052: The Battlefield Art of Mary Riter Hamilton
March 7, 2019
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From 1919 to 1922, Mary Riter Hamilton undertook a “special mission” for The War Amps to document the scarred landscape where Canadian soldiers had fought and died.
Her canvases capture the devastation of war but also signs of hope and renewal. At great cost to her health, this artist created one of the few authentic collections of paintings of war-torn Europe. She considered her work to be a gift to Canada. She donated the majority of the collection of paintings to the Public Archives of Canada, now Library and Archives Canada, in 1926. Today, we sit down with retired assistant professor of history at the University of Manitoba, Kathryn Young, and Dr. Sarah McKinnon, former vice-president at the Ontario College of Art and Design, and former curator at the University of Manitoba.
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The Battlefield Art of Mary Riter Hamilton
Josée Arnold (JA): Welcome to “Discover Library and Archives Canada: Your History, Your Documentary Heritage.” I’m your host, Josée Arnold. Join us as we showcase treasures from our vaults; guide you through our many services; and introduce you to the people who acquire, safeguard and make known Canada’s documentary heritage.
What drove a successful artist from a comfortable life in Canada to one of hardship in the battlefields of France and Belgium after the First World War? From 1919 to 1922, Mary Riter Hamilton undertook a “special mission” for The War Amps to document the scarred landscape where Canadian soldiers had fought and died. Her canvases capture the devastation of war but also signs of hope and renewal. At great cost to her health, this artist created one of the few authentic collections of paintings of war-torn Europe. She considered her work to be a gift to Canada. She donated the majority of the collection of paintings to the Public Archives of Canada, now Library and Archives Canada, in 1926.
On today’s episode, we sit down with retired assistant professor of history at the University of Manitoba, Kathryn Young, and Dr. Sarah McKinnon, former vice-president at the Ontario College of Art and Design, and former curator at the University of Manitoba. They are the co-authors of the book
No Man’s Land: The Life and Art of Mary Riter Hamilton.
The Flickr gallery for this episode is a good one. It is filled with a choice selection of images of Mary Riter Hamilton’s paintings, and even some photographs of her. We highly recommend checking it out. Look for the Flickr link in the show notes on LAC’s podcast page
Before we get to the interview, we want to give you some background on how Sarah and Kathryn’s book got started.
Back in the mid-’80s, Angela Davis, a scholar at the University of Manitoba, started a research project on Western Canadian women artists. Angela, and one of today’s guests Sarah McKinnon, discovered Mary Riter Hamilton and set about creating an exhibit of her works from the collection held at Library and Archives Canada. They also started writing a biography of her as well. The exhibit became a touring one, travelling to many Canadian cities from 1989 until 2001. Unfortunately, Angela Davis died in the early ’90s, before the biography was finished. Sarah promised to continue work on it, and, with the help of our other guest today, Kathryn Young, the book was finished and published in 2017.
Quote from J.E.M. Bruce:
“Making records in paint of that portion of the front line in France held by the Canadian Corps, Mrs. Hamilton has undertaken to transcribe, while the terrain is still unaltered by reconstruction activities, the actual ground over which Canadian soldiers struggled with the enemy. The pictures already received, painted by the artist in the neighbourhood of Vimy Ridge and Arras, give by their careful drawing and vigorous colour, such an impression of the actual wartime appearance of the historic places depicted, as could not be given in any other way than by the artist’s brush. No camera could tell the story told by these oil paintings, which are transcripts of both the colour and form of places like Vimy Ridge…”
JA: Helping us with the interview today is LAC Art Archivist Mary-Margaret Johnston Miller.
Mary-Margaret Johnston Miller (MMJM): Welcome to Library and Archives Canada and thanks for the opportunity to talk to you about your research relating to the artist Mary Riter Hamilton. Can you tell us a bit about Mary Riter Hamilton’s background? In particular, her family and her early years in Manitoba.
Kathryn: Yes, I could say a little bit about that. Mary Riter Hamilton was a child of the settlement period. She was born in 1868 and really in her early life grew up in homesteads. First of all at Teeswater in Bruce County, Southern Ontario. In the early ’80s, the family moved to Clearwater, Manitoba, which is in the Pembroke Hills area. We know that Mary Hamilton had some education in the Teeswater area and had expressed an interest in art.
We don’t know very much about her teenage years other than in her later teens she went to Emerson, Manitoba, which is on the American-Canadian border, because her brother was working there. She set up as an apprentice of a milliner there.
JA: A milliner is a person who designs and makes hats.
Within a very short time, the milliner moved to Port Arthur, now Thunder Bay, and Mary Hamilton went with her. She worked there as a milliner and became involved in shows and making hats and dry goods. It was there that she met her husband, Charles Hamilton.
MMJM: Can you talk about the circumstances under which she decided to pursue a career as an artist? Because she got married, so was following the traditional path for a 19th-century woman, but what happened?
Kathryn: Yes. Well, it is known that she was interested in art, and indeed, we have a quotation from her very early on in going to Port Arthur where she talked about wanting to paint a local site. We also know that in that period she was essentially teaching herself to paint china from magazines, so there was an interest in art. China painting was definitely of interest to her. She was a middle-class woman. She, of course, became the wife of a businessman, so that was a background for her in her early marriage.
They were married in 1889 and very shortly thereafter she had a stillborn child, and in 1893 her husband passed away. She was widowed at a young age of 25, and within a few months went to Winnipeg where there were family members, and it’s really there that her art career begins, in Winnipeg.
JA: While in Winnipeg, Mary Riter Hamilton began china art, and eventually moved on to painting in watercolours and oils. She travelled to Toronto to study with E. Wyly Grier, a well-known portrait painter, and with George Agnew Reid and his wife, Mary Hiester Reid. This was between the years 1894 and 1901.
Kathryn: In 1901, she had the opportunity to travel to Europe and to study there. She went with two other young women from Winnipeg. One who was to study violin and her cousin who was a chaperone. Mary Hamilton went as chaperone as well, but I think very much in her mind was to be exposed to the art museums and study in Europe. They went to Berlin initially, and for two years there she studied with Franz Skarbina who was a well-known portrait painter and a member of the German Academy. When the young women came back to Winnipeg in 1903, Mary Hamilton went on to Paris where she then studied much more extensively at several of the Parisian academies.
MMJM: What was life like for a woman in France on her own, more or less, to be studying in France at that time?
Kathryn: Well, it was very interesting, but it was not all that unusual, which one might think. There were other Canadian women who were studying in Paris at the time that she was. She set herself up in Montparnasse in the artists’ quarter, essentially. She lived on the rue de la Grande-Chaumière, which was very close to some of the art schools. She studied at the Julian, which was encouraging young women to come. There had been these changes in the acceptance of women as art students. As well in that period, it was more acceptable for women to travel on their own.
The railroads, of course, were well developed by the turn of the century, so she was able to travel out of Paris to Italy or to Holland, to art museums in other countries. Life, I think, in Paris in those days was one that was shared, as I said, by other Canadian artists as well. It was long hours in the art schools, in the Julian, the Colarossi, the Vitti, but as well, Paris was the Paris of Debussy, it was the Paris of Ravel. It was a very exciting place to be. We know that was the environment she was in. How much of it she partook of, we’re not sure.
MMJM: During the First World War, where was Mary Riter Hamilton and how was she supporting herself during that period?
Sarah: I’ll try to take a crack at that. She returned to Canada around 1911 from her training in Paris, and she passed by a number of cities in Canada, Montreal, Toronto, Winnipeg and so on. She went in the end to Victoria to settle after that time. I think she always intended to go back to France and this was a visit home, but the idea of the war and the coming of the war intervened. In Victoria, she settled again, practiced her art, teaching, developing what she had learned in France and partaking in an art club which exhibited art, they did fundraising. Of course, being British Columbia, I think the patriotism, the interest in Canada and Britain and what was happening across the way was really significant.
She did volunteer work, she encouraged others to participate as well. She established some time there in Victoria as an artist. As Kathryn mentioned, she was a member of the middle class. She knew important people in Victoria, which was, of course, the capital. She was commissioned to do some works there, she was friendly with some important folks in the city, and so her art career was really, at that time, quite flourishing.
Interestingly, she belonged to an island arts and crafts club, a painting club there, and one of the other members was Emily Carr. We’re not really sure if there was direct contact, but it seems hard to think that they wouldn’t have at least known of each other at that time. Their careers were not dissimilar, although they really were not together directly, but it is possible that she was a friend of Emily Carr as well in that time. This would be in the years just before and into the war itself.
MMJM: How would you characterize the style of Mary Riter Hamilton’s work during this period, before she did the battlefield series?
Sarah: Well, as Kathryn mentioned, she was trained by portrait painters, and portraits were always one of the things that she did. They were standard repertoire for women at the time. Landscape, genre scenes, portraiture. She was trained at still life, she was trained in those things, but portraiture was of particular interest. I mentioned that she knew lots of important people in Victoria. The examples you cite are significant. Her general painting style, I think, was a product of the period in France. It’s a post-impressionistic style, generally light and shadow being important features that are manipulated well.
She was not influenced, interestingly, by the real contemporary movements that were happening in France. In the first decade of the 20th century, Picasso and Braque were inventing cubism, but that doesn’t seem to have had any kind of influence on her. Her painting, I would say, is more traditional in the post-impressionistic style, with the use of color, light and shadow, a soft field around the edges. It was well suited for portraiture, and her portraits were quite well known.
It’s a complicated story, but she was commissioned to paint all of the lieutenant governors of British Columbia as a large project at one point. It’s mysterious how it all worked out, we do discuss it in the book, but she completed some of the portraits. Money became a problem; she wasn’t paid properly. We’re not sure if she finished them. Then, later, there was a fire in Government House in British Columbia, and the assumption is that these paintings were lost.
JA: Was Mary Riter Hamilton able to make a living off her art?
Sarah: It was very hard even for men, but even more so for women, to make a living as an artist. Most people, even today – I used to work at OCAD (Ontario College of Art and Design) and we always used to say that one in 10 graduating students would ever make a living full-time as an artist.
Many people teach and they still are committed on the side, or they work in a gallery, or they find another thing, but to live on your art is a really hard thing to do, and it would have been worse for a woman in those periods. There is a lovely quote from Mary Riter Hamilton where she talks about one of the reasons why she loved being in Europe was that their artists were appreciated and respected, and you could be an artist. But back in Canada, people didn’t recognize or appreciate it, and they didn’t really see anything to it.
You could see the sense of understanding that the professional career that she longed for, she just couldn’t see that in Canada. It was proved to be true that she didn’t really have that in Canada either, but Europe meant something else to her.
Quote from Mary Riter Hamilton (MRH):
To be quite frank, and I trust not in any way offensively so, there is little encouragement in Canada, more especially in this part of it for the artist with the dreams of which I was and am guilty. Artists like other people must live, and as yet it is almost impossible to live in Canada by art alone. Not only is this a matter of money, but of appreciation and I am sorry to say that after life in Europe, where there is so much real appreciation for the work of good craftsmen in any line that it is difficult here even if money flowed freely, and as you know, it does nothing of the kind. This is not only a personal wail. What have we, I would ask, in British Columbia or even in Canada, in the way of a national feeling for art?
JA: In 1916, Max Aitken, also known as Lord Beaverbrook, a Canadian newspaper mogul, established the Canadian War Memorial Fund. It was Canada’s first war art program, and established the ongoing tradition of using artists to depict Canada at war, through text, artefacts and art. Mary Riter Hamilton applied to be a documentary artist, to go paint the scenes during the war, but was ultimately turned down. The artists that were appointed were all men, and men that were already in the military service, such as A.Y. Jackson and Frederick Varley. There were women artists, Henrietta Mabel, May Florence Wyle and Dorothy Stevens that were granted commissions, but were confined to painting the war effort at home, in Canada.
Quote from MRH:
I go to Europe in order to paint the scenes where so many of our gallant Canadians have fought and died, because this can be only done successfully before the reconstruction of France and Belgium has really started … there is no doubt about the magnificent ability of our fighting men and I fairly ache to get to the scene of their heroic exploits.
MMJM: How did she finally get her chance to visit the battlefields after the end of the First World War?
Sarah: One of the people she knew in Victoria was a man named J. A. Paton, who had been a soldier in the war, had returned and was himself an amputee. He was a friend of hers, and Paton was involved in founding an organization called the Amputation Club of British Columbia. It was a veteran support organization. The idea was to provide assistance to soldiers returning, particularly those that had been amputees as a result of the war. They provided some education, some opportunity to retrain these men. Also, some social support for them, and the camaraderie with others of learning to cope with life now as a wounded and amputee soldier.
She knew Paton, was friendly with him, and it appears that together they came up with this idea. The club was producing a magazine called
The Gold Stripe. It was a magazine sent around to its membership, a veterans’ magazine, again, as part of helping them reconnect with their lives in Canada. Somehow they came up with a plan that Mary Riter Hamilton would go to France, would go out to the battlefields, document the scenes that were famous for Canadian soldiers in particular, so that the families would understand where their sons had been, in some cases maybe where they died, but certainly to show Canadians back home what had been experienced in a way by the men.
The magazine then would illustrate familiarity to the men itself. Her work concentrated on the main sites that Canadians would know. Passchendaele, Vimy, the Somme, places that had been in the news back in Canada. They came up with a plan for a commission, a sponsorship from the War Amps. Well, it was called the Amputation Club of British Columbia. I should say that is the background to our contemporary War Amps organization that was founded officially in 1918, if you look back to those sources. That club morphed into the national organization we know today.
The magazine was produced. When she first went, her commission was to send back the paintings that she made, and they would then reproduce them and publish them in the magazine. That was how it started. We don’t know exactly how many works she completed and sent to the organization. At some point, that must have stopped, because she continued to paint while in France, but the works were not being sent back to Canada.
That group of over 300 are the core of what was donated ultimately to Library and Archives Canada, then the Dominion Archives, in 1926. She started this and it seems she just kept going. The commission was not enough in a way. She was determined to stay there and she spent three years on the battlefield sites during the reconstruction.
Quote from MRH:
I made up my mind that where our men went under so much more dreadful conditions I could go, and I am very proud to have been able even in a small way to commemorate the deeds of my country men, and especially if possible to lend a helping hand to the poor fellows like those of the Amputation Club who will be life-long sufferers from the war.
MMJM: You mentioned some of the battlefields that she visited. What living conditions did she encounter during these years in Europe?
Sarah: They were varied. She, for the most part, lived by herself out on the battlefields in abandoned huts, or in tents, or small wooden cabins that she lived in by herself. She usually had a dog or two for protection. The battlefields themselves at the time were being cleaned and restored, so you had gangs of men working there, probably some deserters. There were teams that had been hired to come and dig up the old shells, to look for leftover ammunition, bodies to be buried. It was not a pleasant environment for a woman on her own. At times, when she first arrived, she was near a group of Canadian soldiers as they were packing up to leave, so she had some protection and camaraderie with them, but they left.
Also, she does write in some of her letters that she spent some time renting a flat with a French family at one period, for a short time. She did go back into Paris periodically to try to get her mail, and some money, and purchase supplies. There was a little bit of itinerant quality, but generally, the living conditions were solitary for the most part, and were rather difficult for a woman on her own. She writes in her letters about having trouble getting food, or being hungry, or being cold. There was not an easy life out there for her on the battlefields.
Quote from MRH:
You will remember my taking that old flannel of yours with me. I wondered at the time why I wanted it, but I wonder no longer, for it is one of my most precious possessions. I have it pinned around me under my corsets. When I am sketching, there will be no danger of my taking cold as I seem to have done this last while. The Canadian Forces Club closes this week and I am still undecided as to where I will live. There is simply no place in the battle area among the French, poor things they have little or nothing themselves but I must do my work here now or it will be too late.
Tomorrow I am moving near the front line Vimy Ridge district. There is much work to be done there. So far I have made many sketches and two finished pictures. At the end of July I shall send off my work to the Gold Stripe and will no doubt be in need of a rest for the work is so intense being the nature of it and besides, I have had so great distances to go in order to get to it. I wish I could transport you here for one must see it all in order to realize just what this terrible war has done. The saddest are the isolated crosses. They look so lonely and some of them I cannot think about without tears. The ruins are wonderful and paintable indeed. Canada seems so terribly far away.
MJMM: Do you think Mary Riter Hamilton’s technique and style changed at all as a result of her experiences painting during this period?
Sarah: I think her work was more impressionistic in a way. I think the brushstroke was looser, the lines softer, and it may be she wrote occasionally or talked about a ghostly quality or an aura over the battlefields. She almost writes in a spiritual way about that, about what it was to be there. I suspect that the sense of stillness of death, that was not obviously visible in her work but was behind it, gave her that sense of almost a spiritual or holy experience. I think in terms of style; she doesn’t use a strong line, she doesn’t use a very specific way of approaching, but generally landscapes are more hazy, more soft.
There are a few occasions where she’s depicting a particular piece, such as the Passchendaele monument, which is featured on the Archives’ material. It’s precise, you recognize it, but it still has a soft glow, a light behind it. It tends to be a softer approach. Interestingly, the work is not bloody or gory; she does not show any of the real examples of death and suffering, but there’s a reference to it in a hallowed way in which she treats the subject matter. The original style that Kathryn talked about her learning in France, I think is actually extended in her style in the war paintings.
JA: Were her battlefield works ever exhibited in Europe? Sarah weighs in.
Sarah: I can mention a couple, and Kathryn can probably fill in some, too. The main one that she was excited about was an exhibition of her work at the Opera House in Paris after the works had been completed. The purpose of that was a fundraising event. They were trying to raise money, the English and the French, to build a monument near Amiens to the Battle of the Somme. The idea was that they would put a large monument, something like Vimy. There are drawings of this monument, but it was never completed.
Her works were shown there and tickets were sold. The idea was that people would get an idea of what the battlefields were like and then how the monument would fit in. The intention was also for those works to be shown in London after that exhibition in Paris. I think that didn’t go so well, the plan for that one, but the idea was that her work would be able to be used to raise money on the English side as well, but I’m not sure if that was a successful plan in the end.
She got some notice. She was awarded an honor by the French government, Les Palmes académiques, which is the second highest to the Légion d’honneur. She was awarded that at the time of this exhibition in Paris. She was very proud of having been recognized again, ironically, by the French government, but almost ignored by the Canadians [chuckles] when she returned home. That was a case where her European fame actually came to the fore surprisingly in the post-war period after she had completed her paintings.
JA: Mary Riter Hamilton was in France and Belgium painting the battlefield scenes between 1919 and 1922. She painted in watercolour and oil, and sketched in chalk, charcoal and pencil. In total, she produced more than 300 works, the largest collection of Canadian First World War paintings by a single artist. LAC holds the majority of these works – 185 of her paintings and over 40 of her drawings.
We asked Sarah and Kathryn how LAC came to acquire so much of Mary Riter Hamilton’s work.
Sarah: When Mary Riter Hamilton decided to return to Canada, she was still in Europe in about 1925. She had stayed on after she finished her work in the fields. She was attempting some other forms of art. She made decorative arts; she was trying to find a way to pay for herself to stay in Europe. Finally, in 1925, she decided to return home and she still had at that time a large collection of the works. All those that had been completed after she stopped sending things back to the amputation club in British Columbia. She was very concerned about her pictures, as she called them, and what she could do with them.
She packed them up in probably a helter-skelter way. They were not well cared for, and I think the condition of them suffered as a result. She had them together as a set and decided that she would send them back to Canada. She had difficulty in financing that operation, but she asked for help from friends back in Canada to ship her pictures home, and then she herself returned to Canada in 1925. She came back with the idea that she would, as she had done before in British Columbia with the earlier works, have a series of exhibitions.
She thought it would be a good idea to show these works across Canada. Traveling exhibitions starting in the East, to show folks what the documenting of the war afterwards looked like, what were the fields like, the very reason she went there. She did make some efforts with contacts in Montreal and Ottawa to start, but the exhibition never really got off the ground. Her idea was that she would sell the tickets to the exhibition. She didn’t want to sell the work, because she felt she had made it for the soldiers, but she wanted to raise funds because of the exhibitions and then donate it somehow to the veterans. It’s not clear what she had in mind.
The exhibition fell through. She couldn’t afford to have the works framed, she didn’t have any kind of sponsoring for that. In the end, I think she was really concerned what to do with them. She got an idea that others suggested, I think, probably, but she had the idea that she would try to donate them. She did approach the National Gallery of Canada. She wanted to send them there, but ultimately, she was rejected by the National Gallery. I guess through her friends and contacts, Kathryn mentioned some of her contacts, she did have a connection to Arthur Doughty who was the head of the Dominion Archives at that time.
With some political influence as well, she offered the works to the Archives and they were accepted. She didn’t seem disappointed about it. She wrote afterwards that she was really pleased that her work would be in the care of the Archives. She hoped it would do good for the soldiers. Again, I’m not quite sure what she had in mind there, but she wanted to treat it in her mind as a gift to the country and a really honorable thing.
What is a little disappointing is, she was not paid anything. They were a gift and she didn’t receive an honorarium. I think in a way, there was a little sadness in her life’s work going into an institutional situation where she, again, would not know what was going to happen to it or if anything would. She appeared happy afterwards about her choice and the donation itself. Ultimately, in 1926, the arrangements were made and her works were given over to the Archives.
Quote from MRH:
In making a formal deed of gift to the Public Archives of Canada of my collection of battlefield pictures, may I give expression first to my feelings of gratitude and happiness? It is a great honour and privilege to know that the work done amid the inexpressible desolation of No Man’s Land has been considered worthy of a place among the memorials of our Canadian men. The survivors and the fallen. I do not think I could re-live that time; and I know that anything of worth or anything of beauty which may be found in the pictures themselves reflects only dimly the visions which came then; the visions which came from the spirit of the men themselves.
MMJM: Mary Riter Hamilton died in 1954 in British Columbia. Can you talk about her life and career following the donation to the Archives, the ’30s and ’40s and into the early ’50s?
Kathryn: Well, her life really was very difficult. Most important thing, I think, to remember about this right at the outset is that she was slightly over 50 years of age when she went to the battlefields in 1919. When she returned in 1925, she was well into her 50s. She returned to Winnipeg and was there until 1929, when she went to the West Coast. Initially, one would have thought she would have returned to Victoria where she had very good friends, but she decided, seemingly quite quickly, to change that and to go to Vancouver.
Really, her time from 1929 right up to her death is one of varying illnesses. Most reoccurring was pernicious anemia, which was putting her into psychiatric hospitals because she was demonstrating levels of dementia. However, once the hospital people got her onto liver extract, et cetera, she would recover. There are stories of her actually painting while she was in hospital, and she would be released. She really didn’t pick up her career painting once she had returned to Canada in ’25, ’26, other than in these momentary periods in hospital.
She did have some students in Vancouver. Again, this was on and off. The period was really marked by illness and by financial instability. That carried on really right up to her death. The fact is that when she passed away in April of 1954, she was impoverished. She was a ward of the British Columbia social services and she had several illnesses. She was in her 80s at that period.
JA: Until March 31st, 2019, there is an exhibit of Mary Riter Hamilton’s work at the War Museum in Ottawa. Also, three of her paintings from LAC’s collection are on loan to the Royal Artillery Museum in Shilo, Manitoba. Her work is also held in the permanent collections of a number of museums and art galleries, including the Vancouver Art Gallery, the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, the Winnipeg Art Gallery and the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia.
We next asked our guests what sort of resources they used for researching their book.
Kathryn: Well, we used the textual materials that were here. Earlier, Sarah had been involved in the exhibition in Winnipeg, so she had actually pulled together a number of paintings for that exhibition, so she had a first-hand record of that. I actually went to that exhibition but knew nothing about any of it at that period. I did come to Ottawa when we were working on the book and worked through the textual material here, and then I was also in the archives in Victoria and in Winnipeg.
There are actually Mary Riter Hamilton fonds in the Archives of British Columbia, which include some of the correspondence with Doughty, so there is a repetition of some of that, some of it is different. There is material, there’s a Mary Riter Hamilton fonds at the provincial Archives in Manitoba. This actually includes a number of the newspaper reviews that were done of exhibitions in Winnipeg. The
Manitoba Free Press reported on her quite actively between 1894 and 1901. Later, when she returned to Winnipeg in 1912, there was a big exhibition then.
Later, in the 1920s, there was a society newspaper that was running in Winnipeg really from the 1890s, entitled
Town Topics. That was a wonderful source in terms of Mary Hamilton at-homes, which were really, at-homes were something that middle class and upper class women held, of the period, where they invited their friends. Mary Hamilton invited friends, students and friends who were women, actually, of Winnipeg’s elite, to her home for what were really mini exhibitions.
Sarah: With tea.
Kathryn: With tea, a tea table. Prominent women were asked to serve, but the paintings were on display. They were her paintings and they were also the paintings of her students, which included some of the women who indeed were there and their children. The paintings were on display, but they were also for sale. This social occasion was being used in ways by Hamilton that would not necessarily be used by some of the other matrons of the period. There are other records then at the Archives in British Columbia —
Sarah: City of Vancouver….
Kathryn: —Provincial Archives of Manitoba, City Archives in Vancouver and, of course, here at Library and Archives Canada. Then, of course, we used a considerable amount of secondary material to try to flesh out the life of a woman artist of the period. What’s happened in the last 25 years is more is being written on women artists, so this was very useful in terms of understanding the work of some of her contemporaries who, in fact, shared her time in Paris, et cetera.
Sarah: One thing I could say that I would like to say about Library and Archives Canada, when I first came here in the mid-80s with Angela Davis, we approached the Archives and we approached the War Amps at the same time. We made an exploratory trip down here to say, “We have an idea about an exhibition, and we know you have these works and we know you used to sponsor this artist. Is there a way of doing something?” We went to the documentary art section, we looked at the works, we spoke with the staff. Jim Burant was someone that we worked with and a guy named Gilbert Gignac, who has retired. We said, “We’d like to do this.”
JA: Listeners may recognize that name, Gilbert Gignac. Retired collections manager of artwork at LAC. He’s been a guest on two of our episodes. Episode 29 on Swiss artist Peter Rindisbacher, who was the first artist to paint and sketch the Canadian west, and episode 16, about William Hind. An artist who played a key role in development of art in Canadian society. Go take a listen!
Sarah: They got the works out. There was a long discussion about which could possibly be shown and which couldn’t be, based on the nature and the condition of the work. Many of them hadn’t been conserved for the most part and they were not in the best of condition. We went through a negotiation back and forth about what could possibly be done, and the Archives agreed to do conservation on some of the works that Angela and I selected, that were able to be done in a reasonable amount of time.
Gilbert came out to Winnipeg to look at our space, we were installing some environmental controls into the gallery, which the War Amps paid for at the University of Winnipeg as part of their sponsorship, and we were able to determine how the works would fit into the space. The Archives made that contribution of the conservation work even then, in the late ’80s, and to have their staff involved in consulting with us in preparation of that exhibition. After the work showed at the University of Winnipeg, there was an exhibition here at 395 Wellington on the main floor, which was quite a lovely event. Then, later, the Archives showed the work again, a small selection, over in ByWard Market, in a small gallery space there.
In the interim, they put the show on their touring roster and I went to see it in Thunder Bay, where it was at the local museum, especially because of the interest in Mary Riter Hamilton at Thunder Bay. It was also shown at Acadia University in Wolfville, because Cliff Chadderton, the head of the War Amps, had received an honorary doctorate from Acadia. While there, I noticed that they had this lovely archive, a university gallery, so we suggested that they might like to show the works, and they did. It also was at Red Deer with the National Exhibition Centre and in Moose Jaw at the Exhibition Centre.
In all of those cases, the Archives shipped the work. The War Amps was involved in assisting with that cost, and the War Amps also sent me to all the venues to give a talk and talk a little bit about the history of Mary Riter Hamilton. There was this wonderful collaboration between the Archives and a private donor in a way, the War Amps, who had a mutual interest in the project. That was a really wonderful thing that came out of the idea back in the ’80s that we could perhaps put something together.
MMJM: What was the most exciting find in the course of this research?
Kathryn: I think the correspondence from the, well, it was a friends connection, really. This was a private correspondence between Hamilton when she was out on the battlefields after 1919, but with a woman who was indeed her very best friend, Margaret Hart, who was a society woman in Victoria, and with Roslyn Young, also a society woman. These were women who were heading up the Women’s Canadian Club, the University Women’s Club, and the club association was very important for Hamilton as well.
In that correspondence, one gets not only Hamilton out on the battlefield, describing her living conditions, some with a fair amount of humor, which is interesting. Also, the very difficult periods that she endured. But also from the other end is some of the society things and club associations that are going on. The Women’s Canadian Club and University Women’s Club tried to support her when she was in financial trouble in that period. That’s a very valuable piece of correspondence and it hasn’t been seen before. Sarah was able to get this.
MMJM: Well, that leads me to my last question, what factors do you think explain why Mary Riter Hamilton is not as well-known as she might be? Why has she not made more of an impression in the Canadian art scene?
Sarah: Well, I’ll take a stab at it, and I think Kathryn will too, because we’ve talked about this and there are lots of opinions. I think one piece of it is that her art, in an art historical sense, is relatively conventional. We talked about the fact that she was trained in a conventional way to do china painting. Although, self-taught there, but things like genre, landscape, portrait and all of that work. She went to traditional art schools. She was not an innovator in her style, and that was what she was trained to do and she was very good at it.
Sometimes, to become famous is to challenge the norm and the convention. Even with Emily Carr who also painted landscape, but there was a more abstracted quality, a different kind of approach to the angles of the landscape itself. Emily Carr broke out from a more conventional background, so I would say that that is one issue, certainly, that she seemed to not….. The most exceptional thing in her life is the travelling to France, I think, and doing something really unusual for three years on the battlefields, but the style remained more conventional. It was not stylistically different from her earlier work.
I think that’s maybe part of it, and also that she was old and the work came back and went into the archives, and as Kathryn mentioned, she had no career after that. Somehow she just dropped off. The interest in World War One wasn’t there in the ’20s and beyond, and she just disappeared. I think that’s one reason, it had to do with her style itself. There are other ideas, maybe Kathryn has some, too.
Kathryn: I think it’s important to recognize that Mary Riter Hamilton was really a Western Canadian artist. Although she had had exhibitions in Eastern Canada, she was never part of the Eastern art establishment. Her most productive period was the period when she was in France. It was the earlier period between 1901 and ’11, and then later, the battlefield period. She wasn’t part of it, she was essentially out of the country as well for about 15 years. Then, when she returned to the country, she was in Western Canada. She was in Winnipeg, she was in Victoria and Vancouver.
In all of that, although she was known by some members of the Eastern establishment, because they too were exhibiting in Winnipeg, especially around 1912, when Winnipeg was actually the third largest city in the country, she never had a mentor or a group of people from the East who were supporting her work. I actually think this is an important political comment in terms of her fame or not fame, and yet, what we do know is that there are paintings, as I’ve said, in art museums across the country, in private collections across the country, and they are in the market right now, in fact.
JA: Some historians have proposed that Canadians had no more desire or sentiment to keep their focus on the war, and wanted to put it behind them after it was over. We asked Sarah if that played a part in Mary Riter Hamilton not being as well known as she could be.
Sarah: I think that’s really one of the issues that even informed the National Gallery issue, really, in the mid-’20s. By the middle of the ’20s in Canada, and a number of historians have written on this, there was a real rejection of the war by that time. During the years of the war, it was a patriotic, exciting thing. Young men felt they would go and come back, and they would be heroes. The time period was very positive, but as the war dragged on, Canadians suffered more, it became more difficult. Finally, at the time of the Armistice, it was wonderful that the world was over. By the end of the ’20s, even the teachers in the schools didn’t really want to talk much about this recent history.
Every small town in Canada had a wounded person who came home, an amputee or people who didn’t come home. In Southern Ontario, the number of those wonderful town monuments to war veterans were everywhere. Everyone was affected by that. I think in the small towns and in the bigger towns, no one wanted to be reminded of the loss of so many young men and the damage this war had meant. By the ’20s it was being phased out of the curriculum, the children were not talking about the glories of Canadian forces.
That’s when she arrived home, in 1925, when the country wasn’t really as thrilled about what was to be the war that ended all wars. I think therefore, her work, while not negative in any way, just simply didn’t have the audience that it would have had 10 years earlier
JA: If you’d like to learn more about Mary Riter Hamilton at Library and Archives Canada, please visit us online at bac-lac.gc.ca. Also, don’t forget about the Flickr gallery in which we’ve showcased a nice selection of some of her paintings.
Thank you for being with us. I’m Josée Arnold, your host. You’ve been listening to “Discover Library and Archives Canada—where Canadian history, literature and culture await you.” A special thank you to our guests today, Kathryn Young and Sarah McKinnon. Special thanks also to Mary-Margaret Johnston-Miller for helping us with the interview.
This episode was produced and engineered by David Knox.
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