The Battle of Vimy Ridge – war art

A banner that changes from a black-and-white photograph of a battle scene on the left to a colour photograph of the Vimy Memorial on the right.By Katie Cholette

The Battle of Vimy Ridge captured the imagination of professional and amateur artists alike. Some of these artists served in uniform and participated in the battle. Other artists were not present, but painted the battlefields after the fact or from imagination. In a variety of styles and media, male and female artists, both Canadian- and British-born, responded to a number of aspects of the battle: the heroism of the soldiers, the massive number of casualties, the widespread destruction of buildings and the devastation of the natural landscape.

A colour lithograph of a desolate landscape showing a large crater in the middle of which is a cross drawn out with white stones. At the top and the bottom of the crater are two other stone crosses: one Roman and the other Celtic. Barbed wire circles the crater and stumps of bombed trees can be seen in the distance.

A Mine Crater – A Cemetery in the Old “No Man’s Land” on Vimy Ridge, 1917, a lithograph by Frederick Thwaites Bush (Library and Archives Canada – MIKAN 4014020)

British-born Canadian soldier Frederick Thwaites Bush created some of the most evocative images of the battle. Trained as an architect before the war, Bush served as a lieutenant with the 29th Battalion and the Canadian Engineers. While in Belgium and France he sketched a number of sites, including Ypres, Passchendaele and Vimy Ridge. Based on a pencil sketch done on site, Bush’s colour lithograph of the mine crater and gravesite set within a degraded landscape captures the feeling of desolation and loss.

An etching of a group of soldiers around a canon being pulled by a team of horses, with the shell of a destroyed farmhouse in the background.

Berthonval Farm by Lieutenant C.H. Barraud, c. 1917–1918 (Library and Archives Canada – MIKAN 4936627)

Lieutenant Cyril Henry Barraud worked as an artist and commercial illustrator prior to the First World War. Born in England, Barraud emigrated to Canada in 1913, and when war broke out he attested in the Winnipeg Grenadiers. He was sent overseas in August 1915 with the 43rd Battalion, and in November 1917 was appointed an official war artist. During his time in France and Belgium, Barraud sketched along the front. Based on these sketches, he later created many etchings for the Canadian War Memorials Fund. Images such as Berthonval Farm are typical of his carefully-composed style and combine war-damaged buildings with romanticized idyllic landscapes. This work was part of the Canadian War Memorials Exhibition held in London in 1919.

A watercolour of a broken brick and concrete wall scattered over a little hill with broken trees behind it and airplanes flying overhead.

Wrecked German Strongpoint During Battle of Vimy, 1917 by Reuben Alvin Jukes, 1917 (Library and Archives Canada – MIKAN 3838519)

Reuben Alvin Jukes (Jucksch) was born in Hanover, Ontario. Listing his occupation as an artist, he attested in the 20th Canadian Battalion in 1914 and was sent to train in England. Jukes was sent to the front in January 1916. Although he was not an official war artist, a lenient commanding officer allowed him time to paint scenes while at the front. Due to an episode of what was then called shell shock, he was not present at the Battle of Vimy Ridge; however, he returned to active service in May 1917. He subsequently painted a number of highly detailed, almost surreal watercolours, such as Wrecked German Strongpoint During Battle of Vimy, 1917, depicting the aftermath of the battle.

A colour painting of several crosses festooned with flowers in the middle of a gaping stone wall. Behind is a brown structure and the sky is blue with white clouds.

Gun Emplacements, Farbus Wood, Vimy Ridge by Mary Riter Hamilton, 1919 (Library and Archives Canada – MIKAN 2836031)

Some of the most expressive paintings of Vimy Ridge were produced by Canadian-born professional artist Mary Riter Hamilton. Although Hamilton was unsuccessful in her attempts to be appointed as an official war artist, she was commissioned by The War Amputations Club of British Columbia to provide images for The Gold Stripe, a veterans’ magazine. Hamilton was anxious to paint the sites where so many men died before any reconstructive efforts were undertaken, and left for Europe shortly after the war ended. She painted in Europe from 1919 until 1922 and produced over 300 works, including Gun Emplacements, Farbus Wood, Vimy Ridge and Petit Vimy and Vimy Village from the Lens – Arras Road. In both of these works, Hamilton’s spontaneous and loose handling of paint combined with a light palette demonstrate a sense of optimism despite the circumstances. Hamilton refused to sell her war paintings. Hoping that they would benefit the men who fought and their families, she exhibited them several times in fundraising exhibitions. In 1926 she donated 227 paintings, drawings and prints to the Public Archives of Canada (now Library and Archives Canada).

A colour painting of a road lined with broken trees leading down to a town. In the distance can be seen other villages and hills.

Petit Vimy and Vimy Village from the Lens – Arras Road by Mary Riter Hamilton, 1919 (Library and Archives Canada – MIKAN 2836011)

A colour painting of a group of soldiers charging forth, in various poses of throwing grenades. Others are moving forward with guns and bayonets, while others lay on the ground, dead. The colours of the painting are very light pastels and the soldiers are painted with great delicacy.

Cede Nullis, the Bombers of the 8th Canadian Infantry on Vimy Ridge, 9th April 1917 by Lady Elizabeth Southerden Butler, 1918 (Library and Archives Canada – MIKAN 2883480)

The Battle of Vimy Ridge captured the imagination of another professional female artist—Lady Elizabeth Southerden Butler. Lady Butler (née Elizabeth Thompson) was an academically-trained English artist who specialized in realistically rendered paintings of battlefield warfare. In the late 19th century she gained popularity from her romanticized, heroic depictions of the Crimean and Napoleonic wars. Stylistically similar to her earlier works, Cede Nullis, the Bombers of the 8th Canadian Infantry on Vimy Ridge, 9th April 1917 depicts the 8th Canadian Infantry (part of the Canadian 3rd Division) on the day that the Canadians took the ridge. The watercolour was painted while she was living in Ireland, and was exhibited in May 1919 in London. The work was acquired at auction in 1989.

The victory at the Battle of Vimy Ridge was one of the most important moments in Canadian history. Immortalized in art, the bravery of the soldiers and the sacrifices of the battle have become integral parts of our national mythology.

Biography

Katie Cholette has a BA (Hons.) in Art History, an MA in Canadian Art History and a PhD in Canadian Studies. She has previously worked as the Curator of Acquisitions and Research at the Portrait Gallery of Canada, held two Research Fellowships in Canadian Art at the National Gallery of Canada, and taught courses in Art History, Canadian Studies and the Humanities for the past 14 years at Carleton University. She has also worked on a number of freelance curatorial and research projects and is on the editorial board of the Underhill Review.

This blog was developed under a collaborative agreement between Library and Archives Canada and The National Archives.

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: