After the Last Spike: Artists, Architects and Artisans


Between the driving of the Last Spike in the transcontinental railway to the end of the First World War, Canada at the turn of the twentieth century began its transformation from a fragmented colony to a booming agricultural and industrial nation, imbued with a new spirit of optimism and pride. This fascinating period is the subject of the National Gallery of Canada’s ambitious new exhibition Artists, Architects and Artisans: Canadian Art 1890–1918.

Through more than 320 objects, Artists, Architects, Artisans explores the energetic productivity of art makers and designers during this prosperous time in Canadian history. Among those featured are painters Ozias Leduc, George Reid, Marc-Aurèle de Foy Suzor-Coté, Tom Thomson and Lawren Harris; sculptors Louis-Philippe Hébert and Alfred Laliberté; photographers Sidney Carter and Harold Mortimer Lamb; and architects Edward and William Maxwell, Percy Nobbs and Samuel Maclure.

The exhibition focuses in particular on the notion of integration, for this was a time when artists, architects and artisans collaborated on projects, inspired one another, and worked together to achieve common goals. Massive immigration, especially in western Canada, led to urban growth, the creation of new markets, new jobs, and the possibility of exciting civic and housing projects. It was a productive time for art workers.

Many were either immigrants themselves or had trained abroad. The Arts and Crafts and Beaux-Arts movements, which were influential in Britain, France and the United States, gained ground in Canada. The writings of William Morris, in particular, inspired artists, craftspeople and designers to work together in cooperative ventures towards ideals of beauty, simplicity, harmony and utility, as well as the integration of art in all aspects of daily life. It was Morris—designer of gorgeous wallpapers and textiles, and founder of the Arts and Crafts movement—who famously said, “Have nothing in your house which you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.”

During this period, Canadian artists and designers began articulating their goals in new periodicals, and formed multidisciplinary societies and clubs. As the City Beautiful movement took hold, they designed boulevards incorporating monuments and parklands (most of which, unfortunately, were never realized). Women took an active role, particularly in painting and craft, through the Woman’s Art Association of Canada and other societies.

Alfred Laliberté, Boy with Turkey (Air) from the Marché Maisonneuve Fountain (1915), bronze, 165 × 110 × 110 cm. Loan from the City of Montreal. Photo © Brian Merrett

Walking through a dozen rooms in the exhibition, immersed in the Canada of a century ago you will take in painted murals, detailed architectural drawings and urban plans, prints, photographs, sculptures and books, finely crafted jewellery, ceramics, metalwork, furniture and textiles. The works tell stories of dynamic and fruitful interactions between individuals and groups, and show how genres themselves were enmeshed, and barriers between them broken down.

“Art is frequently defined by categories,” says Charlie Hill, the National Gallery’s Curator of Canadian Art and co-organizer of the exhibition. “What people were doing at the time was trying to break down those categories. The exhibition is also about cross-fertilization of ideas and creative projects.”

Cross-fertilization is a constant theme from the first room of the exhibition, which is devoted to the interaction of art with music and literature, and to interaction between artists working in different genres. Ozias Leduc’s well-known Boy with Bread (1894), depicting a boy pausing during his meal to play the harmonica, evokes the soft-toned harmony of a life enriched by simple pleasures. Alfred Laliberté’s bronze Bust of Louvigny de Montigny (1908) is a sympathetic depiction of the well-known Montreal literary figure. The bust is inscribed by the sculptor “amicalement,” or “in friendship.”

Several exhibition rooms are devoted to collaborations between architects, skilled craftsmen and artists who worked together on building projects that incorporated murals, ironwork, stained glass, furniture and other decorative elements. Among the projects by Montréal architects Edward and William Maxwell is their design for the Westmount mansion of entrepreneur and contractor James T. Davis, shown in drawings, photographs and—the pièce de résistance—a reproduction of the small oratory, or private chapel, built for Mrs. Davis. The Gallery has carefully reconstructed the room using the original furniture, light fixture and stained-glass window, also reproducing the rib-vaulted ceiling and decorative wall painting. As Hill writes in the accompanying exhibition panel, this is a “jewel” of a room.

George A. Reid and the Reid Brothers Manufacturing Co., Piano and Piano Stool (1900), stained and waxed oak piano cabinet bearing four oil paintings on wood, with stained and waxed oak stool, piano: 145.6 x 159.5 x 72.3 cm; stool: 53.2 x 105.5 x 29.7 cm. NGC

One of the artists who epitomized the spirit of cooperation and integration, and whose work is well represented in the exhibition, is George Reid. A leading exponent of the Arts and Crafts movement in Canada, Reid believed that art had a social function in raising civic ideals and validating  the “lesser” or applied arts. While studying in Paris in the late 1880s, he became interested in mural painting and, after returning to Toronto, proposed decorations for Toronto’s new City Hall. Reid designed and built two houses for himself in Toronto, the first on Indian Road near High Park, and the second in Wychwood. Both areas became artist enclaves. Reid’s studies for the City Hall murals are on display in the exhibition, as are a number of objects from his houses, including two heart-shaped chairs, a cabinet for storing sheet music, a piano, and a mirror frame by his wife Mary Hiester Reid.

Among my favourite works in Artists, Architects and Artisans are the two lively bronze sculptures made by Alfred Laliberté for the fountain in front of Montréal’s Marché Maisonneuve. Acting as bookends to the exhibition, Boy with Turkey (Air) (1915) stands at the entrance, and Boy with Fish (Water) (1915), at the exit. With their vernacular subject matter and dynamic composition, their portrayal of youth, nature and agriculture, they seem to define Canada at the turn of the century. A burgeoning nation, it truly was.

Artists, Architects and Artisans runs at the National Gallery of Canada until 17 February 2014. The exhibition is accompanied by a catalogue, available in French and English.

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