A War Record of Halifax: Arthur Lismer’s Winter Camouflage
The exhibition Masterpiece in Focus: Halifax Harbour 1918, currently on view at the National Gallery of Canada, explores the work of Arthur Lismer and Harold Gilman in Halifax, Nova Scotia, during the First World War. As part of his work for the Canadian War Memorials Fund and in the aftermath of the Halifax Explosion, Lismer painted Winter Camouflage, a work based on a small painted sketch created along the shores of the Halifax region. In preparation for the exhibition, the larger painting was assessed and underwent treatment in the Gallery's Restoration and Conservation laboratory.
Born in Sheffield, England, in 1885, Arthur Lismer immigrated to Canada in 1911 and settled in Toronto. In 1916 he moved to Halifax to teach at the Victoria School of Art and Design (known today as the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design) and remained in Nova Scotia for the next three years. He rented a house in Bedford, then a village 12 km by train to the school. The house had a view of the Bedford Basin that looked towards Halifax and its harbour. Lismer turned a bathroom into a photographic darkroom, and it is likely that he used one of the rooms as a painting studio.
The artist found Halifax Harbour very active with local wartime efforts. The city has always played a particularly strong role in Canadian military history since being founded in 1749 as a key embarkation port in Canada – the port was free of ice, lots of supplies were manufactured there, and the city could support a larger population, including soldiers and military operations. Lismer admired what was being done by his colleagues for the Canadian War Memorials and in January 1918 wrote to the director of the National Gallery of Canada, Eric Brown, suggesting he carry out similar activities on Canadian soil: recording the war efforts in Halifax. By June 1918, Lismer had been officially commissioned and given independence to select his subjects. Much of his focus was steered towards the ships used during the war.
Lismer had been in Halifax for over a year when the Halifax Explosion occurred. In the Narrows of Halifax Harbour on the morning of 6 December 1917 around 8:45am, a Norwegian ship collided with a French ship transporting explosives resulting in an explosion killing 2,000 people and injuring 9,000. Lismer was in his home in Bedford at the time – 8 km across the Basin from the epicentre. His family and home remained unharmed. Fortunately Lismer had not caught his regular train or he would have been in Halifax at the time of the disaster. Shortly after the explosion, he went to investigate the state of the school – 4.5 km from the epicentre. Although the windows were all broken, the building was intact. Lismer kept busy cleaning up the school and scavenging for supplies to board up and repair the windows. Over the days following the disaster, the city was hit by a blizzard making rescue and repair even more difficult. The school was at one point used as a storage for coffins awaiting use.
Although the winter of 1917–18 would have been horrific as the city struggled to recover, Lismer continued sketching and painting. Like most landscape artists in Canada, a core part of his practice was to make small sketches en plein air, when the weather permitted, and work these up into larger paintings in the studio during the winter. One painting created during this difficult winter began as a sketch, Through the Narrows, now in the collection of the Art Gallery of Ontario. The small sketch on panel depicts the shoreline with a ship in the water at the Narrows, a strait connecting Bedford Basin with the Harbour, and the location of the collision. While we may never know whether this sketch was made just before or after the explosion, he later dated it ‘Dec 1917’, making an explicit link to the disaster, especially as the sketch's first owner was a local businessman, James E. Roy, who let Lismer paint Bedford Basin from the top floor of his house.
The larger canvas painting, worked up from this sketch, is dated 1918, and was painted in the months following the disaster. It matches the general composition of the sketch, but the foreground was expanded with the addition of trees, the skyline reduced and, as a final touch, the ship was more clearly defined as being in “Dazzle” – a form of nautical “camouflage” that would visually confuse enemy gunners. The addition of the trees, while a compositional device, is also in denial of the effects of the explosion, and perhaps symbolizes hope and regrowth. It is interesting that Lismer titled the finished painting Winter Camouflage, avoiding explicit reference to the location or the explosion. The work was shown in a combined exhibition of the Royal Canadian Academy and the Ontario Society of Artists in Toronto, and sold to the National Gallery of Canada on 5 April 1918. One contemporary reviewer commented in Boston's Christian Science Monitor that the painting stood out for its brilliant colour and “… the cheer it brings” .
Since its acquisition, Winter Camouflage has been on display at the National Gallery of Canada and intermittently has travelled as part of a loan. Unfortunately while returning from one loan in the 1950s, the painting was damaged, resulting in a puncture in the upper right corner and a T-shaped tear in the centre-left quadrant, which were repaired shortly after.
In preparation for the exhibition at the Gallery and its showing at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia in 2019, Winter Camouflage was brought to the Restoration and Conservation laboratory to be assessed for exhibition and subsequent travel to Halifax. Examination of the painting determined that it would benefit from full treatment, both structurally and aesthetically, to resolve some issues of aging materials from previous campaigns.
Adjustments were made to improve the painting’s structural integrity and to provide better support for the canvas, in turn supporting the paint film. The removal of built-up discoloured varnish residues and retouchings, along with improvements to texture at the old tear-mends, returned the painting to its original appearance. One can now clearly see Lismer’s bright, colourful palette, which is all the more remarkable given the context of its making.
2018 marks the centennial of the creation of the painting and its purchase for the national collection. Masterpiece in Focus: Halifax Harbour 1918 is a chance to see Lismer’s recently restored Winter Camouflage and an opportunity to compare it with its initial sketch Through the Narrows.
Masterpiece in Focus: Halifax Harbour 1918 is on view at the National Gallery of Canada until 17 March 2019 and at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia from 12 April to 2 September 2019. Share this article and subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest articles, Gallery news, exhibitions and events, and to learn more about art in Canada.