Artists at War: The Beaver Hall Group

Artists at War: The Beaver Hall Group

Posted on November 8 by Evelyn Walters in Non-fiction
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On this hundredth anniversary of the end of the First World War, let us not forget the many artists who served our country. With photography and cinematography in its infancy, artists covered the battlefront creating maps, diagrams, and sketches used to plan strategy. Moreover, their recruitment posters, military portraits, and depictions of battle fields and human suffering were used to publicize Canada’s significant contribution.


Eight of the eleven Beaver Hall men served in the First World War. As commissioned artists, A.Y. Jackson, Robert Pilot, Adam Sherriff Scott, and Thurston Topham received officer’s rank and pay. Although not official war artists, Ross Perrigard designed recruiting posters and others returned with sketchbooks full of their experiences. During the Second World War Edwin Holgate rejoined as an official artist and Pilot re-enlisted as a camouflage officer.


Four of the men returned from the First World War seriously wounded: the role of artist did not preclude active participation in battle. Holgate, for example, delivered ammunition, Pilot and Topham served as gunners. Nor did their heroism go unacknowledged: Hewton received the Military Cross for bravery in the Battle of the Somme, and Pilot received the MBE medal for services as a camouflage officer in the Italian campaign.


Two of the Beaver Hall women were commissioned to portray the war effort on the home front. Henrietta Mable May painted a large canvas of women working in a munitions factory –– “Women Making Shells”, 1919, and Lilias Torrance Newton, in addition to designing recruitment posters, painted military portraits. Others volunteered with the Red Cross and donated paintings for fundraising.


Upon their return, exhibitions of their war art brought attention to Modernist painting and gave the artists an important place in Canada’s interwar culture. It is believed that the shared experiences and the camaraderie of setting up these shows played a role in their coming together as the Beaver Hall Group.


It was Max Aitken (Lord Beaverbrook), politician and businessman, who created the Canadian War Memorials Fund in 1916 that first assigned artists to record the war. Eventually, after the Second World War, Vincent Massey, Canada’s High Commissioner to Great Britain, and H.O. McCurry, director of the National Gallery of Canada, carried on the commissioning of war artists by founding the Canadian War Art program.


Today, the drawings and paintings of the Beaver Hall Group at war are among the highlights of the over 13,000 works from World War I to the present day that can be found at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa.


"An Artists's Home on the Somme" by Thurston Topham (Canadian War Museum)

Evelyn Walters

Posted by Kendra on December 6, 2014
Evelyn Walters photo

Evelyn Walters

Evelyn Walters’ expertise on the Beaver Hall Group is an outgrowth of her research for her doctoral thesis and for a personal art collection. She is the author of The Women of Beaver Hall, one of the first books to be written on the Beaver Hall Group. A former Montrealer, she now lives in Toronto.