Share This Article
Commissioned to memorialize the 1st Canadian Division’s heroic stand at Ypres in 1915, Richard Jack delivered on a grand scale.

On the evening of January 4, 1919, the prominent art critic Paul Konody met British press baron Harold Harmsworth, 1st Viscount Rothermere, for dinner at a London restaurant. The city was awash with excitement over the official opening that evening of the Canadian War Memorials—the first large exhibition of World War I art. Max Aitken, the Canadian-born owner of the British newspaper the Daily Express, had come up with the idea for the exhibition—an ambitious effort to portray the war from Canada’s point of view—and had tapped Konody to serve as the artistic adviser for the project and Rothermere to head the fund that would raise money for the effort. The result was more than 1,000 works, some of them still drying on the gallery walls at Burlington House, the home of the Royal Academy of Arts and the venue for the exhibition.

As the exhibition opened in London that evening, people queued up to see what the Canadians had achieved. There was a special air of anticipation about Richard Jack’s mammoth battle paintings.

Jack was British, not Canadian. Born in Sunderland in 1866, he had studied at the York School of Art and the South Kensington Art School before winning a national scholarship to the Royal College of Art in 1886. In the ensuing years Jack made a name for himself exhibiting portraits at the Royal Academy of Arts, and in 1914 he was named an associate member of the academy—the traditional steppingstone to becoming a Royal Academician. But now, with Aitken as his patron, he would enter a different genre—and celebrate Canadian troops in a battle painting.

As World War I broke out in the summer of 1914, slaughter–strewn battle scenes, like those by British painter William Barnes Wollen, were on the wane. With younger artists drawn to the impressionist works of Claude Monet and James McNeill Whistler, London was on the cusp of a new era in art. Soon the British government would be commissioning artists to document all aspects of what would become the most horrific war the world had yet known, and the Royal Academy held the inside position to deliver the images that would shape how that war would be viewed, not only at home but all over the world.

In London the academy had long been the de facto market for portraits and history paintings. But such work did not always fill the table of academy artists, many of whom supplemented their income by working for such popular London weeklies as the Illustrated London News and The Sphere. These publications hired artists—called “specials”—to travel with British armies to the theaters of war and send back illustrations and reports for wide public consumption. The specials, sketchbooks in hand, saw and experienced war at very close range.

World War I, however, would be fought mostly from trenches that precluded open views of battle and with strict rules as to who was allowed near the front lines. The limited access meant that most commissioned war artists had to work far behind the lines. And because they hadn’t seen battles with their own eyes, many turned to depicting what they could see afterward: crater-filled landscapes, forests of charred stumps, gassed and maimed soldiers, and the like.

But Jack aimed to portray an actual battle in large scale, and there was only one way to do it: He would have to reconstruct the battle in a London studio.

In early 1915 the Canadian government had given Aitken the unusual title of “Eye Witness” to the war raging in Europe, putting him in charge of all war-related records and setting him up in an office at 3 Lombard Street in London. Aitken’s goal, as he put it at the time, was to “lay down the bedrock of history.” One of the ways he would do that was to commission war paintings, ultimately also using some of the early commissioned works to illustrate the first volume of his history, Canada in Flanders: The Official Story of the Canadian Expeditionary Force (1916).

Someone—perhaps Rothermere—suggested Jack as an artist who might deliver the item at the top of Aitken’s wish list: a painting of the 1st Canadian Division holding off a German gas attack at the Second Battle of Ypres. Jack readily accepted the assignment. In late 1916 he was given an honorary commission as a major in the Canadian army and traveled to France to sketch and gather information for the formidable task he would have on his return to London.

The stakes, Jack surely realized, were as large as the canvas he intended to produce. On April 22, 1915, the Germans had opened the four-day battle at Ypres by unleashing a frightening new weapon: chlorine gas. As this was the first time poi-son had been deployed in the war, the battle was extensively covered in the Lon-don papers, and the world was hungry for details. British field marshal John French was widely quoted declaring that the Canadians had “saved the situation” in the face of overwhelming odds.

Konody, in an article celebrating what the Canadians were doing on the artistic front, described Jack’s extensive research and preparation:

Though, naturally, not actually present at the fighting, Major Jack had carefully investigated and sketched the whole ground, and has spent some time with the units which took part in the engagement, collecting from officers and men all the details and facts needed for absolute accuracy. Some of the men who had been through the battle actually posed for the picture, whilst machine-guns and all manner of military accoutrements were temporarily placed at the artist’s disposal, whose studio assumed something of the appearance of a battlefield.

What Jack produced—a colossal 12-by-20-foot canvas originally titled The Second Battle of Ypres, 23 April to 25 May—was to become the monumental depiction of Canadians fighting in the Great War. Reviewers commented that they saw no yellowish-green gas in Jack’s painting; indeed, he dated the scene one day after the Germans’ gas attack. His painting depicts a traditional confrontation between armies, with the Canadians bravely defending their stronghold against the Germans. A raised parapet establishes a fort-like setting, with the armies directly facing each other rather than trading fire from the trenches.

Abandoned rifles and ammunition boxes amid the dead convey the ferocity of the fighting at Ypres. One soldier is being shot in the head; another helps a wounded comrade to safety beside two discolored corpses. An officer whose head is bandaged leads the charge against the formidable German forces, an aspect of the painting that shows Jack promoting heroic action over absolute accuracy of detail. Konody would later call it a “theatrical pose…which clings to the academic tradition of the battle picture.”

Jack portrays the Canadian soldiers in various states of action. Some confront the enemy at the sandbags with raised rifle butts, while others are waved in by the wounded officer who provides the focal point for the entire painting. It’s clear that Jack envisioned the battle as a pivotal and heroic event, with the leader of the Canadian forces displaying death-defying courage. Aitken wanted a painting that showed Canadians making history—he aimed for it to be the signature work of a proposed war museum in Ottawa—and Jack certainly gave it to him.

The subject of Jack’s next project for the Canadian War Memorials Fund was the epic taking of Vimy Ridge in April 1917—the second historic Canadian victory of the war. Four divisions of the Canadian Corps in the First Army had fought three divisions of the German Sixth Army to capture the German-held high ground of Vimy Ridge, an escarpment at the northernmost edge of the Arras flank of the Arras Offensive.

Completed in 1919, the war’s final year, The Taking of Vimy Ridge, Easter Monday 1917 shows a Canadian battery team loading an 18-pounder field gun and firing shells at German positions in a creeping barrage of the ridge. A range-finder pole shows the expanding role of technology in warfare as smoke from the shelling fills the sky.

This was a different approach to a major battle picture. Instead of armies confronting each other head-on, the scene shows the war from one side. In this painting Jack turned to the new reality of modern warfare, in which the operation of weapons of great destruction supplanted heroic self-sacrifice.

Today, both of these spectacular tributes to the heroism of Canadians in World War I hang in the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa, just as Aitken had planned.

Jack moved to Montreal in 1930 to seek new opportunities in the country that had made him its resident war artist. Until his death in 1952 he used his studio there as a base for field trips across Canada and in time became famous in his adopted country for his paintings of Canadian wilderness landscapes. But Jack’s first painting for the Canadian War Memorials Fund is still his best known and may remain, as Konody once wrote, “unrivalled among British battle paintings.” MHQ

Lloyd Bennett is associate professor of art history and chair of the Department of Visual and Performing Arts at Thompson Rivers University, British Columbia, Canada. He is the author of The Canadian War Memorials Exhibition, Burlington House, London, 1919 (Linus, 2015).