The Lithographs That Escaped the Halifax Explosion
In 1916, Arthur Lismer was a commercial graphic designer trying to support a wife and two children on a paltry freelance salary. All the commercial art work in Toronto appeared to have dried up, and it would be four years before the Group of Seven would coalesce. So when Lismer was offered a position as an instructor at the Victoria School of Art and Design in Halifax, he moved to the port city with his family in tow. Upon arrival, Lismer found the school to be “decrepit, housed on the top two floors of a drafty, wooden building…with an enrolment of about twelve students.”
The Victoria School shared space with the Nova Scotia Museum of Fine Arts, and in his efforts to bolster enrolment at the school, Lismer took it upon himself to expand the collection of the museum. Writing to his friend Eric Brown, then director of the National Gallery of Canada, Lismer arranged for the loan of a collection of lithographs, small paintings and sketches by members of the Ontario Society of Artists, which included works by future Group of Seven artists A.Y. Jackson and Frank Carmichael. The purpose of the loan, according to original documents, was to give “the public an opportunity of seeing some of the examples of Fine Art in the national collection.” The exhibition opened to the public on November 30, 1917.
A week later, on December 6, 1917, a French cargo ship heavily laden with explosives collided with a Norwegian ship in a strait off the coast of Halifax. The resulting blast, known as the Halifax Explosion, devastated adjacent communities and led to two thousand deaths and more than nine thousand wounded. The Nova Scotia Museum of Fine Arts was about forty blocks away from the epicenter of the blast, and escaped the worst of the damage.
At home during the explosion, Lismer and his family were unharmed, but he immediately saw it as his duty to check on the lithographs. The windows of the Museum had been blown in, but Lismer found the lithographs safely buried beneath the debris of the walls. Lismer took note of the damage and immediately dashed off a telegram to Eric Brown that read: “Explosion wrecked interior art gallery lithos escaped with slight injury other pictures safe.” Thus began a correspondence that demonstrates the severity of the blast, solidarity in the wake of disaster and Lismer’s utmost dedication to art.
Brown telegraphed back: “Very glad to hear yourself and pictures are safe. Awaiting your letter with interest.” On December 10, Lismer wrote asking for permission to take the glass from the picture frames to use as makeshift windows, “for we see no chance for many months to patch up our windows in the school and gallery,” adding, “The devastated area is a terrible sight… I am writing this at the school, which is packed with coffins.” Brown responded in kind: “By all means, keep the glass that is valuable to you, I am very glad to be able to help you in any way.” Brown offers to loan Lismer new artwork, but Lismer declines, writing that, “For about half our wall space is down and will need all we have to build it up again.”
An insurance company assessed the damage to the lithographs at a grand sum of $41.32. According to reports, “Four sustained only slight surface scratches and in two cases broken glass pierced them in minute areas.” Adjusted for inflation, the total is roughly equivalent to $650. Among the damaged works were The Wind by Anthony R. Barker, Footlights by John Copley and La Toilette by Ethel L. Gabain.
Today, two versions of each lithograph remain in the permanent collection of the National Gallery: the damaged ones and their replacements. After the damage was tallied, the National Gallery wrote to the artists of the damaged prints, requesting a pristine copy for display purposes. Artist John Copley wrote back a response that retains its poignancy nearly one hundred years on: “We did not think when we heard of the Halifax explosion that little bits of ourselves were being buried in it.”
Arthur Lismer and the Halifax Explosion is on view at the Dalhousie Art Gallery until December 17, 2017. Explosion! Dartmouth’s Ordeal of the 1917 Disaster is on view at the Dartmouth Heritage Museum until January 2018. Collision in the Narrows: The 1917 Halifax Harbour Explosion is on view at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic until November 2018. The exhibition Halifax Harbour 1918: Harold Gilman and Arthur Lismer will be on view at the National Gallery of Canada in the fall of 2018. If you would like to share this article, please click on the arrow at the top right of this page.