Molly Lamb Bobak: Canada’s first official woman war artist
As part of its Canadian War Art series, the National Gallery of Canada's Library and Archives has a small collection of letters between painter Molly Lamb (later Lamb Bobak) and the Gallery’s then-director, Harry Orr (“H.O.”) McCurry. In June 1945, Lamb became the first woman to be sent overseas as an official Canadian war artist. A graduate of the Vancouver School of Art, she had joined the Canadian Women’s Army Corps (CWAC) three years earlier and dedicated much of her free time to drawing her surroundings and the activities of the armed forces. As a private, she undertook a variety of tasks – including drawing meat-cutting charts for the affiliated cooking school and designing sets for CBC's popular Army Show – before eventually being promoted to Lieutenant and assigned to Europe to record the war effort.
As an official war artist, Lamb is in the company of many renowned Canadian artists. The establishment of a war art program was first initiated by Sir Max Aitken (Lord Beaverbrook) in 1916, two years after the start of the First World War. Aitken founded the Canadian War Memorials Fund, which commissioned artists to depict the Canadian war effort firsthand. The First World War group of Canadian war artists included Maurice Cullen, David Milne and future Group of Seven members A.Y. Jackson, Arthur Lismer, Frederick Varley and Franz Johnston.
Three years into the Second World War, the Canadian War Art Program was reinstated in January 1943. The Canadian War Artists' Committee, led by McCurry and Vincent Massey, was established and a number of artists within the armed forces were recommended to serve overseas. A.Y. Jackson was an advisor to the committee and helped select artists for the program. He was also a mentor to Molly Lamb, encouraging her artistic practice and putting her in touch with McCurry when she was transferred to Toronto after completing basic training at Camp Vermilion in Alberta.
The correspondence between Lamb and McCurry in the collection of the Gallery's Library and Archives spans 1943 to 1945. The letters document a formative experience in the life of a budding war artist. They also offer a glimpse into Lamb’s ambitions and McCurry’s support for her work. The first letter, dated April 1943, begins: “Two weeks ago A.Y. Jackson very kindly wrote to you on my behalf and he told you about my drawings.” At this time, Lamb was 23 years old and in the middle of her drafting course with the CWAC in Toronto. The letter ends with her making plans to hitchhike to Ottawa in order to show McCurry her drawings (this would not be the last time that Lamb would trek her drawings out to Ottawa; McCurry was compelled to suggest, over one year later, that “[p]erhaps it would be just as well if you send your work along now and later on we will probably be able to make arrangements for you to come to Ottawa without hitch-hiking!”).
Lamb’s energetic sketches of the day-to-day activities of servicewomen inspired a kind of mentorship in McCurry, and he and A.Y. Jackson vouched for her to be assigned to the War Records department as early as February 1944. In a letter to McCurry, Jackson writes of Lamb: “I am all for giving her the opportunity to do war records. I know of no one else in the country who is doing that kind of thing as well.”
Other members of the Canadian War Artists' Committee, however, were reluctant to send a woman artist overseas. It was not until the ceasefire in May 1945 that they formally accepted her appointment, and the following month Lamb was finally on her way to England. She was stationed in London with fellow war artists Lawren P. Harris (son of the Group of Seven member), Jack Shadbolt, Campbell Tinning, George Pepper, Will Ogilvie and her future husband, Bruno Bobak. After three years of depicting CWAC canteens, parades, offices and barracks across Canada, she was now tasked with illustrating servicewomen in Europe.
Lamb made drawings in England, Holland, Belgium, Germany and France, writing in a letter to McCurry that she had “a vehicle, driver and complete freedom to go and do wherever and whatever I liked.” She depicted the wide variety of roles undertaken by the Canadian women who served in the army during the war. From sorting in mailrooms to working as mechanics, every CWAC activity captured by Lamb was subject to her lively brushwork and keen attention to detail. She illustrated servicewomen in moments of leisure as well, including several sketches of baseball games.
Although not part of her official assignment, Lamb also endeavoured to capture scenes of the war unrelated to the CWAC. She depicted cities, damaged buildings and street scenes featuring civilians. Lamb would eventually become known for her crowd scenes, due in part to her uncanny ability to capture the vibrant and excitable energy of people gathered en masse.
In the same letter, the final one in the Archives’ collection, Lamb announces to McCurry that she is returning to Canada: “Bobak, Tinning and I are coming home. I think Bruno and I will be on the Queen Elizabeth and I shall be coming straight to Ottawa.” She goes on to call her time overseas "the richest and most exciting weeks" of her life. After the war, she and Bobak moved to the West Coast before settling in Fredericton, New Brunswick, where they lived until his death in 2012. Lamb passed away in 2014, at the age of 94.
The material discussed in this article can be found in the collection of the National Gallery of Canada’s Library and Archives and can be consulted in the Reading Room during public hours. 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.