Jackson’s Wars

A.Y. JACKSON

My current book project has the working title Jackson’s Wars: A.Y. Jackson, the Great War, and the Birth of the Group of Seven. It is under contract with McGill-Queen’s University Press, publisher of Beardmore.

Jackson’s Wars is a story of combat, commemoration, camaraderie, artistic vision, and loss, in which two of the most compelling Canadian topics of the early twentieth century, the Great War and the Group of Seven, converge and intertwine. The story is about bands of brothers, about artists and soldiers (and artists who were soldiers) and their causes, the battles they fought in peace and war. Approaching the renowned artistic collective, the Group of Seven, through the lens of A.Y. Jackson’s experiences as a soldier and war artist, and the war through the lens of an art movement, yields fresh insights into both. The result I hope will be a rich and informative reader experience not otherwise available, and it is set in an Edwardian Canada where class, ethnicity, privilege, and duties to empire are dominant themes.

The Great War remains one of the most controversial and actively debated episodes in Canadian history—alternately decried as a senseless slaughter waged in the name of empire and celebrated as a bloody birthplace of Canada as a nation. Jackson’s Wars aspires to reach beyond typical books about Canada in the Great War, which focus on military strategies and experiences of the battle front, or alternately on its political dimensions such as the conscription crisis. The narrative captures the horrors (at times literally visceral) of that war, but it also draws connections between the battle front and the home front, where men like Jackson had felt overwhelming pressure to volunteer, in the face of a relentless call for fresh recruits to replace the fallen. Through the stories of Jackson and other figures, we see how Toronto and Montreal experienced the war—especially how Montreal, then Canada’s largest and most prosperous city, responded with enthusiasm to the call to arms and reeled from the devastating losses that began to mount from the moment the country’s troops entered combat around Ypres in April 1915.

As the title suggests, more than one war is being fought in this narrative. The Great War may be the most obvious, but when hostilities broke out, A.Y. Jackson was waging another one, on multiple fronts, against art critics, private collectors, and gallery curators over what constituted fine art, and how Canadian artists should contribute to it, be recognized—and above all, be supported. Jackson was struggling to establish himself as a landscape artist and change the conservative tastes of Canadian collectors, especially the moneyed families of Montreal’s Golden Square Mile, who preferred second-rate Dutch works from the seventeenth century and the heavily varnished output of the nineteenth-century Barbizon school of European landscape painters. Jackson envisioned a new “Canadian school” of landscape painting that was more daring, more vigorous in its approach to colour, composition, and form, than Canada’s moneyed families were willing to hang on their walls. The key figures in what would become the Group of 7 had all just found each other when the war interrupted their artistic progress. Jackson was the only one to enlist and serve overseas, as a private in the 60th Battalion raised in Montreal in the summer of 1915. Wounded at Sanctuary Wood in June 1916, Jackson found a new role in the conflict, as an artist in the War Memorials project. Most of the future members of the Group of 7 collective were also recruited as war artists.

Using an array of documentary evidence, Jackson’s Wars explores how one of Canada’s best-known artists became a soldier, a casualty of war, and an artist of war. It recreates Jackson’s formative years as an artist, his experiences of (and response to) war, and the lives of men and women caught up in a shared narrative of tragedy and inspiration.

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Much of Jackson’s war art is in storage as part of the Lord Beaverbrook collection at the Canadian War Museum.

As the war’s end approached, Jackson was consumed by issues of depiction and commemoration. With censorship having severely limited the presence of cameras on battlefields, the war’s depiction was largely left to artists. Jackson and his fellow war artists grappled with how such a terrible conflict ought to be remembered, and if its truths could be captured on canvas. Jackson also confronted how his friend and fellow landscape artist Tom Thomson, who drowned in Algonquin Park in 1917 (the casualty of the war years no one imagined), ought to be eulogized. Finally, Jackson reengaged the issue of how Canada should be represented by its artists, in the aftermath of a conflict that cost so many lives and produced the deep divisions of the conscription crisis. Regardless of how you choose to view the war, Jackson’s Wars shows how it changed the trajectory of art and artistic careers. It was an ordeal at home and overseas that not everyone survived intact, physically and mentally, and those who came through it solidified their ideas of how Canada should appear on canvas.