Ernest Fosbery, Ottawa (detail), 21 May 1914. Etching on laid paper, 21.7 x 48.3 cm National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa Photo: NGC

Views of Ottawa: Etching the Capital City between 1867 and 1939

Not much has been written about the history of printmaking in Ottawa, especially the art of etching. The medium – printing an image by using acid to eat into the unprotected parts of a metal plate – is invariably associated with old master prints, but it also has a long history of use among amateur artists. Elizabeth Simcoe, artist and wife of the first Lieutenant Governor, may possibly have done the earliest etchings in Canada in the 1790s. After the invention of lithography in 1796, etching as a large-scale print medium fell out of use, but it continued to be a popular leisure activity. Queen Victoria made etchings in the 1840s, as did many upper- and middle-class Englishwomen.

Ottawa owes its choice as capital of Canada to Queen Victoria as a result of an 1857 competition. With the Parliament buildings under construction and the government installed by the mid-1860s, the city also became a magnet for artists seeking patronage, employment and a market for their work.  The Irish-Canadian artist James Duncan and Canadian-born Lucius O’Brien both produced remarkable views of the new capital by the 1860s and 1870s. At the same time, commercial printing companies appeared, such as George Cox, lithographer and wood engraver, in 1875, Mortimer Lith. Co. in 1879 and Pritchard and Mingard in 1878 (later Pritchard-Andrews). 

John W.H. Watts, Caretaker – Victoria Chambers, c.1881. Etching on cream wove paper, mounted on card, 15.7 x 10.5 cm. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa
Photo: NGC

Along with this, a renewed artistic interest in the medium of etching began, known as the Etching Revival. Author and curator Rosemarie Tovell credits the etching revival in Canada to the pioneering work of John William Hurrell Watts, who brought a printing press and equipment to Ottawa in 1879 and began experimenting with etching, exhibiting these works in early Royal Canadian Academy exhibitions. He taught the painter William Brymner how to etch, when the latter was in Ottawa in the early 1880s (he never did practice the art). Watts’ most noteworthy pupil was Ernest Fosbery, who was born in Ottawa in 1874 and started to etch under Watts' tutelage in 1899, after returning from Paris. Fosbery spent several years in the United States, returning to Ottawa in 1911 to resume his career as an artist. In 1914 he once again took up etching, producing some of the most beautiful landscape views of the city over the next few years. When Watts died in 1917, he bequeathed his printing press to Fosbery.

Ernest Fosbery, Gatineau Point, 1914. Etching on laid paper, 24.8 x 25.4 cm; plate: 18.3 x 19.1 cm. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa Photo: NGC

Watts was an architect in the Department of Public Works, when in 1882 he was appointed part-time curator of the National Gallery of Canada, which had been founded two years earlier, and was administered by the Department. Prints entered the collection very early, with Princess Louise, wife of the Governor-General and daughter of Queen Victoria, donating "a handsome series of engravings, illustrative of the course of study in the Royal School of Art, South Kensington", as noted in the 1885 Annual Report. The Gallery's Art Advisory Council made the acquisition of 21 etchings by Clarence Gagnon in 1909. When Eric Brown was appointed the Gallery's first full-time curator in 1910 (renamed director in 1912) and was given an acquisition budget, he began to systematically acquire Canadian art and etchings as well as old masters prints with the support of Edmund Walker, the Gallery and Art Advisory Council's chairman. These purchases marked the purposeful expansion of the Gallery's collection of prints and drawings. In 1910, Brown was responsible for the acquisition of prints by Arthur Heming, Frank Armington and his artist wife Caroline Armington, while in 1912–13 the Gallery acquired 22 etchings and drypoints by contemporary Canadian artists and printmakers, including Dorothy Stevens, John W. Cotton, and Samuel H. Maw as well as six prints by Ernest Fosbery. 

John W. Cotton, Confederation Park and Parliament Hill, c.1930. Etching, 14.6 x 8.6 cm. Library and Archives Canada, C-120855.

Ottawa's new Centre Block, built after the original central parliament building was destroyed by fire in 1916, attracted the attention of a number of artists in the 1920s and early 1930s, including Walter R. Duff and John W. Cotton. Another little-known artist was Edward J. Cherry, who was born in England in 1886 and came to Canada in 1907, working as a picture framer in Vancouver. While recuperating overseas from war wounds, he was encouraged to take up sketching. He was discharged from the Canadian army in 1920, and it seems possible that for at least a period he was living and working on both sides of the Atlantic. At some point he was in Ottawa and executed several fine etchings of the Parliament Buildings. 

Seeking patronage, David Milne came to Ottawa In 1923 where he met several local artists, including Fosbery, Harold Beament and Graham Norwell. The painter may have introduced some of his colleagues to various printmaking techniques, as both Beament and Norwell produced cliche-verre prints. Milne seems never to have produced any prints in Ottawa himself. 

Frederick B. Taylor, Barns, Chelsea, 1934. Colour soft-ground etching and aquatint on laid paper, 32.2 x 21.5 cm. Purchased 1996. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. © Frederick B. Taylor Photo: NGC

By this time Fosbery was an art teacher at the Ottawa School of Art and appears to have taught printmaking as a subject. His most prominent student was Frederick B. Taylor, who although supposedly self-taught, is likely to have learned etching from Fosbery. By the early 1930s, Taylor became known for his etchings of skiers, as well as for his etched portraits of Canadian prime ministers. During this decade, amateur etchers also continued to be active. Reverend Edward Geoffrey May, for example, who served as rector in Hull and Chelsea, produced a number of etched views of Ottawa-area Anglican churches, now at Library and Archives Canada. 

Finally one should mention L. S. Russell, an artist who produced a sombre etching entitled Nocturne, Ottawa, dated December 31, 1939. The print, known only from a proof state donated to Library and Archives Canada by Senator Eugene Forsey, deserves to be better known, as does the shadowy L. S. Russell. This work seems to bring to an end an era in Ottawa printmaking, marking as it does the end of the first year of the Second World War. Although artists continued to experiment with etching in succeeding decades, the medium was overtaken by wood engraving and serigraphy in artistic experimentation. Fosbery’s death in 1960 marked the end of an era in etching in the capital.


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