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

Bulletin 7 (IV:1), 1966

Annual Index
Author & Subject

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Book Illustration and Design By Canadian Artists 1890-1940 with a list of books illustrated by 
members of the Group of Seven

by Sybille Pantazzi, Librarian,
The Art Gallery of Toronto

Résumé en français

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Although Canadiana is so eagerly sought after at present, native book illustration seems to have attracted little attention. To my knowledge comparatively few articles have been devoted to this subject and the standard books on Canadian art refer only incidentally, if at all, to the artists as illustrators. (1) Certain books such as Louis Hémon's Maria Chapdelaine (1933) with Clarence Gagnons brilliant illustrations and Le Grand Silence Blanc (1928) by Rouquette, also illustrated by Gagnon, are well known, and of course the work of F. S. Coburn, Arthur Heming, Ernest Seton-Thompson, C. W. Jefferys and Thoreau MacDonald is familiar to those who are interested in Canadian books. It is astonishing however that, so far, the contribution of Canadian artists to book illustration and design from the 1890's to the 1940's has been overlooked. A preliminary survey, mainly based on the collection in the library of the Art Gallery of Toronto, has revealed an unsuspected quality and diversity in their graphic work during this period and has uncovered new aspects of the work of some individual artists.

Too few opportunities to illustrate books existed in Canada before the 1890's, but in the 1870's artists like William Armstrong, William Cruikshank, F. M. Bell-Smith and Henri Julien contributed to the Canadian Illustrated News. The most ambitious undertaking of that period was Picturesque Canada (1882), which contained wood-engravings after the designs of William Raphael, Otto Jacobi, Henry Sandham and Lucius O'Brien. The first publication, however, in which the artists had a free hand and some scope for decorative design was the Calendar of the Toronto Art Students' League. Founded in 1886 by a group of artists - A. H. Howard, J. D. Kellyand C. M. Manly were among the first members, and were joined later by Robert Holmes, F. H. Brigden, R. W. Crouch, C. W. Jefferys and others-the League published its first Calendar in 1892. (2) Although the subject matter remained Canadian, the style of the covers and title-pages of the subsequent Calendars (which appeared annually until 1904) soon began to reflect two important artistic movements from abroad: the Arts & Crafts movement and Art nouveau.

One of the main sources known to have been consulted by the members of the League was Joseph Pennell's Pen Drawing and Pen Draughtsmanship (1894). (3) This book was a lavishly illustrated international survey which included examples of the best contemporary illustration in line, a technique which, owing to the development of photo-engraving, had superseded wood-engraving since 1880. Other models available to the League were the American and English illustrated magazines, Harper's, The Century Magazine and Punch, and after 1893, probably The Studio, although Colgate only mentions the first three in his history of the League. It is likely that the members of the League were also familiar with Walter Crane's The Decorative Illustration of Books (1896). An echo of Crane's style can be seen for example in the title-page of the Calendar for 1902 (Fig. 3), but the freshness and delicacy of A. H. Howard's pale blue and brown design, symbolizing the Canadian seasons and sports, has its own individuality. Walter Crane was the most popular of the disciples of William Morris, and it was he who formulated the aim of the Arts and Crafts movement as being 'to turn our artists into craftsmen and our craftsmen into artists'. The reform of book design advocated by this movement emphasized the treatment of book illustration primarily from the decorative point of view. (4) This tendency is first seen in Canada in the Calendars of the Toronto Art Students' League.

R. H. Hubbard and Eric Arthur, respectively, have discussed the influence of Art nouveau on the Group of Seven and on architecture in Toronto. (5) The Calendars of the League provide yet another aspect of this influence, that on book design. Art nouveau was essentially an ornamental style and was at its best and most characteristic in the arts of the book. Its distinguishing features-nature formalized into rhythmic and repeated outlines, the flat pattern and the long undulating line - are present in R. Weir Crouch's designs for the covers of the Calendars for 1898 and 1899 (Figs. 2 & 7) and in the design of Robert Holmes (Fig. 4). Based on Canadian floral motifs, they have both vigour and style and are excellent examples of the vernacular version of Art nouveau. A. H. Howard's symbolic illustration (Fig. 5) is also interesting because it treats a typical Art nouveau theme - the metamorphosis of a maiden's hair into a serpent - but in a domesticated manner from which the erotic sting has been removed.

The activity of the Toronto Art Students' league ceased in 1904, (6) and the last Calendar issued was for that year, but its influence had lasting and far-reaching effects on Canadian book design. Before discussing these effects, mention must be made of The Book of the Victorian Ball (Toronto, Rowsell & Hutchison, 1898), a handsomely produced souvenir of a costume bail held in Toronto on 28 December 1897. In its, Advertisement' James Mavor wrote: 'The growth in Canada and especially in Toronto of a large group of artists, competent not alone as colourists, but also as draughtsmen in line, is 50 recent that its existence has, perhaps, hardly been suspected. The chief interest of the book lies in that it contains a sufficient number of really masterly drawings to justify the belief that there is a vigorous artistic movement in Canada...As regards the technique of reproduction, the book has also a certain historical interest. The facsimiles of the pencil and water-colour drawings are accomplished by methods which, if not absolutely new, are new to Canada: the processes of photographic reproduction upon copper or zinc which have superseded wood-engraving.' Oddly enough, the league is not mentioned although the illustrations in its Calendars had been reproduced by the 'new' technique since 1893. On the whole, compared to the decorative designs and landscapes of the Calendars, the figure studies in The Book of the Victorian Ball seem curiously old-fashioned and conventional.

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