Molly Lamb Bobak: Canada’s first female Canadian war artist

May 24, 2015 marks the 70th anniversary of Molly Lamb Bobak’s appointment as Canada’s first female war artist during the Second World War.

In 1942, Molly Lamb Bobak was fresh out of art school in Vancouver. The talented young painter promptly joined the Canadian Women’s Army Corps (CWAC) as a draughtswoman—dreaming of one day becoming an official war artist. She worked serving in canteens before being sent on basic training in Alberta, eventually being promoted in 1945 to Lieutenant in the Canadian Army Historical Section.

Black-and-white photograph taken from the side showing a smiling woman in uniform sitting on a pier with a drawing tablet and pencil in hand. In the background, there is a young blond child and sailboats docked nearby.

War artist Lieutenant Molly Lamb, Canadian Women’s Army Corps, sketching at Volendam, Netherlands, September 1945 (MIKAN 3217951)

Shortly after enlisting, Lamb Bobak began writing a unique diary that provides an invaluable record of the CWAC’s role in the war effort. Titled simply W110278, after her service number, it is a personal and insightful, handwritten account of the everyday events of army life, accompanied by her drawings. Dating from November 1942 to June 1945, the diary contains 147 folios and almost 50 single sheet sketches that are found interleaved among its pages.

The diary’s first page captures the humorous tone and unique approach of the diary. Written as a pseudo newspaper, with the pages resembling big-city broadsheets, the first headline reads “Girl Takes Drastic Step! ‘You’re in the Army now’ as medical test okayed.”

What follows are handwritten news bulletins with amusing anecdotes and vibrant illustrations that reveal women’s experiences in Second World War army life and form part of a personal daily record of Lamb Bobak’s time in the CWAC.

Three years after enlisting, Moly Lamb Bobak achieved her ultimate goal when she was appointed as Canada’s first female official war artist and was sent overseas, after the ceasefire, where she painted in England, the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany.

To celebrate the 70th anniversary of Molly Lamb Bobak’s appointment as the country’s first female official war artist, Library and Archives has digitized her entire Second World War diary in colour, making this national treasure available online.

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Ordering documents: what numbers do I need?

Trying to find the right reference number when you want to request documents from the Library and Archives Canada (LAC) collection can be a little daunting to a newcomer and sometimes even to the seasoned researcher. With titles such as MIKAN number, archival reference no., former archival reference no., related control no., and other system control no., it can be difficult to know which number is required to place your request.

In general, the complete archival reference information that you need to request documents for consultation (or reproduction) can be found in the “Conditions of access” section of the online description for files, items and accessions, and should be read from bottom to top.

A sample record description in the Library and Archives Canada Archives Search database.

A sample record description in the Library and Archives Canada Archives Search database. Note the conditions of access in the right column.

You will need to make note of the following information (if available), in the order indicated (1 to 6), in addition to the document title (located at the top of the description page):

  1. Archival Reference number – e.g., R112
  2. Former archival reference no. – e.g., RG, MG, LMS, MUS. It is also important to transcribe all of the information that follows the letter identification.
  3. An accession or BAN number – e.g., 2003-00459-9
  4. A volume or box number—without a volume or box number, nothing can be ordered.
  5. File no. (creator) or Item no. (creator)
  6. File title

For the preceding example the following information would be needed for document retrieval:

RG45, Volume 209, File no. 1147

Here are other examples of reference numbers organized by media type.

Please note that the “Conditions of access” section also contains important information on access restrictions (identified by an access code) that apply to the records described and that indicate whether documents may or may not be freely consulted for research and reproduction purposes. For more information about access codes, please consult the following blog posts: Introduction and Part II.

Important considerations:

  • Retrieval times for archival documents are between 36 and 48 hours as the documents are kept offsite and must be brought to 395 Wellington for viewing.
  • Pay close attention to the restriction codes on the documents, which may require you to provide additional information if the files happen to be restricted.
  • Some documents have already been microfilmed and are available for immediate viewing in the consultation room. If you see a record with a microfilm reel number, you can go directly to the microfilm room and pull the reel from the shelf for viewing.
  • In addition, some microfilmed documents have been digitized through our collaboration with Canadiana and are available on the Héritage website.

If all else fails, feel free to ask the Orientation or Consultation staff for help to find the correct reference number, or complete the Ask Us a Question form.

1915: Would you follow this example?

The recruiting posters below are part of a remarkable collection of more than 4,000 posters from many combatant nations, acquired under the guidance of Dominion Archivist Dr. Arthur Doughty as part of a larger effort to document the First World War.

Image of two posters side by side, one in English and one in French. The imagery shows a soldier standing sideways, in front of the Union Jack, with a rifle balanced on his shoulder. He is wearing the uniform and equipment of the 1915 Canadian soldier: Ross rifle, pack, cap, puttees, and MacAdam shield-shovel (also known as the Hughes shovel).

An English and French version of a poster using the same imagery, but with text conveying very different motivations. (MIKAN 3667198 and MIKAN 3635530)

As the deadly stalemate on the Western Front continued through 1915, warring nations were forced to organize recruitment drives to raise new divisions of men for the fighting. The two battles referenced in the poster were certainly not great victories for the Canadian Expeditionary Force, which had only recently commenced military operations. The desperate defence at St. Julien, an action during the Second Battle of Ypres, along with the inconclusive May 1915 Battle of Festubert, were all that authorities had to draw upon to raise fresh troops for service overseas.

The sentimental verse and patriotic imagery was conventional for this type of poster. It would appeal to Canadians with strong ties to Britain, but would offer little encouragement to French Canadians, First Nations’ communities, or to other groups to sign up. One interesting element is that the text is not a simple translation: in English the theme is heroic sacrifice, whereas in French it is about ending the carnage and restoring “progress.”

These posters offer a realistic depiction of a soldier early on in the war. This lance-corporal is armed with the Ross rifle, whose serious defects have featured in Canadian histories of the First World War. He is wearing short ankle boots and puttees (long lengths of cloth wrapped around his calves), which were cheaper to manufacture than knee-length boots but offered less protection from cold or wet. Steel helmets had not yet been developed, leaving his head and upper body vulnerable to any flying debris or shrapnel.

He is also burdened by the MacAdam shield-shovel (hanging at his hip). This invention was the result of a collaboration between Minister of Militia Sir Sam Hughes, and his secretary, Ena MacAdam. It attempted to combine a personal shield with a shovel. The shovel blade had a sight hole in it that was supposed to allow a soldier lying on the ground to aim and fire his rifle through the hole while shielded behind its protection. However, the shovel was too heavy and dirt would pour through the hole. Also, the shield was too thin to stop German bullets! Thankfully, this failed multi-tool quietly disappeared from the standard equipment issued before the First Division crossed from England to France. This poster is an important artifact of its time. It shows that in 1915, Canadians soldiers fighting overseas still had a very long road ahead of them.

Black-and-white photograph showing three men, two are clearly in uniform. One officer (Minister of Militia Sam Hughes) is holding the MacAdam shield-shovel which is a spade-shaped piece of metal with a hole on one side, while the other officer is kneeling on the ground doing something indiscernible. The third is looking at the spade.

Sam Hughes holding the McAdam shield-shovel (MIKAN 3195178)

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Library and Archives Canada Sir John A. Macdonald treasures on display. Part 1: Famous outtakes

Library and Archives Canada (LAC) holds the most comprehensive collection of material in Canada related to our nation’s first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald. As part of the year-long commemoration surrounding the 200th anniversary of Macdonald’s birth, LAC is presenting an exhibition at Bellevue House in Kingston, Ontario—Parks Canada’s official site dedicated to Macdonald.

The exhibition will provide a chance for Canadians to see rare treasures, such as an exercise book from Macdonald’s school days, and the earliest known painted portrait of him:

Image shows a school exercise book belonging to Sir John A. Macdonald when he was a child; the book is open at a page of geometry exercises.

Sir John A. Macdonald’s exercise book (MIKAN 122162)

Image shows the earliest known portrait of Sir John A. Macdonald, a portrait painted in oils in the Romantic style.

First oil portrait of Sir John A. Macdonald, ca. 1842–1843 (MIKAN 2837236)

It also features other lesser-known, but intriguing, items. LAC’s collection includes most of the original glass plate negatives from personal photography sessions that Macdonald booked with prominent Ottawa photographer William James Topley (1845–1930), for example:

Images show Sir John A. Macdonald wearing an overcoat and standing in various poses on ‘set’ at Topley Studios, either holding or setting aside a top hat and cane. Images show Sir John A. Macdonald wearing an overcoat and standing in various poses on ‘set’ at Topley Studios, either holding or setting aside a top hat and cane.

Topley was the premier portrait photographer of his day, making images of both well-known and unknown citizens from across the country. His studio, always located in the neighbourhood of Parliament Hill, was convenient enough to attract the patronage of many of the new Dominion’s first MPs. Topley even served as official court photographer to Canada’s Governor General, the Marquis of Lorne (1845–1914).

Prints of the photographs from Macdonald’s studio sessions with Topley do not always survive, but most of the negatives for each session do—often including fascinating and unexpected ‘outtake’ images. Produced on thin plates of glass, the 19th-century technology that preceded the development of photographic film, these are both fragile and unwieldy—besides being negative images. Modern positive reproductions are usually made from them, as in the case of this exhibition, to allow for convenient viewing.

This exhibition displays several outtakes, and a print from the Topley sessions, in sequence. The outtakes lack the formality of finished studio portraits but give a small feeling of what a 19th-century studio session must have been like. When viewed as a set, they almost give a feeling of motion—bringing Macdonald to life again, before our eyes.

LAC is the only archives in Canada to hold the official records of the Topley Studio, including original counter books, prints and negatives. The Macdonald negatives illustrate just one way in which the collection works as one of the most important visual records of Canada during the first 50 years after Confederation.

Image shows one of Sir John A. Macdonald’s receipts for a photographic session with William James Topley, June 1885.

Topley receipt for a photographic session (MIKAN 122162)

Come see the Macdonald outtakes at Bellevue House National Historic Site, between May 16 and October 12, 2015.

Digitization of the Canadian Expeditionary Force Personnel Service Files – Update of May 2015

As of today, 155,110 of 640,000 files are available online via our Soldiers of the First World War: 1914–1918 database. Please visit the Digitization of the Canadian Expeditionary Force Service Files page for more details on the digitization project.

Library and Archives Canada is digitizing the service files systematically, from box 1 to box 10686, which roughly corresponds to alphabetical order. Please note that over the years, the content of some boxes has had to be moved and, you might find that the file you want, with a surname that is supposed to have been digitized, is now located in another box that has not yet been digitized. The latest digitized box is #3518, which corresponds to the surname “Gilbert”. Please check the database regularly for new additions and if you still have questions after checking the database, you may contact us directly at 1-866-578-7777 for more assistance.

Release of an updated version of the Immigrants from China database

May is Asian Heritage Month in Canada, during which we acknowledge the long and rich history of Asian Canadians and their contributions to Canada. Asian Heritage Month also provides an opportunity for Canadians to reflect on and celebrate the contributions of Canadians of Asian heritage to the growth and prosperity of Canada.

To celebrate Asian culture, Library and Archives Canada is pleased to announce the addition of more than 35,000 references to its Immigrants from China database. It now includes references to the C.I.9 certificates issued to people of Chinese origin born outside Canada and wanting to leave Canada for a limited time without losing their Canadian status. The actual records include a photograph and provide information such as the individual’s name, age and place of birth, as well as the port and date of departure, and the ship’s name.

Children of Topley Images now on Flickr 

The William Topley collection at Library and Archives Canada is an invaluable resource for those interested in nineteenth-century Canadian photographic portraiture. Comprised of over 150,000 glass plate negatives as well as studio proofs and counter books. While Topley did photograph subject matter other than people, portraits were his chosen specialty and the collection is a wonderful example of early Canadian studio work.

Children were often the subject of these portraits, posing alone or with siblings.

The Children of Topley – Pint-sized portraits from the William Topley collection

The William Topley collection at Library and Archives Canada is an invaluable resource for those interested in nineteenth-century Canadian photographic portraiture. Comprised of over 150,000 glass plate negatives as well as studio proofs and counter books, the Topley collection dates from 1868 to 1923, and illustrates the prolific career of Topley, a Montreal-area native, who began his solo career by opening a branch of the William Notman studio on Ottawa’s Wellington Street. While Topley did photograph subject matter other than people, portraits were his chosen specialty and the collection is a wonderful example of early Canadian studio work.

By the early 1870s Topley had purchased the studio he had been managing for William Notman, and was attracting upwards of 2,300 sitters per year. Topley’s prestigious downtown Ottawa location—he moved multiple times over the years, but always within walking distance to parliament—meant he attracted much of the city’s elite, including politicians and other important figures, who made their way to the photographer’s studio to have their portraits taken.

Children were often the subject of these portraits, posing alone or with siblings. In looking through these images we notice not only recognizable names, identifying some of these children as the offspring of the capital city’s movers and shakers, but something unchanged despite the time period. We see beyond the formality, the constricting clothing and stiff poses, and recognize that these portraits are not too different from those we might take today. We recognize children dressed up for a photo, attempting to sit still, looking either overly eager or slightly bored.

Black-and-white photograph of a young girl in a white dress.

Missie McLaren, 1873 (MIKAN 3461050)

Studio photographers of this era often had clients pose with props, and Topley was no different. In his portraits of children we notice items like books, skipping ropes, dolls or pets clutched in the hands of the small sitters. Some children stand or sit up very straight with serious, concentrated expressions on their faces, while others lounge tiredly in chairs. In these ones especially, we can imagine how tedious the long exposures must have felt to a child, how many plates the photographer might have had to take to get a proper, non-blurry image.

Black-and-white photograph of a young girl with her chin resting on her hands, a book beside her.

Missie Cambie, 1877 (MIKAN 3435180)

Also interesting are the portraits of babies with hidden, or barely-in-the-frame mothers. It was quite common at the time for babies to sit on their mothers’ laps for a portrait, while a blanket or other fabric was thrown over the mother so that only the baby would be the focus. In several of Topley’s portraits of babies, we see a more subtle approach, with the mother encouraging the child from the edge of the frame. The photographer would later crop the mother out for the final print.

Black-and-white photograph of a young child with the mother to the right, partially blacked out.

Missie Ruttan, 1876 (MIKAN 3434482)

These wonderful portraits provide an alternative perspective on the face of Canada’s capital in the nineteenth century, and seem to offer a bridge from past to present, where some things never change.

Black-and-white photograph of two young boys in black jackets, one seated and one standing on a chair.

Two boys posing—Master Borthwick, 1882 (MIKAN 3418410)

Black-and-white photograph of a young girl dressed in winter clothing.

Missie Helena Topley, 1882 (MIKAN 3418246)

Related resources: