National Gallery of Canada / Musée des beaux-arts du Canada

Annual Bulletin 3, 1979-1980

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A Selection of Books Illustrated by 
Quebec Artists between 1916 and 1946

by Jean-René Ostiguy

Article en français

Pages  1  |  2  |  3  |  4  |  5  

The history of books illustrated by Canadian artists during the period between the late nineteenth and mid-twentieth centuries has already been the subject of several studies. (1) Although rudimentary, these have certainly made it possible for various libraries, including those of the museums, to markedly increase their acquisitions of illustrated books. The most noteworthy example of increased interest in these books is that of the National Gallery of Canada, which in 1966 commissioned an article entitled "Book Illustration and Design by Canadian Artists 1890-1940" for the seventh issue of its research bulletin. Sybille Pantazzi, the author of this study and at that time a librarian at the Art Gallery of Toronto, concluded the article with these works:

My main purpose has been to show the important role played by the Toronto Art Students' League and the Group of Seven in the development of book illustration and book design in Canada. But a great deal remains to be discovered and studied. (2)

Mrs. Pantazzi's wish has no doubt been granted in part, since the National Gallery Library began at that time to methodically expand its collections of illustrated books. Book illustration in Quebec, which, until the time of Mrs Pantazzi's article, seemed to be quite neglected, became the subject of special attention. The Gallery's collections for the period of the first half of the twentieth century alone now total over fifty titles.

The richness of these collections cannot, however, be fully appreciated without the aid of historical and esthetic studies. In a sense it may be going too far to use the word richness. The publication of illustrated books in Quebec, as in other provinces, was on the whole quite limited in comparison with Europe, or England, or even America, which was the model. In seeking to assemble the most successful works by Quebec book illustrators, it is very difficult to find more than about twenty examples from that period. But let us qualify this remark. It must at least be pointed out that the reason for this situation was the demography of Canada and the very unusual course followed by its cultural life.

The Different Contexts

In the article by Sybille Pantazzi it is possible to trace the influence of William Morris on the Toronto illustrators of the late nineteenth century. In addition, certain facts reported in this article, such as the visits to England by J. E. H. MacDonald and four other artists, where they worked for the London firm, The Carlton Studio, establish the precise circumstances surrounding the stylistic influences on book illustration between 1902 and 1906. Nothing as relevant as this is yet known about the specific development of the Montreal illustrators. The British influence had been present everywhere in Canada since the end of the nineteenth century. It was heightened at the beginning of the twentieth century by an influx of immigrants, among them artists specializing in the graphic arts, such as Arthur Lismer, W. J. Phillips, A. J. Musgrove, J. W. G. Macdonald, and others. It was possible for them to assess the renewal of engraved illustrations in their country and elsewhere prior to coming to Canada.

Moreover, every attempt to understand how the museums or national corporations could encourage the graphic artists in various Canadian provinces points to the fact that the vast majority of the models came from the English-speaking world - from Toronto, London, and New York. The introduction to the catalogue (3) for the first major exhibition of the Canadian Society of Graphic Art, presented at the Art Gallery of Toronto in 1924, points out that the Society was founded in Toronto in 1904. Moreover, of the 144 members on the list, 110 were from Ontario, nineteen from Quebec, ten from Manitoba, one from British Columbia, and one from Nova Scotia, while two were residing outside Canada.

When in 1928 there were obvious signs of a Canadian revival in wood engraving in Toronto, Montreal, and Winnipeg, the National Gallery of Canada undertook to organize an exhibition entitled Modern Woodcuts and Wood Engravings. (4) The preface to the catalogue encouraged the Canadian public to familiarize itself with some of the British accomplishments in this field. Ten years later the Gallery organized an exhibition, Book Illustration and Fine Printing. (5) As the preface to the catalogue indicated, the progress made by fine books in Canada demonstrated the progressive and constant development of this art form in England.

No doubt some Quebec artists derived instruction from this demonstration but in most cases they wanted something else; they were forced to glean for themselves, clay by clay, the elements that would enrich their art without diverting them from the traditions of French Canada.

Very little is yet known about the models prevalent in Quebec at the turn of the century, or about the preferences of readers and bibliophiles. A factor whose influence on artists is not yet very well known enters into the picture with the establishment of the Déom and Jules A Pony bookstores in Montreal, with which Hachette organized the mass distribution of collections of moderately-priced books from various Paris publishers. On the whole, these were very well-illustrated books, and today they are considered to be the forerunners of the paperback. Arthème Fayard, the first of the publishers, put his collection called La Modern-Bibliothèque on the market in 1904. Then in 1914 Flammarion introduced the Select-Collection, which had the disadvantage of providing illustrations on the covers only. Fayard abandoned the Modern-Bibliothèque in 1923, replacing it by the Livre de demain, in which the illustrations were clone by woodblock. A few years before, in 1921, the publishing firm. Ferenczi et Fils had begun to publish similar works in its collection, Livre moderne illustré. Each of these collections appears to have been widely distributed in Quebec. Without question, a very large number of private libraries during the thirties and forties contained some Fayards and some Ferenczis. (6) Moreover, various circulating libraries in Montreal East were offering this attractive escapist literature to their patrons. This imaginative writing could be found in many unusual establishments such as the "restaurant-libraries" and those called "Ventes-Échanges," where a stamp would carefully be applied to them. (7) There seems, then, to have been a strong influence from French models in the field of illustration, and any historical or stylistic study of Canadian works must take this into account. The Romans historiques series in the Action Canadienne française publications, along with many monographs in the Éditions Albert Lévesque, share many features with the French Livre de demain collection - for example the type of book, its format, paper, page-setting and illustrations, not to mention the retail price.

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