In this week’s History Dog column, Richard MacLeod highlights the famous artist who is the father of historical art in Canada
This article pays tribute to all the artists who captured a moment in our history with their work, and thus became historians, with a focus on the mastery of Charles William Jefferys (CW).
My uncle, George Luesby, captured Newmarket and the area in his pencil sketches and watercolors for almost 70 years, becoming a well-known local historian in the process. Many of his sketches reflect buildings and structures that sadly no longer exist; in many cases, his works are the only record we have of their existence.
The father of Canadian historical art remains CW Jefferys, whose work appears everywhere, in our history books, museums and art galleries. They represent a moment in our history, captured for posterity with a sense of realism that is astonishing. One often feels that they were there next to him.
Although most of you will recognize his works, you probably don’t know much about the man. Jefferys was a famous painter and illustrator. Although he is widely known for his illustrations of early Canadian life, our landscape was the main subject of his paintings. It is because of his illustrations of early Canadian life that he is profiled in this article.
Jefferys was born in Rochester, Kent, England in 1869 and as a child immigrated with his family to Philadelphia before finally moving to Toronto around 1878. As a teenager, Jefferys was apprenticed to a lithographic firm and studied oil painting with George A. Reid and watercolors with CM Manly.
Jefferys continued his career as a reporter/artist with various publications. Over the decades, Jefferys illustrated numerous historical publications, including The Makers of Canada (1911), Chronicles of Canada (1914–1916), and A Picture Gallery of Canadian History (1942–1950). During the First World War, Jefferys documented military training at Camp Petawawa and Camp Niagara for the Canadian War Records. He would later teach painting and drawing at the University of Toronto.
Jefferys had an intense interest in Canadian history and his reputation rests largely on his accurate and precise portrayal of early Canadian life. The most famous collection of his historical sketches is the Picture Gallery of Canadian History. Jefferys was president of the Ontario Society of Artists and was a fellow of the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts.
Jefferys would receive numerous awards during his lifetime, honorary degrees from universities, and the CW Jefferys Collegiate Institute, a high school in North York, was to be posthumously named artist.
I think this quote attributed to Jeffries clearly indicates his view of the artist as historian: “It is inevitable that a country with such marked physical features as Canada possesses should make a strong impression on our artists.
When I studied Canadian history at university, I lamented the fact that our history is often taught through a series of dates, names and facts; none of which give anyone a real sense of what it was like to be alive in any given time period.
How could we look at history differently? And what role should it play? I am not talking here about what history is, is not, or should be, but about who can help us understand history and its multidimensionality. This is where the role of the artist is crucial. Artists, sometimes called the guardians of culture, document and reflect the times they are in; they could depict a moment in history as a kind of time capsule.
Artists can communicate what is often missing from official historical narratives, namely, which people felt like in each time period.
History is often strictly controlled and the role of the artist in that process is to “discover historical truths” and “right the wrongs”.
The artist provides a form of documentation, whether intentional or not, allowing us to become more than mere witnesses to history, but also participants in its unfolding.
If we look at our history, past and present, we can identify at least four different roles that artists have played:
- Artists had the ability to express emotions that many of us cannot express. In a world that relies too much on a rational approach to life that is based only on knowledge and ignores the senses, the artist can become a translator of sorts.
- The artist also plays the role of historian, documenting what is happening in society beyond the superficial, providing a critical voice and giving us a sense of how things actually looked, giving us insight into what people actually thought, what they felt. ; not just what happened on a certain date, who won or who had the last word.
- The third role is to reveal the truth, to help us see what we cannot see, freeing us from our assumptions, opinions and judgments.
- And finally, artists are non-conformists. They are often removed from ordinary thinking and can provide society with a different vision of the world, help us think differently about what is all around us.
CW Jefferys’ contributions to the evolution of historical illustration in Canada are truly numerous.
In 19th-century Canada, opportunities for artists to create illustrations for a national audience remained limited until the Canadian Illustrated News of the 1870s included works by William Armstrong, William Cruickshank, FM Bell Smith, and Henri Julien. In 1882 Picturesque Canada, edited by George Munro Grant, became one of the first illustrated publications devoted to Canadian subjects. Ambitious in scope, the volume reproduced scenes of the “sublime” Canadian landscape through the process of wood engraving.
In 1886, several young artists founded the Toronto Art Students League, an influential group that used innovative technical processes such as photoengraving. The attractive and skillfully produced calendar published by the League from 1892 to 1904 is considered a milestone in Canadian illustration and book design because it drew attention to Canadian artists, encouraging publishers to hire resident illustrators instead of foreign professionals.
The League also stimulated the association of a group of artists, including Norman Price, William Wallace, and Thomas Garland Greene, who specialized in book design. Among this group was a young Charles William Jefferys.
Canadian history textbooks from the first 50 years of the 20th century are full of examples of Jefferys’ pen sketches, which demonstrate his wide knowledge of history and mastery of the ink medium. Jefferys’ work can be found in numerous Canadian and British history textbooks created for public and secondary schools by historian George M. Wrong, many of which I used as a student.
It features more than 200 illustrations, maps and charts Ryerson Canadian History Readers; in Dramatic Episodes in Canadian History, a popular volume first published by the Toronto Star in 1930 and republished by Ryerson Press in 1934. The pinnacle of Jefferys’ contribution to the reconstruction of the past was the Picture Gallery of Canadian History: Illustrations Drawn and Collected by CW Jefferys.
In addition to his work as a book illustrator, Jefferys also contributed regularly to the Canadian History Review, was a frequent speaker for Ontario historical societies, president of various antiquarian societies, and sat on the council of the Royal Canadian Academy. He designed the Tyrell Medal of the Royal Society of Canada and the Canadian Confederation Jubilee Medal. His murals adorn three of the country’s most prestigious buildings: the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto and two luxury hotels: the Chateau Laurier in Ottawa and Le Manoir Richelieu in Charlevoix.
In recognition of his interdisciplinary achievements in commercial publishing, literary and scholarly endeavors, and the visual arts, Jefferys was elected a full academician of the Royal Canadian Academy and received an honorary Doctor of Laws from Queen’s University. Jefferys also became an honorary chief of the Brantford Mohawks and was given the name Ga–re–wa–ga-yon.
Jefferys has been praised for his carefully researched and highly evocative visions of our historical landscape, his images that transport the viewer through time and space, offering us a vision of our past that strives for photographic precision. His art today is an important record of the tense history of colonialism, cultural interactions and ethnic tensions that went into the making of modern Canada.
Sources: “The Standing Artist”: CW Jefferys and Historical Illustration in Canada Eric Weichel, Queen’s University; ‘Canadian History Picture Gallery: Illustrations Drawn and Collected by CW Jefferys’; National Gallery of Canada CW Jefferys website; “The Standing Artist”: CW Jefferys and Historical Illustration in Canada Eric Weichel, Queen’s University
Newmarket resident Richard MacLeod, a history hound, has been a local historian for over 40 years. He writes a weekly feature on our town’s history in partnership with NewmarketToday, runs heritage talks and walking tours of local interest, and conducts local oral history interviews.