The Power of Love: Laurence Hyde

Laurence Hyde, Untitled (Love), 1938, printed 1939. Wood engraving on calendered wove paper, 24.7 x 19.8 cm. Gift of the family of Dr. Albert Rose, in his memory, 1999. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa Photo: NGC

The things we do for love included, for Laurence Hyde, an embrace of the ideals of communism. The story of Hyde’s wood engraving Love speaks to heart and mind, as both were fired by the artist’s new and, as time would reveal, true love.

Hyde was born in London, England, in 1914 and moved to Canada aged 12. As a teen he saw the Lake Superior paintings of Lawren Harris at the Art Gallery of Ontario and decided to become an artist. In 1932 he enrolled at Toronto's Central Technical School, where wood engraving captured his eye. Influences included the American Lynd Ward, who told stories in pictures, without text, and strengthened Hyde's interest in book illustration.

Hyde’s early work gained notice. In 1936–38 Saturday Night magazine hailed his engravings as “mysterious, vigorous and compelling,” and later noted his “exuberant vitality.” His early prints of exploited workers revealed a socialist bent, which was not unusual for young men at that time. When he met Bettye Bambridge, sparks flew like flares from an industrial forge. “Hyde's interest in social issues at this time may have amounted to no more than a student fad,” wrote Rosemarie Tovell, former curator of Prints and Drawings at the National Gallery of Canada, “but upon meeting Bettye Bambridge, whom he would eventually marry in 1939, he became more committed to communist politics.”

Laurence Hyde, Seven Ages of Man, 1938, printed 1939. Portfolio of seven wood engravings on calendered wove paper, in cardboard folder, titled and illustrated with enlarged reproduction of a wood engraving, and containing a signed justification by the artist, 25.5 x 20.2 cm. Gift of the family of Dr. Albert Rose, in his memory, 1999. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa Photo: NGC

Around 1938–39 he published Seven Ages of Man, dedicating it “to my comrade Bettye.” The print portfolio included seven wood engravings depicting "the struggles and desires of humanity." The artist depicted the former in two prints with “the struggle of man against economic slavery” and the struggle "against war and the enemies of our democratic civilization”. In the final engraving, he portrayed “the regime of decay at last menaced by united forces of progressive men; and a prediction of … 'the coming victory of Democracy'." The engravings, he wrote in the foreword, “are the artist’s conception of life today.” The first four engravings were Birth, Childhood, Love and Marriage, and while he wrote that “childhood is pictured without its popular appeal,” in the engravings Love and Marriage, “the artist has reverted to the first cut and all else is forgotten in the ecstatic beauty that is Woman.” 

In Love, man and woman stand in tight embrace, their legs softly touching. The background is peppered with the stars and planets. The man and woman are larger than life, as if love puts them on the scale of those great and timeless celestial bodies. Emanating from the couple are filaments of light, like an all-encompassing feather that could give them flight, and raise them into the heavens. 

Such is the power of love, the feeling that anything is possible.

Hyde died in 1987, a respected artist. He had worked at the National Film Board for 30 years, published children’s books, made paintings and created art for many postal stamps. He and Bettye were married for almost 50 years, having lived in Montreal and Ottawa and raised two children, Anthony and Christopher, who both grew up to be popular novelists.

The Seven Ages of Man portfolio had sold poorly, and Hyde later pulped what copies he had. Tovell suggested the pulping had been prompted by “strong and dangerous anti-communist hysteria” of post-Second World War years. In time such fears faded, however, and by 1998 The Globe and Mail noted that an exhibition that included Hyde engravings of labourers literally chained to a factory was “just in time for May Day, the annual celebration of the workers’ movement.”

Sentiments change, but Love endures.

 

Works by Laurence Hyde can be viewed in the online collection of the National Gallery of Canada. 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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