The Canadian War Memorials Fund

Backgrounder

The Canadian War Memorials Fund was a charity initiated by Max Aitken (subsequently Lord Beaverbrook) in November 1916. It was Canada’s first war art program and established the ongoing tradition of using artists to depict Canada at war. The Fund was an outgrowth of the Canadian War Records Office (CWRO), an organ of the Canadian government founded in February 1916 and directed by Beaverbrook to document the conflict from a Canadian perspective in film, photography, and print. The material he collected for the CWRO included official daily reports, maps, photographs, and war diaries among other types of documents.

 

Beaverbrook’s new project of commissioning and collecting original works of war art was prompted in part by the paucity of official war photographs, especially after the Second Battle of Ypres and the battles of Festubert, St. Eloi, and Givenchy, which went largely unrecorded, at least visually. Post-battle paintings that reconstructed the events were criticized for lacking conviction. Worse, fake photographs and films purporting to depict elements of the battles began to be produced. Beaverbrook also believed that photographs had a maximum lifespan of 25 years. Only paintings, he believed, would survive long enough to convey a message about Canadian activity during the First World War to posterity.

 

Although Beaverbrook had formidable obstacles to overcome in trying to provide access to the front for artists and reporters, he eventually succeeded in moving artists into the theatre of war. The war artists received military commissions and, as employees of the Canadian War Memorials Fund, compensation for materials, studio space, and their completed works. In general, Beaverbrook and his partner, the art critic P.G. Konody, commissioned oversize works in the tradition of historic battle paintings, with some smaller, more documentary works. Beaverbrook and Konody emphasized fieldwork and insisted that artists spend time on the battlefield making sketches that could later be transformed into canvases. Nearly 1,000 paintings, photographs, drawings and films by over 100 artists, one-third of them Canadian, were commissioned. The Fund thus contributed to the artistic development of a number of important Canadian artists by providing them with salaries, commissions, supplies and media attention at a time when art production was little valued. The Fund paved the way for the growth of a young Canadian art scene by bringing together artists, curators, archivists, patrons, and art institutions.

 

The collection of the Canadian War Memorials Fund was exhibited in London just after the war, as well as in the 1920s and 1930s, usually to warm public and critical acclaim. They were subsequently placed with the National Gallery of Canada in 1921. In 1971, most of the collection was transferred to the Canadian War Museum, where it remains. The collection illustrates, commemorates, and illuminates the Canadian experience of the First World War through the expression of Canadian artists.

 

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