Jackson’s Wars: A.Y. Jackson, the Birth of the Group of Seven, and the Great War

My current book project is on the early life and career of Canadian landscape artist A.Y. Jackson, including his experiences as a soldier and war artist and the formation of the circle of artists that led to the Group of Seven. It is under contract with McGill-Queen’s University Press, publisher of Beardmore. It will be published in May 2022.

Read the work-in-progress excerpt: Losing Tom

This is a story about an artist’s coming of age, of Jackson’s progress from art student to struggling professional. It is also 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. It 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. The result I hope will be a rich and informative reader experience not otherwise available, and it is set in a Canada where class, ethnicity, privilege, and duties to empire are dominant themes.

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

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. This project 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.

More than one war is being fought in this narrative. The Great War may be the most obvious, but in the years before hostilities broke out, A.Y. Jackson was waging another one, on multiple fronts, against art critics, private collectors, fellow artists, 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 (often second-rate examples of) the nineteenth-century Barbizon and Hague schools of European landscape painters. Probing the foundational years of Jackson’s career with unprecedented detail, including his education in Chicago and Paris and the connections he forged with international artists in Europe, this book details how 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 Seven 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 Seven collective were also recruited as war artists.

This project employs an array of illuminating documentary evidence, some of it never applied to treatments of Jackson’s life, the formation of the Group of Seven, and the Canadian war art program. It explores how one of Canada’s best-known artists became a working artist, then a soldier, a casualty of war, an artist of war, and a founding figure in the Group of Seven. 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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