War artist 2nd Lieutenant Molly Lamb, Canadian Women's Army Corps (CWAC), sketching at Volendam, Netherlands, 12 September 1945.

Bridge at Arnhem, by Alex Colville.

(Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 3586369)

Lieutenant D. Alex Colville, War Artist, 3rd Canadian Infantry Division, Keppeln, Germany, 4 March 1945. Internationally recognized as one of Canada's leading artists, Alex Colville spent most of his youth in Amherst, Nova Scotia, and later attended nearby Mount Allison University in Sackville, New Brunswick. After graduation he joined the Canadian Army and was appointed a war artist. Upon arriving in London, Colville was stationed with a supply unit in Yorkshire. He subsequently travelled to the Mediterranean, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Germany. In 1946 he returned to Mount Allison as a teacher. Following his retirement in 1963, Colville devoted all of his time to painting. He moved to Wolfville in 1973 and from 1981 to 1991 served as Chancellor of Acadia University. (Canadian War Museum)

Tanks Moving Up for the Breakthrough, by George Pepper. This painting depicts the night advance during the first phase of Operation Totalize. (1st Hussars Museum)

(Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 3219993)

Captain George Pepper, a Canadian war artist attached to the 2nd Canadian Infantry Division, painting in the ruins of the courthouse / jail, Cleve, Germany, 9 March 1945.

Tanks of the 12th Army Tank Regiment move through the Dittàino River valley south of Monte Assoro in July 1943, watercolour by William Ogilvie.

(Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 3219552)

Captain Will Ogilvie, Canadian war artist, with some of his paintings at a Canadian War Art Exhibition, London, England, 9 February 1944.

(CWM Photo)

Taking survivors on board. Jack Nichols.

(Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 3586360)

Lt (N) Jack Nichols, Canadian war artist. Born in 1921 in Montreal, Jack Nichols was largely self-taught as an artist. In the fall of 1942 he served as a deckhand on a Great Lakes freighter. His combination of skills led to a 1943 commission from the National Gallery of Canada to depict the activities of the Canadian Merchant Navy. In February 1944 he was enrolled as a sub-lieutenant in the Royal Canadian Naval Volunteer Reserve, and was appointed an official Canadian war artist in April 1944 with the rank of lieutenant. Nichols was present at the D-Day landings in Normandy in June 1944, later sketched on a number of warships, and was on board HMCS Iroquois during the attempted evacuation of Brest by the Germans in August 1944. Nichols was released from the navy in October 1946. Nichols's drawings form the bulk of his official war art. Acutely sensitive to his subjects' feelings and reactions, Nichols in his drawings (and paintings) does not shy away from the ever-present spectre of death, a quality underlined by the blackness of the medium in many cases.

(CWM Photo)

Vickers Wellington dorsal gunner. Paul Goranson.

(Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 3586359)

Paul Goranson, Canadian war artist.

Wreckage on Beach Near Newhaven, England. Michael Forster.

(Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 3586359)

Francis Michael Forster, Canadian war artist.

Eight artists participated in the naval program from 1943 to 1946: Commander Harold Beament; Lieutenant-Commanders Donald Cameron Mackay and Tony Law; and Lieutenants Rowley Murphy, Tom Wood, Michael Forster, Leonard Brooks, and Jack Nichols (Captain Alex Colville, normally employed with the Army program, enjoyed a brief sojourn on loan to the RCN in the Mediterranean theatre in the latter part of 1944).

St. Lawrence convoy. Harold Beament.

(Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 3223038)

Commander Harold Beament, RCNVR, Canadian Naval War Artist.

Convoy, Afternoon, Lieutenant Donald Cameron MacKay.

(Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 3218920)

Lieutenant Donald Cameron MacKay, RCNVR, Canadian Naval War Artist, Dec 1943.

German sailors being transferred from U-190 on 14 May 1945.

(Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 3357404)

Lieutenant (SB) Tom Wood, Canadian Naval War Artist, sketching a ship in Newfoundland, 2 Feb 1945.

Potato peelers. Leonard Brooks.

(Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 3213116)

Sub-Lieutenant Leonard Brooks, Royal Canadian Naval Volunteer Reserve (RCNVR), Canadian Naval War Artist, England, 30 May 1945.

Convoy in rough weather. Rowly Murphy.

(Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 3219360)

Lieutenant Rowley Murphy, Royal Canadian Naval Volunteer Reserve (RCNVR), Canadian Naval War Artist, Esquimalt, British Columbia, Canada, 14 September 1943.

Flight-Lieutenant Aba Bayefsky enlisted in the RCAF in October 1942 at the age of 19. After service in Quebec and Manitoba, he was posted overseas in May 1944 to Skipton-on-Swale Station, Yorkshire, in No. 6 Bomber Group. Appointed an official war artist in December of that same year, he completed assignments at Topcliffe Conversion Unit in Yorkshire and 437 (Transport) Squadron, Blakehill Farm, Wiltshire. He was then attached to No. 39 (Reconnaissance) Wing of the RAF's Second Tactical Air Force, which disbanded in Lüneberg, Germany, in August 1945. It was during this period that he visited Bergen-Belsen, and depicted the war-damaged cities of Hamburg, Niemunster, and Hanover.

D-Day assault. Orville Fisher.

Orville Fisher's paintings of the Second World War constitute one of the most complete records of Canada's day-to-day role in that conflict. Perhaps his chief claim to fame is that he was the only Allied war artist to land in Normandy on D-Day, 6 June 1944. This achievement is all the more extraordinary given the fact that he almost never made it overseas in the first place. Fisher worked as a service artist with the Canadian Army beginning in February 1942, and a year later became an official war artist. He did not re-enter civilian life until July 1946. As a war artist, and undoubtedly as a person, Fisher was a determined and creative man. In preparation for the D-Day invasion, he strapped tiny waterproof pads of paper to his wrist. After racing up the beach from his landing craft, Fisher made rapid, on-the-spot sketches, using perfectly dry materials, of the battle unfolding around him. Later, the artist created larger watercolour paintings away from the battlefront. Unlike fellow war artist Charles Comfort's reconstruction of the August 1942 Dieppe Raid that was created four years after the event in the peace and security of a studio, Fisher's D-Day - The Assault was based on a real-life experience of action replete with all the turmoil and blood. Attached to the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division, Fisher landed on the beach at Courseulles-sur-Mer. The first 20 minutes of Stephen Spielberg's film Saving Private Ryan arguably re-creates the artist's D-Day experience in all its horror.

Motor Torpedo Boats Leaving for Night Patrol Off Le Havre. Charles Anthony (“Tony”) Law.

Commander Anthony Law, DSC, RCN.

Commander Anthony Law, DSC, RCN was one of Canada's most notable naval official war artists of the Second World War. He was unique in that he served as a naval officer throughout the conflict and in the period after the war. He retired in 1966. During his long and distinguished career as a naval officer he also worked as a professional artist. As a young man in the early war years, he served on a number of motor torpedo boats in the English Channel, and was involved in the action against the German battlecruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau in 1942. In this period he still found time to paint, usually when ashore during refits. In 1943, for example, he received a temporary assignment that enabled him to record some of Canada's more notable vessels, including HMCS Haida, Chaudière, Huron, and Restigouche. Law's response to how he painted the war at sea was recorded in an interview he gave to the Quebec Chronicle-Telegraph in December 1943. When asked how he could recall subjects clearly after periods of heavy action, he responded in some detail. "Certain subjects, phases of battle, for instance, form unforgettable scenes in one's mind. Such as lovely designs of star shells, flak and the horrors of war, ships sinking or on fire. Highlights of action sometimes cannot be forgotten for a long time. I remember a certain night when we met a large enemy convoy heavily escorted. They put twelve star shells into the sky that was looking so beautiful. It was just like the 24th of May. That was the subject of my painting showing our boats in the middle of the night, with all the details shown because of the brilliant light coming from the star shells. And as the battle was progressing, dawn broke east and we could see the enemy convoy ships silhouetted against the horizon. That was a scene that I can still see today in my mind. It was simply unforgettable. And it was easy to reproduce it on the canvas."

The impact of war on artists can be profound. Terrible sights and awful experiences are transformed into works of art that honour acts of courage and move the soul, or they record immense cruelty in chilling images of man's inhumanity to man. The war artist Jack Shadbolt, who died on 22 November 1998, found both honour and horror in the more prosaic existence of the home front and service behind the lines. His legacy is an important body of work on the war and its impact on the human spirit.
Jack Shadbolt was born in Shoeburyness, England, in 1909. When he was three his family immigrated to Canada, finally settling in Victoria, British Columbia, in 1914. Exposure to the art of Emily Carr and the Group of Seven, combined with a burgeoning interest in outdoor sketching, led to his decision to become an artist. He later studied in New York, London, and Paris, and in 1938 began teaching at the Vancouver School of Art. He enlisted in the army as a signalman on 28 October 1942. Preferring to paint, he devoted time during training to recording the setting and activities of Little Mountain Camp, B.C. In May 1944 the Canadian War Artists' Committee identified him as one of a number of suitable candidates for commission as an official war artist, but there were no vacancies in the army. Instead, he became a "narrator," with the rank of major, on the staff of the Director of Historical Services, Ottawa, pending a vacancy in the war artist establishment. Beginning on 23 October 1944, he spent three weeks painting and sketching at the German prisoner of war camp at Petawawa, Ontario. The 32 works on paper he produced there form the main body of his art at the Canadian War Museum. Executed in watercolour and pencil, Shadbolt's subjects include portraits of the Veterans Guard of Canada, the German prisoners, work parties, and several detailed portrayals of the bleak camp itself. In these camp studies, the barbed wire fences, the watchtowers, and the ramshackle wooden huts document with chilling thoroughness one aspect of Canada's war on the home front. In February 1945 Shadbolt travelled to London, where he was to assist with administration duties at Canadian Military Headquarters in connection with the war artists' program. While there, he completed several watercolours of the bomb-damaged city, four of which now complete the Shadbolt collection in the Canadian War Museum's holdings. During his London sojourn, Shadbolt was responsible for sorting and cataloguing the photographs taken by the Army Signal Corps at the Nazi concentration camps of Belsen and Buchenwald. The effect of this horrific exposure emerged in a series of paintings beginning in 1946 after his return to Canada.

"The war changed my life. Some of my best friends died in the war. When you see that much death and you are away from your native land, it colours your whole life. When you come back to normal life, you are changed. You can't explain why, any more than you can explain the taste of sugar." As an official war artist with the RCAF, Schaefer served with Fighter, Bomber and Coastal Commands in the United Kingdom and Iceland. The 221 paintings, sketchbooks, and war diaries retained in the art collection of the Canadian War Museum bear testament to war years richly lived and experienced. Carl Schaefer was born in Hanover, Ontario, and attended the Ontario College of Art. The Group of Seven artists J.E.H. MacDonald and Arthur Lismer were among his teachers. In essence a landscapist, he found the countryside around his birthplace particularly inspiring, especially during the lean years of the 1930s. His fortunes as an artist turned when in 1940 he was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship, which enabled him to paint full-time in New England. Three years later he was commissioned into the RCAF. After the war he taught for many years at the Ontario College of Art before retiring. In England for most of 1943, Schaefer spent time in Northern Ireland in 1944 and Iceland in 1945 before returning to Canada. He was promoted to the rank of flight-lieutenant in 1944 and released in June 1946. His war work is composed entirely in watercolour, ink, or graphite. Like many artists of his generation he kept a sketchbook. The sketchbooks (CWM 19940015), shed a particularly lively light on aspects of wartime life that is not present in his more formal and larger paintings. While the diaries tell us that Schaefer narrowly escaped death when a London pub he was in was hit by a bomb, it is clear from the sketchbooks that the incident did not discourage him from further convivial meetings with friends and fellow artists such as the British painter Augustus John. Indeed, our knowledge of wartime pub life is recorded for posterity in the ebullient and swiftly drawn figurative sketches found in his sketchbooks.

Drifting down. George Campbell Tinning.

(Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 3216579)

George Campbell Tinning (left), war artist, at art exhibition, Horsham, England, August 23, 1945. (L-R) Capt. G. Campbell Tinning, Lt Bruno J. Bobak, Capt.

George Campbell Tinning was born in Saskatoon and trained at the Eliot O'Hara Watercolour School, Goose Rocks, Maine and the Art Students' League in New York. In 1939 he moved to Montreal, where he established himself as an artist and worked as an illustrator. He never stopped painting and exhibiting, and at the end of his life was creating large abstract compositions in brilliant colours, pictures that were far removed in style and feel from his wartime and immediate postwar subjects. Tinning began his military career in the 2nd Battalion, Black Watch (Royal Highland Regiment) in June 1942. He was appointed an official war artist in April 1943 and spent the balance of the year in Ottawa. From December 1943 to July 1944 he was posted to London, attached to the Historical Section at Canadian Military Headquarters, before being transferred to the 1st Canadian Division's Historical Section in August 1944, serving in Italy and northwest Europe. He completed his service in Ottawa in 1946 and was released in October of that year with the rank of captain.

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