By Krista Cooke
Molly Lamb Bobak, the first female official war artist overseas, is arguably the Second World War painter who best captured Canadian women’s experiences of military life. In 1942, Molly Lamb (later Bobak) was fresh out of art school in Vancouver. The talented young painter promptly joined the Canadian Women’s Army Corps (CWAC) as a draftswoman—dreaming of one day becoming an official war artist.
Canada’s war art program, established during the First World War, resulted in a vast collection of artworks. Molly Lamb Bobak, who contributed to the Canadian War Records of the Second World War, was exceptional. She was Canada’s first female official war artist overseas. Works from her lifetime of painting and drawing are held at numerous institutions across Canada, including Library and Archives Canada (LAC), where a large collection of her works resides. One of the most compelling pieces, her wartime diary, is now more accessible: it has been digitized and can be transcribed through the collaboration tool Co-Lab.
Shortly after enlisting, Molly Lamb Bobak began writing a unique diary, which 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. Covering the period from November 1942 to June 1945, the diary contains 226 illustrated pages and almost 50 single sheet sketches interleaved among its pages.
The diary’s first page (top) captures the humorous tone and unique approach of the diary, which is written in newspaper style, 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, revealing women’s experiences in Second World War army life. These comprise a personal daily record of Lamb Bobak’s time in the CWAC. She worked serving in canteens before being sent on basic training in Alberta, eventually being promoted to Lieutenant in the Canadian Army Historical Section, in 1945. Throughout her years of service in Canada, she captured the world around her, later using many of these sketches as studies for her paintings.
Three years after enlisting, Molly Lamb Bobak achieved her ultimate goal when she became the first woman to be sent overseas as an official war artist. She recorded her excitement in her diary, writing “Lamb’s Fate Revealed…To Be First Woman War Artist!” Despite her talent, Lamb Bobak’s appointment as an official war artist was far from a foregone conclusion. Women’s perspectives had not been a priority for the program. As she later recalled, “[B]eing the first female war artist, with 9 men [in my group] . . . was sort of a great thing to have happened to me . . . because I know the Army didn’t want women [artists], in those days.” She credited family friend and Group of Seven painter A.Y. Jackson with her success. Indeed, he had written on her behalf to the director of the National Gallery of Canada, who was involved in the war art program, stating “If she had half a chance, she could go places.” And go places she did!
After the ceasefire in 1945, the military sent Molly Lamb Bobak to England, the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany. As one of almost 30 Canadian official war artists working during the Second World War, Lamb Bobak created works that are unique because of their focus on servicewomen. Roughly 50,000 Canadian women enlisted in the military during the Second World War, but their experiences were not generally of interest to male war artists or administrators of the war art program, who tended to focus on battlefield scenes and servicemen. As a CWAC herself, Molly Lamb Bobak had unparalleled access to her subjects and was able to capture the daily experiences of being a servicewoman. She later explained that “[T]he whole structure of army life is agreeable to a painter… and everywhere you turn there is something terrific to paint…. one could spend hours … drawing the C.W.A.C.s checking in and out, the new recruits, the fatigue girls in their overalls, the orderly officer.” During her time overseas, she produced dozens of paintings that today are part of the Beaverbrook Collection of War Art at the Canadian War Museum. Together with the material at Library and Archives Canada, it is possible to build a rich portrait of Molly Lamb Bobak’s military experiences and of her life as a painter. Following the war, she married fellow official war artist Bruno Bobak. Their assignment to a shared studio space in London, U.K., began a romance that lasted until their deaths (Molly Lamb Bobak died in 2014, and Bruno Bobak died in 2012). Their shared archival collection is housed at Library and Archives Canada.
We invite you to use our Co-Lab tool to transcribe, tag, translate and describe digitized records from our collection, such as Molly Lamb Bobak’s wartime diary.
Krista Cooke is a curator with the Exhibitions team at Library and Archives Canada. This blog post draws from an earlier version written by Carolyn Cook, formerly of LAC.