Molly Lamb Bobak, Canada’s first female official war artist overseas: A Co-Lab challenge

By Krista Cooke

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, a young blond child is standing, and sailboats are docked nearby

War artist Lieutenant Molly Lamb, Canadian Women’s Army Corps, sketching at Volendam, Netherlands, September 1945 (a115762)

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.

A hand-drawn newspaper-style page with a column of text and illustrations of a woman in a military uniform and a diner scene. The titles “W110278” (Molly Lamb Bobak’s service number) and “Girl Takes Drastic Step!” are written at the top

Molly Lamb Bobak’s handwritten diary, amplified with colourful sketches (e006078933)

A hand-drawn page with text and illustrations of two women in military uniforms, women posing for images, women eating at a restaurant, a small pink pig, and women marching. The title reads, “Life Begins as Second Lieutenant!”

Another example from Molly Lamb Bobak’s handwritten diary (e011161136)

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!

A black-and-white photograph, taken from the side, of a woman painting at an easel, holding a paintbrush and palette

Molly Lamb Bobak paints #1 Static Base Laundry (shown completed below) (a188549)

A colourful painting depicting a building and women (some in uniform) in a line, with rolling hills and trees in the background. This painting is the completed version of the painting on which Bobak is working in the photograph above

#1 Static Base Laundry, a painting now in the collections of the Canadian War Museum Canadian War Museum 19710261-1617

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.

“If my work has stirred any interest in our country and its past, I am more than paid”––Charles William Jefferys

Charles William Jefferys (August 25, 1869 – October 8, 1951) determined that Canada needed a visual history and a national mythology and he would create it. He chose to portray Canada’s epic events of discovery, courage, war and nation-building. His images placed an almost mythological importance on the nation’s historical events.

In the early 20th century Canadians struggled to define what it meant to be Canadian and how to express their budding feelings of nationalism. Jefferys’ work reflects this and; his historical illustrations are an expression of this growing nationalism. They are representative of the period, and may not be how we would define ourselves today.

A pen and black ink drawing of four men standing and a vignette of four head portraits of other men wearing hats.

Métis Prisoners, North-West Rebellion, 1885 (MIKAN 2834663)

Some of his illustrations were faithfully copied from existing images such as portraits or photographs, while others were based on meticulous historical research on period costumes. In either case, he strove to accurately portray all aspects of early Canadian life. Continue reading

Frederick Horsman Varley (January 1881 – September 8, 1969)

The son of a commercial lithographer, Frederick Horsman Varley was born and raised in the steel town of Sheffield, England. Varley’s talent as an artist was recognized early when, at the age of 11, he was enrolled in the Sheffield School of Art. By the time Varley was 21, he had completed three years of fine arts study at the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts in Antwerp, Belgium. Before immigrating to Canada in 1912, Varley had worked as a commercial artist in London, England, as well as an art teacher in his home town of Sheffield.

Black-and-white photograph showing a man standing up and holding a paint palette and brushes in one hand and looking a little to the side.

Frederick Horsman Varley, probably at the Vancouver School of Decorative & Applied Arts, ca. 1927 by photographer John Vanderpant (MIKAN 3509585)

Continue reading

Frederick Bourchier Taylor

Canadian artist Frederick Bourchier Taylor (1906–1987), was a man of many interests and many talents. He was born in Ottawa and mostly raised there; living briefly in London, England from 1916 to 1918 after his father was transferred there during the First World War. Upon returning to Ottawa, he graduated from Lisgar Collegiate in 1918. He became a student of McGill University in 1925 after his parents asserted that he must complete university before embarking on any sort of artistic career. While at McGill, Taylor studied architecture and developed a keen interest in skiing and boxing. As a testament to Taylor’s many talents, in 1927 he was awarded McGill’s Anglin Norcross Prize for drawing, and also became the university’s heavyweight boxing champion.

After graduating in 1930, Taylor studied, exhibited and worked in Britain as well as Canada, finally settling in Montreal by 1937. During this period, he earned a living by teaching drawing at the McGill School of Architecture and painting portraits.

After war broke out in 1939, Taylor began an unsuccessful lobbying campaign in an attempt to get the Canadian Government to put into place an officially sanctioned war-art program. Undeterred by the Government’s refusal, Taylor used his artistic talent as well as family connections (his brother was Canadian businessman and millionaire E.P. Taylor) to gain access to and document Canadian Pacific Railway′s Angus Shops in Montreal, along with several Canadian shipyards and other Canadian war industry factories.

Colour print showing ship workers unloading cargo, using nets and skids, on a very crowded dock with a ship in the background.

Empire Builders by Frederick Taylor for the Empire Marketing Board (MIKAN 2897675)

During this period, Taylor was able to paint over 200 works that document the diverse, strenuous, and often unrecognized or under-appreciated work done by Canada’s factory workers. Library and Archives Canada has some of these works in its art collection. These paintings consist of 19 small-sized studies along with eight larger finished works documenting factory workers in the fur and garment industry of Montreal during the 1940s. In these works, Taylor has used a muted palette of industrial greens, browns and greys. Taylor has demonstrated an extraordinary ability to capture not only the industrial atmosphere and harsh fluorescent factory lighting, but also the intense look of concentration on the faces of the workers.

Taylor continued his artistic career after the War, exhibiting and participating in shows mostly in Quebec and Ontario. In 1960, he moved to Mexico where he tried his hand at sculpture and silk screening. Frederick Taylor died by suicide in Mexico, in 1987.

Resources

William Redver Stark: Restoring the Sketchbooks

Different approaches have been tried over the years for conserving sketchbooks or bound volumes. For a long time, the works were simply detached in order to remove the binding. Nowadays, the historical and archival value of the binding is widely recognized. Library and Archives Canada (LAC) is no exception in this regard, and conservation treatments are now designed to preserve the work in its entirety, including the binding.

In a previous article, we introduced you to the work of soldier William Redver Stark. The sketchbooks that are part of the William Redver Stark fonds were never repaired or preserved, and were beginning to show signs of wear:

  • Tears and holes
  • Pages detached, missing or in the wrong order
  • Broken binding threads
  • Covers weakly bound to pages or completely detached

The sketchbooks therefore are undergoing various conservation treatments, undertaken by a team of LAC’s highly specialized conservators in the field of book conservation and restoration. These conservators worked with the collection managers and archivists to respect the integrity of Stark’s work, and to give him his full moment of glory.

The drawings and watercolours in this collection are in very good condition. Some even look like they might have been completed only a few days ago. It should be noted that the sketchbooks remained closed for nearly a hundred years, and that the pages were rarely exposed to air or light. Thus, to study a Stark work is to travel through time, to see the work of an artist exactly as it was created a hundred years ago, during one of the most deadly and crucial wars of our time.

In sum, the restoration work done by LAC‘s conservation and restoration team will make it possible to stabilize the condition of the sketchbooks in order to ensure that they will withstand the ravages of time, and will allow future generations to have access to an important part of our history.

Example of a required restauration treatment: the adhesive tape must be removed.

Example of a required restauration treatment: the adhesive tape must be removed.
© Library and Archives Canada

Another example of a required restauration treatment : the cover must be sewn back on.

Another example of a required restauration treatment : the cover must be sewn back on.
© Library and Archives Canada

See Also:

Summary of comments received in French between July 1, 2014 and September 30, 2014

  • A reader from Wimereux (France) thanks LAC for its work on the restauration of William Stark’s sketchbooks. It turns out that William Stark was stationed in Wimereux and made a lot of sketches of the surroundings. The reader was able to identify some of the sketches and he is offering his work to LAC.

William Redver Stark, the Soldier and the Artist

Canada’s experience of the First World War was captured by officially commissioned artists such as A.Y. Jackson and David Milne from 1916 onwards through the Canadian War Memorials Fund. However, many other artists—amateur and professional—captured their experiences of the war while they were busy fighting, building roads, transporting goods or providing care to others, but still creating vivid imagery of the world around them.

The William Redver Stark fonds at Library and Archives Canada (LAC) is a rare illustrated record of one of these undeclared artists’ lives in the military. Through 14 sketchbooks of remarkably well-preserved drawings and watercolours, we discover the life of a soldier through his eyes, which were closer to the action than those of his official counterparts, and which provide a more spontaneous, intimate perception of how day-to-day activities may have looked.

In these sketchbooks, we find images of soldiers at work and at rest, captured German prisoners and artillery, landscapes through which battalions moved, and sights at the London Zoo where Stark went while on leave. The illustrations serve as a rich and indispensable complement to the artist’s military file, to his battalion’s history, and to our visual understanding of a serviceman’s experience during the First World War.

William Redver Stark with cat. Courtesy of Veterans Affairs Canada.

The William Redver Stark fonds was donated to Library and Archives Canada in 2005 by his nephew, Douglas Mackenzie Davies and his family: his wife, Sheila Margaret Whittemore Davies, and their two sons, Kenneth Gordon Davies and Ian Whittemore Davies.

How to search the sketchbooks

All 14 sketchbooks of the William Redver Stark fonds have been individually described and digitized, making it easier to search for themes or types of scenes. For example, you can search the fonds for all images that contain bridges or construction.

To search the sketchbooks, go to the advanced archives search and in the drop-down menu under “Any Keyword,” enter either the archival reference number (R11307) or the MIKAN number (616998). If you want to narrow down your search even more, enter a keyword such as “bridges” in the second box.

Other related materials:

Be sure to read William Redver Stark: Restoring the Sketchbooks to learn more about the work done by LAC’s conservators to restore the sketchbooks.

Mary Riter Hamilton, Canada’s First Unofficial War Artist

It has been 90 years since Mary Riter Hamilton donated 180 of her oil paintings and dozens of her chalk, pastel and pencil drawings depicting the devastation in Europe after the First World War to the Public Archives of Canada (now Library and Archives Canada). These works by Riter Hamilton are not light-hearted. The subject matter deals almost exclusively with the destruction of war. They depict muddy trenches and blighted landscapes, graves and cemeteries, churches and towns ripped apart from shelling.

Memorial for the Second Canadian Division in a Mine Crater near Neuville St. Vaast.

Memorial for the Second Canadian Division in a Mine Crater near Neuville St. Vaast (MIKAN 2836007)

Mary Riter Hamilton was born in 1873 in Teeswater, Ontario and grew up in Clearwater, Manitoba where her family moved to farm. She married Charles W. Hamilton at the age of 18 and by the age of 23 was widowed. It was soon before the death of her husband that Mary began attending art classes in Toronto. Recognizing her talent, most of her European-trained teachers urged her to further her studies in Paris. Mary studied first in Germany then moved to Paris where she lived and studied for the next eight years. Mary returned to Manitoba for a year in 1906 then again for eight years in 1911. During these years, Mary’s work was exhibited in galleries in Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto, Winnipeg and Calgary.

The Sadness of the Somme

The Sadness of the Somme (MIKAN 2835991)

Always wanting to return to Europe, it was in 1919 while Mary was living and working on Canada’s west coast, that she was offered a commission by the Amputation Club of British Columbia to provide art work for The Gold Stripe, a veteran’s magazine. Mary left immediately, “ … to paint the scenes where so many of our gallant Canadians have fought and died.” For three years, Riter Hamilton worked tirelessly in post-war France and Belgium, painting battlefields including Vimy Ridge and the Somme, Ypres and Passchendaele. Conditions were harsh. She lived in make-shift shelters while enduring foul weather and meagre rations. She returned to Canada physically and emotionally spent. Refusing to sell her paintings, Riter Hamilton donated her work to the Public Archives of Canada. She died, poor and visually impaired, in 1954.

As the centenary of the First World War approaches, these works take on a renewed poignancy. Mary Riter Hamilton was never an official ‘war artist’ yet through her courage and talent and indomitable dedication, the sombre beauty and mournful tone of her collection serve as an enduring account of the ravages of war.

Trenches on the Somme

Trenches on the Somme (MIKAN 2894917)

To learn more about Mary Riter Hamilton, to view more of her work, or to see what materials are contained in the LAC collection, visit: