Imagining Landscapes

In the second exhibit we studied an example of a Chinese cultural perspective on an English landscape. But what happens when the English travel to other lands? In this exhibit we look at some English views of their own colonial possessions around the globe. Consider first Canada, a country as different from England as can be imagined: a vast country of rugged terrain and harsh light, of brilliant, fiery colours in autumn and of white on white on grey gloom and foreboding in the long winter. Yet if we look at the paintings of colonial Canada, we often find what appears to be a land with a damp, mild climate, planted with familiar (to English eyes) deciduous trees. In most of these pictures one can easily identify the stylistic devices and techniques learned in Europe and transported to the colonies.

George Heriot, Chippewa


George Heriot, Chippewa, 1810 or 1816
Watercolour, 11 x 20 cm
McCord Museum, McGill University, Montreal

George Heriot, like Davies a graduate of Woolwich Military Academy, was a student of the famous English watercolourist Paul Sandby. His style rejects the 'naturalism' of Davies and Sandby, but nevertheless, presents a distinctly British way of seeing Canada. Lord points out that it is a style often associated with the atmospheric views of ruins of the Roman empire, so fondly visited by young British aristocrats of that period. 'Both subjects (Italy and Canada) had to do with empire, since one showed the remains of earlier empires with which the British could compare, while the other indicated how far British rule prevailed? How far Heriot's work stray from the reality experienced by the Canadian people is indicated by the subject of the painting of Fort Chippewa at a time of intense military activity (war of 1812). 'But this is not what Heriot's imported style had taught him to watch for. Instead, he sees a languid afternoon with a few people out strolling; perfectly suited to his plan to offer for sale views of picturesque Canada (Lord, 1974).


Thomas Davies, A View of Montreal in Canada, 1762
Watercolour, 35.3 x 53.5 cm
National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa

[Davies] has done everything possible to transform the scene into a picturesque bit of British parkland. The couple are posed under two trees on the island, which form an arbour above them. Vines ... soften the effect ... The city of Montreal, just captured by Davies with British troops two years before, is rendered accurately enough ... but we might think we were along some English riverbank . .. Indeed, the two natives paddling their canoe along the shore may very well have been added as an afterthought, for the express purpose of situating the picture in the New World.

Barry Lord, 1974

A view of Montrael in Canada


Thomas Davies, On the River La Puce, 1789
Watercolour, 34 x 51.6 cm
National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa

Although trained in the 'objective' techniques of topographical painting (used for purposes of military reconnaissance) and although a keen botanist, twenty five years later Davies' style, while more vivid and experimental, still had not come to terms with the Canadian environment. Here he manages to capture the rampant growth of Canadian spring, but the quasi-tropical plant forms and habits of growth are a complete failure.

On the River La Puce

Algoma waterfall


James Edward Hervey MacDonald, Algoma waterfall, (detail), 1920
Oil on canvas, 76.3 x 88.5 cm
The McMichael Canadian Collection
Gift of Col. R.S. McLaughlin

European hegemony in landscape painting was finally replaced in the twentieth century by a distinctively Canadian way of seeing the natural environment. At the very time that a national political identity was being forged, the first national 'school' of painters, the Group of Seven, was formed under the influence of the work of Tom Thomson. These artists challenged the European techniques which failed to capture much of what Canadians value in their landscape.

The birth of a national landscape art in Canada, perhaps paradoxically, meant replacing a 'naturalism’, derived from tired European formulae, with a 'realism' that was thought truer to nature in its play of light and colour, mood, movement and form. For someone unfamiliar with the Canadian countryside, the canvasses of the first national 'school’, the Group of Seven, might be thought to lean to abstraction, yet for Canadians their great strength is their faithfulness to nature.

Eclipse Sound and Bylot Island


Lawren Stewart Harris, Eclipse Sound and Bylot Island, 1930
Oil on panel, 30.2 x 38 cm
The McMichael Canadian Collection
Gift of Col. R.S. McLaughlin

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