Historicist: Sketching Cultural Nationalism

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Historicist: Sketching Cultural Nationalism

Every Saturday at noon, Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters—good and bad—that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.

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“Frontenac on the Way to Cataraqui, 1763” from C.W. Jefferys, Dramatic Episodes in Canada’s Story (Ryerson Press, 1930)

In 1921, the Ontario Department of Education selected Charles William Jefferys to illustrate George M. Wrong’s Ontario Public School History of Canada, a textbook being published under Lorne Pierce’s Ryerson Press imprint. Upon their first meeting, the English-born artist—whose family had bounced around the northeastern U.S. and Ontario before settling in Toronto around 1880—and Pierce, a former Methodist minister, hit it off immediately despite a gap in age of twenty-one years. In Pierce, Jefferys found a kindred spirit who shared his ambition to excite nationalist sentiment among Canadians. He wanted to popularize Canadian history as an epic and romantic story by bringing historical characters to life through his illustrations. The long friendship and collaboration between artist and publisher, which resulted in a number of books, proved so successful that Jefferys’s images became instantly recognizable, Canadian icons that shaped more than one generation’s understanding of Canadian nationalism.


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Portrait of C.W. Jefferys from Wikimedia Commons.

As a child in Cabbagetown, Jefferys showed a precocious natural inclination towards illustration. Charging one cent for a Canadian historical scene or two cents for an English scene, Jefferys decorated textbooks for classmates with drawings of the Battle of Queenston Heights or Wolfe at Quebec. He attended evening classes at the Ontario School of Art—and would later study further under the tutelage of G.A. Reid and C.M. Manley. But the consistent mismanagement of the family’s finances by his father, a builder who’d had designs on his son becoming an architect, sent him into the working world at sixteen, when he became a lithographer’s apprentice at the Toronto Lithographing Company in 1885.
As his grandson Robert Stacey noted in C.W. Jefferys, 1869–1951 (National Gallery of Canada, 1985), Jefferys “felt constricted by the advertising medium’s limited range for expression and experimentation.” Moving to the world of journalism, he began working for the Globe in 1889. This experience, and stints with the News, Courier, and the Telegram—where he illustrated John Ross Robertson’s history columns—provided him with the opportunity to travel and come to know its many regions intimately. Whether it was designing soup can labels, or accompanying a reporter to cover a royal tour or political campaign, Jefferys pragmatically accepted these commissions to pay the bills. But his pursuit of more serious art continued unabated.
An accomplished water colour painter, Jefferys was firmly ensconced in the Toronto art establishment. In his youth, he was a member of the Toronto Art Students’ League, which set off into the wilderness to sketch landscapes. He was a founding member of the Arts and Letters Club—and later its president—through which he had a direct influence on the Group of Seven painters. Stacey quotes one source as suggesting that Jefferys’s influence was such that he’d even been invited to join the Group’s first exhibition. He was also a founder and president of both the Ontario Society of Artists and the Canadian Society of Painters of Water Colour.

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“Hennepin at Niagara Falls, 1678” from C.W. Jefferys, Dramatic Episodes in Canada’s Story (Ryerson Press, 1930)

His chosen subject matter for the canvas was uncompromisingly Canadian. In addition to his Ontario scenes, Jefferys was one of the first artists to effectively capture the subtle colour variations in the expansive prairie sky and that region’s rolling landscape. Yet his artistic career progressed largely without wider public recognition. His paintings didn’t sell, Stacey writes, “no doubt because of their straightforward presentation of wilderness, rural, and urban views with which the public critics as yet had few if any romantic or nostalgic associations.” And so, he continued his newspaper and magazine work.
In the serious economic depression of the early 1890s, when artist commissions were few and patrons of the Canadian arts community difficult to come by, Jefferys moved to New York City to work with the sensationalist Herald from 1893 to 1901. In the days before photojournalism, it was Jefferys who scrambled around town making sketches about murders, fires, suicides, riots, strikes, and anything else in the bustling metropolis. It all seemed rather tedious to someone who was becoming aware of the power of his medium for popularizing his interest in history. At the time, he would reflect in 1936, “the depiction of the crowded life of the present was a startling and unwelcome change from the romantic imaginings of the past.” But he also came to see the beneficial training journalistic illustration provided him. “I realized,” he added, “that yesterday was as alive as today and that the accurate and intensive observation of how people acted now and here was the best way to understand how they acted in the past.”
In 1899, the death of his first wife, Jean Adams, during childbirth (and that of his infant son shortly afterwards) prompted his permanent return to Canada. Taking an opportunity to engage with more nationalist subject matter, he drew editorial cartoons for the satirical newspaper The Moon. He married the editor’s niece, Callie (Clara) West, in 1907. Beginning in 1910, the couple and their five daughters resided in the rural area of York Mills—where a plaque at 4111 Yonge Street marks the location of their home and the barn Jefferys converted into his studio.

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“The Battle of Batoche, 1885” from C.W. Jefferys, Dramatic Episodes in Canada’s Story (Ryerson Press, 1930)

At the Ryerson Press, Pierce recognized the textbook market as not only the best avenue for promoting cultural nationalism but also a lucrative business opportunity. Until then, most English readers and history textbooks in Canada originated from British or American firms—just as these firms dominated the wider Canadian publishing trade. At best, a Canadian schoolbook might be a slightly altered American text printed in Canada. Popularizing Canadian history and stories with youth, Pierce hoped, would ensure they remained interested in their country’s arts and letters throughout their lives.
Following the initial success of Wrong’s Ontario Public School History of Canada (1921), Pierce used Jefferys’s illustrations extensively in further textbooks like Wrong’s The Story of Canada (1929) and W. Stewart Wallace’s A First Book of Canadian History (1928), as well as in numerous children’s adventure stories and poetry books.
It was clear, however, Sandra Campbell writes in the Journal of Canadian Studies (30:3), that “Jefferys’s art proved even more potent than the prose it illustrated, and Pierce was quick to capitalise.” He published Jefferys’s Dramatic Episodes in Canada’s Story (1930), assembled from sketches and essays Jefferys had originally composed in the 1920s for the Star Weekly, and Canada’s Past in Pictures (1934). The magnum opus was The Picture Gallery of Canadian History (1942, 1945 and 1950), a three volume set that collected over 2,000 sketches. This bestselling set went through six printings by 1970.

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“The First Furrow” from C.W. Jefferys, Portraits The Picture Gallery of Canadian History (Ryerson Press, 1950)

Jefferys’s most famous images depict intrepid individuals—explorers, missionaries, and military men—who are caught up in the events of their time. Pioneer women are also given substantial attention with the stories of Madame de la Tour, and the Filles du Roi recreated. In images like “The First Furrow,” anonymous people undertaking the ordinary tasks of settlement are elevated to heroic stature. Recalling his water colour painting, the regionally distinct Canadian landscape is an almost ever-present character that began to seem more romantic. But Jefferys’s greatest skill—learned in his newspaper days—was in bringing his human characters to life with their expressive emotion and the suggestion of movement.
Jefferys intended these books to be comprehensive accounts of Canadian history. “My aim,” he wrote in the preface to Dramatic Episodes, “has been merely to pick out from the great mine of Canadian history a few fragments that may suggest its richness in human interest and its wealth of picturesque and dramatic incident.” As a result, there are patterns of omission in the volumes. Although Jefferys and Pierce were outwardly concerned with English and French unity in Canada, Jefferys’s interest in Quebec, with very few exceptions, ceases after the Conquest. Scenes in Eastern Canada predominate over Western vignettes, as do rural venues over the urban and industrial. Most of these omissions stemmed from the artist’s avowed preference for the distant past over more recent, post-Confederation history in his selection of episodes.
Seeing himself as a popularizer, Jefferys was equally unconcerned with his sketches interrogating the larger historiographical context within which his characters moved or with the novel interpretations of emerging Canadian historians like Donald Creighton or Harold Innis. Rather Jefferys was a romantic historian, who emphasized drama, narrative, and individual actors loaded with symbolism. Writing in the Journal of Canadian Studies (11.4), Dennis Duffy called it history as opera.

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“Churns” from C.W. Jefferys, Portraits The Picture Gallery of Canadian History (Ryerson Press, 1950)

Yet Jefferys’s reconstructions of bygone events were based on painstaking research. He scoured visual and written sources to ensure accuracy of historical or ethnographic detail. He personally explored battle sites, settlements, and territory traversed by the explorers. Friends noted his idiosyncratic habit of collecting and studying musket locks, shoe buckles, and other antique miscellany—which explains the preponderance of commonplace items and obsolete farming implements sketched in The Picture Gallery of Canadian History. His sketches scrupulously adhered to historical (and technical) accuracy whenever possible. He explained the importance of accuracy in art in a 1936 article in the Canadian Historical Review: “The critical examination of written history, the comparison of source-documents, are marked features of modern historical study. The pictorial reconstruction of history too frequently displays the lack of a corresponding degree and quality of discrimination.” His sketches have a level of academic vigour not likely seen in the accompanying illustrations of other children’s texts of the era.
Jefferys was by no means the only artist seeking to cultivate nascent Canadian nationalism during in the early twentieth century. But unlike others “sequestered in the drawing-rooms or galleries of the elite,” in Osborne’s words, Jefferys’s partnership with Pierce ensured his heartstring-pulling imagery was “physically and intellectually accessible to the general public.” The Ryerson Press dominated the elementary and high school textbook market in English-speaking Canada from the 1930s to the early 1960s. During the Depression, Pierce even distributed complimentary copies of Dramatic Episodes to impoverished school districts, and encouraged the Carnegie Endowment to purchase copies for donation to American libraries. With generations of boys and girls as his captive audience, Jefferys’s (admittedly whiggish) presentation of history became one of the dominant and enduring influences on Canadian nationalism and, Duffy adds, “the collective memory of his countrymen.” Speaking at Jefferys’s funeral in October 1951, Pierce provided an apt, if florid, eulogy: “No other artist, no other Canadian, has done so much to knit together into one community of fellowship and purpose all parts of Canada. No one has done so much to build a covered bridge between the English and French speaking peoples of Canada.”

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