Alex Colville’s “Labours of the Months” for a New Year

Alex Colville, The twelve months from A Book of Hours: Labours of the Months, 1979. Photolithograph on wove paper, each 33 x 28 cm. Gift of Mira Godard, 2000. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. © A.C. Fine Art. Photo: NGC

In 1974, Alex Colville produced twelve small paintings depicting work typical of each month of the year Five years later, in 1979, he produced a series of prints of these paintings in a portfolio that included an artist’s statement and the 1978 serigraph Hotel Maid. The album was published by Fischer Fine Arts (London) and Mira Godard Gallery (Toronto), and included the artist's preface essay “The Making of Labours of the Months and Hotel Maid”.

As he stated in the essay, Colville wanted “to continue the medieval tradition of Books of Hours and Labours of the Months.” A Book of Hours was a book of prayers and meditations for the laity, organized on various principles: hourly, daily, weekly, monthly, seasonally. In 20th-century Canada, however, technology and urbanization had long supplanted the predictable rhythms of agrarian life. “In our culture certain distinctions between times (even day and night) have become blurred,” Colville wrote, “and so the selection for the various months becomes arbitrary.”

Arbitrary, perhaps, but never haphazard. In these twelve images, as in all of his work, Colville sought to communicate moments in which he found significance. He understood that those choices might be questioned, but said, “I have to assume that if my images are good enough that they may be accepted as appropriate and may become meaningful.”

Wolfville lies in the Annapolis Valley, one of Nova Scotia’s most fertile agricultural areas. The town – home from 1973 to Alex and Rhoda Colville – is surrounded by many apple orchards. Fittingly, in opening his Book of Hours and Labours of the Months, Colville chose an agricultural subject: pruning an apple tree, a task carried out in the late winter. Farming, after all, is one of the few areas of modern life that has retained a seasonal regularity. No matter the technology one uses, there is still a time to sow and a time to reap.

Colville composed all twelve of his “labour” paintings with the same geometrical underpinning – what he called a “circle-in-the-square” system. “Such a system establishes intervals, directions, and relationships in space,” he explained, “and is capable of endless variations.”

Alex Colville, January from A Book of Hours: Labours of the Months, 1979. Photolithograph on wove paper, each 33 x 28 cm. Gift of Mira Godard, 2000. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. © A.C. Fine Art. Photo: NGC

In January, the image the artist created to lead the viewer into the new year, we see a figure at the top of an apple tree, framed in its bare branches. He wields a bucksaw in one hand, cutting away dead or diseased wood. The picture is almost evenly divided between earth and sky, with the figure cradled between the two. The man’s toque-clad head is in the exact centre of the painting. The vantage point is horizontal – we aren’t looking up from the ground. Instead, the viewpoint is at the same level of the figure, as if we were perched in a neighbouring tree. At a similar task, perhaps.

There is nothing accidental in a Colville painting, no superfluous details; everything has a meaning. The work of culling, of cutting away dead material to assist the birth of the new, is fitting for a suite of images rooted in a form developed for a book of prayers. January depicts the work of ordering and tending that keeps chaos at bay. For Colville, this was a ritualistic, if not exactly religious, endeavour. Order, he felt, had to be tended – individually and collectively. A veteran of the Second World War, he knew that chaos was always lurking and, in January, he shares a meaningful image of one strategy to keep that danger at bay.


For information on works by Alex Colville at the National Gallery of Canada, see the collection online. Share this article and subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest articles, Gallery exhibitions, news and events, and to learn more about art in Canada.​

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