Portable studios in a pocket: the pochade boxes of Biéler, Morrice and Kelly

The Restoration and Conservation laboratory at the National Gallery of Canada works to keep the collections in the best possible condition and allow these important works of art to be shared. The public experiences the Conservation Studio’s work in the form of restored or repaired artworks and, indirectly, through the process of loans and travel to other art institutions. There are, however, elements to our work that are not necessarily visible to the general public. One of these is the story surrounding a group of pochade boxes in the Gallery’s collection that reveals the connection between a number of Canadian landscape artists and their particular way of working. As a group of objects, it is particularly interesting in the context of Canadian art, since boxes of this type, small and easily transportable, were critical tools and contributed greatly to the development of painting in the first quarter of the twentieth century.

Unknown, Sketch Box with Palette, used by André Biéler, varnished hardwood with brass fasteners and steel screws, box: 2.3 x 19.1 x 15.9 cm closed; palette: .4 x 20.2 x 12.6 cm. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Gift of the Estate of André and Jeannette Biéler, 2003, to mark the 90th birthday of Frances K. Smith, friend and biographer of the artist © Estate of André Biéler. Photo: NGC


In 2004 a small pochade box that had been owned and used by the Swiss-born Montreal painter André Biéler was generously donated to the Gallery. As with all new acquisitions and donations, Biéler’s box came to the Conservation Studio for examination. Inside was a palette as well as a sketch that had evidently been made using the box. At 16 x 19 cm, this pochade box fit easily into a gentleman’s hip pocket.  It is made of walnut, with brass fittings and was originally a deep chocolate colour; fading of the stain and being cleaned of smeared paint has left it closer to the natural look of the wood.

J.E.H. MacDonald, A.Y. Jackson Sketching, 1915-1916, oil on beaverboard, 121.1 x 64.3 cm. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. H.R. Jackman, Toronto, 1967. Photo: NGC


Members of the Group of Seven used similar boxes because their size made it possible to work in terrain that would have been inaccessible with traditional plein air equipment. The Gallery’s collection includes a box used by Tom Thomson, which is slightly larger than a pochade box and has a leather shoulder strap for transporting. It also served to keep the box steady while Thomson worked with it on his lap or held it in front of him while sketching.  As with pochade boxes, the slots in Thomson’s box can hold more than one panel and keep the artwork safely separated for travel; a neat and clever idea – it would even keep sketches (briefly) safe if they fell into the water.

Tom Thomson's Sketch Box, before 1913, wood, 6.5 x 30.5 x 27 cm. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Photo: NGC


Another Canadian who famously used these types of boxes was James Wilson Morrice, albeit in different surroundings.  While Thomson felt truly at home in the Canadian wilderness, Morrice’s natural habitat were the cafés of Paris. His small sketches are true pochades, small pocket-sized paintings, which he would keep in the box while strolling around. When a scene caught his interest, he would make a rapid sketch of it.  Morrice would later work some of these small sketches into larger paintings, although, more often than not, the process of capturing the moment in a sketch was the essential creative event.

James Wilson Morrice, Café Terrace, Saint-Cloud, c. 1909, oil on panel, 12.6 x 15.5 cm. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Gift of A.K. Prakash, J.W. Morrice Collection, 2015. Photo: NGC


Morrice, a versatile and often spontaneous painter, had several of these boxes since they were critically important for the way he worked.  Moreover, he instructed painters on their use, and it may be that some members of the Group of Seven discovered these boxes through Morrice, although the boxes were advertised and available through artist's suppliers, or “Colourmen,” at the time.

While studying in Paris in the early twentieth century, the British painter Gerald Kelly bought a pochade box in order to work alongside Morrice and learn from him. Kelly has left a description of Morrice's method and practice, and he donated the pochade box to the National Gallery in the mid-1930s. His box is the same size as the one owned by Biéler, and while it is a slightly different model, some of the hardware is identical and was likely made by the same manufacturer.    

Andre Bieler's box (left) and the pochade box purchased by Kelly in Paris (right). Photo: NGC


This is no coincidence. The box that Biéler owned had been given to him by the painter Robert Pilot, who had been gifted, or inherited, it from his adoptive father, Maurice Cullen. Cullen in turn had received the box from Morrice, probably in Paris. This little box, therefore, acts like a skipping stone splashing across nearly eighty years of Canadian landscape painting. A possible reason for Morrice giving away this box may have been that it was just a little too large to have with him all the time, and he came to prefer a slightly smaller-sized box. Overall, the story gives insight into the links that are possible through research, conservation and scientific work.

Check regularly for additional NGC Magazine articles on work in the Restoration and Conservation laboratory. James Wilson Morrice: The A.K. Prakesh Collection in Trust to the Nation is on view at the Beaverbrook Art Gallery (until July 2, 2018).