Another article by
Walter J. Phillips on A.C. Leighton provides one with an excellent analysis
of the artist's work and his method. Phillips' insight was special: not
only was he also a dedicated watercolour painter, but he too had chosen
Western Canada as his home.
Leighton" by Walter J. Phillips
(May 22, 1936, "Art and Artists", The Winnipeg
" wrote Delacroix "is nothing but a bridge between the soul
of the artist and that of the spectator." When I pass along the
bridges built by A, C. Leighton I feel convinced that they are ultimate
perfection, particularly when they are built in watercolor and truly
laid upon the toned French paper which he loves. I have the same feeling
when I contemplate the work of Carmichael, or Brigden, or Casson, though
their bridges span a different stream. It is a matter of personality
combined with a finished technique.
The other morning
I spent a splendid hour looking over a large number of watercolours
and some few oils, the work of A.C. Leighton, at Eaton's. The artist
has recently embarked for England, in order to enjoy a much-needed rest.
I fear he had been somewhat prodigal in the expenditure of nervous energy,
not primarily in painting, but in teaching. The collection at Eaton's
is comprehensive and covers practically the whole period of his painting.
Here are English pastorals, village scenes, windmills, hobnobbing Canadian
prairie and mountain views. The lastthe Rocky Mountain subjectspredominate.
Since he first carne to Canada, Leighton has been obsessed by the grandeur
of the peaks.
chose Calgary as his home, and he built a house on the Sarcee Trail
in clear sight of the range. He kept horses for the sole purpose of
transporting his supplies on sketching expeditions.
The amount of work
he has produced is enormous. It continues to fill me with admiration
and, as I have said, with the conviction that it is completely satisfying
and unique. It is unique because it is individual; it reflects a positive,
is the medium that best reflects character in the hands of a master;
It is slight, responsive and speedy, it will express quick thoughts,
momentary effects; it is the medium for impulse rather than meditation;
it is autogenous. But it must be handled with confidence and authority.
There is nothing so dead and depressing as a poorly-wrought aquarelle.
It may seem ambiguous to describe Leighton's work as at once individual
and traditional. But so it is. He follows the pen-and-wash practice
of Paul Sandby, or, even more sedulously, the pure wash method of Peter
de Wint. His products are justly described by the forgotten phrase "watercolour
drawings." Yet there is nothing archaic or derivative about them,
Leighton has made the style his own. His pictures, moreover, reveal
The dignity and repose he finds in a tree, house, or mountain, is a
reflection of that of his own nature; the simplicity and directness
with which he limns his forms is his own honesty, the rich, somewhat
sombre color that goes to embellish them indicates the thoughtful mind.
This is a very rough analysis; an exposition of the full revelation
would be tedious both to read and to write. I must however, insist upon
the perfection of Leighton's skill in the science of picture-makinghis
sound draughtsmanship, his impeccable arrangements, and the quality
of his color. He has long passed the point when consideration, or uncertainty,
or any hesitation, disturbs the vigor of his expression. Manner and
method have become instinctive with him. He is a master of his medium.
The misconception that to be modern, or progressive in art, one must
depart from tradition, or, entirely ignoring it, start again from "scratch",
is prevalent among art students today. Leighton and the Canadian watercolor
painters I named in the first paragraph prove its falsity whenever they
paint, for they all follow the traditional methods of the English watercolor
school. Whether they are cramping their respective styles by needless
limitation is another argument, but one which is also answered by their
F. Hopkinson Smith wrote what is perhaps the best book on watercolor
painting published in the U. S. In it he remarked:
our progenitors, the English watercolor school, while I believe
we are indebted to them for the very existence of the art itself,
I must say that our own men, and art lovers the world over would
have been vastly benefited had these Englishmen allowed themselves
a little more freedom in their methods and not followed so blindly
the traditions of the past.
That we broke away so early, is as much a question of race as of
training. The last idea that enters the heads of our own men is
that they want either to paint or to draw like somebody else. They
all want to paint like themselves, or they do not want to paint
at all. They are so many art sponges. They go abroad, wander about
Grosvenor and the exhibitions, run over to Paris and haunt the Salon
and shops, and so on to Munich and Berlin, picking up a technical
touch here or a new idea of grouping or mass or color scheme there,
and then having thoroughly absorbed it all, return home and use
whatever suits them; but a slavish imitation of any one English,
French or German masternever; neither do they follow any other
brush at home. They do not believe in each other sufficiently to
pay the highest form of flatteryimitation."
he said, "is the hardest man to pull out of a groove." But
before and since this book was written, British watercolorists have
usually prevailed at the Internationals, even at those held m the
U. S., and it is conceded elsewhere that this is their true relative
position. The groove appears to be the best place.
Leighton's latest mountain sketches embody a greater simplicity of
form and color. Mount Ptarmigan, Skoki, is a typical examplea
lovely harmony of pale gray tones contrasting with the dark blue waters
of a lake at the base of the peak. Mount Fossil is similar
in treatment. His skill in creating a fine composition out of unpromising
shapes may be judged by the Boat Builders, Catwater, Plymoutha
triumph of just spacing and the use of the horizontal foreground shadow.
The oil paintings are most interesting The subjects are varied, ranging
from flower-pieces to landscapes. Very beautiful is Milk Shed,
Constance Cove Farm, Victoria, with its ivy-bound tree, all reflected
in a little lake. The flower studies, particularly Peonies,
are as vigorously painted as the watercolors, but lack their charm
of intimacy, as most oils do. This, however, is the prejudiced view
of another Englishman, who glories in the groove.
Many other observations
could be added to those of Walter J. Phillips. Leighton was an outdoors
painter. The great majority of his warercolours were completed on the
spot, whether in the mountains, close to home, or in England. He had to
paint: it was an obsession with him. His students bear witness to the
fact that on sketching trips, he could paint for ten hours.
When he tired of one area and felt a change was necessary, travel would
become imperative. As a rule, there was always a packed suit-case in the
car, in case the Leightons would be away for awhile. Departures could
be sudden. Travelling became a way of life.
Leighton usually required about two hours of preparation time before beginning
a watercolour. The subject would be studied and contemplated. A number
of thumbnail sketches would be done, then a fairly detailed drawing would
be put on the paper. The execution in watercolour would take no longer
than one-half to three-quarters of an hour, although the work done in
the thirties is said to have taken a bit longer.
As often happens with painters on the prairies, the sky becomes very important.
Leighton was no exception. Perhaps emulating Constable, he would paint
a sky every day. The watercolour South Perrot, Dorset bears the
notation on the reverse, "my best sky yet". There were to be
many more. In many respects, several of I.eighton's later watercolours
are really skyscapes, whether painted on the Prairies or Foothills or
in the British Isles.
That Leighton respected English tradition is evident. He even made use
of a "Claude glass", a favourite device used by several British
painters in the nineteenth century. A "Claude glass" is essentially
a piece of glass blackened on one side with candle smoke or another suitable
black substance. Rather than a reflection in an ordinary mirror, this
special glass provides a darker toned reflection, devoid of any chromatic
intensities. The painter can, therefore, concentrate on a composition
based on tonal harmony. Leighton had a large framed glass for use in the
studio, as well as a smaller, portable version for sketching trips. When
working outdoors, he always wore a wide-brimmed hat to prevent bright
light from forcing him to squint, thereby decreasing visual acuity.
In general, the early watercolours have more dramatrc contrasts, as well
as bolder compositions, a reflection, no doubt, of his work as an illustrator.
The English windmills, churches and other architectural subjects which
interested him, offered good vehicles for such boldness. The earlier mountain
paintings emphasize the dramatic and awesome aspects of nature. The later
works, however, rely less on these stark contrasts and far more on gentle
harmonies: they are more concerned with light. As a rule, Leighton's composition
is classical in its approach. The principal forms or elements generally
fall on the lines which divide the rectangular space into thirds. The
convention was effectivealmost a revised version of the Golden Mean.
Leighton painted with relatively small brushes, on French paper, such
as Fidelis, and on toned papers such as David Cox. These
toned papers were often favoured for better (or easier) tonal unity. The
oils were approached with a similar concern for overall tonal harmony.
Most of these were done in the studio and based on outdoor sketches. Leighton
often painted still-lifes of arrangements prepared by Mrs. Lcighton. Flowers
had to be bought at a Chinese grocery since those from florists were too
perfect and lacked interest.
Although he studied
the work of other English watercolour painters, especially in books, he
was very much his own man, an individualist who followed his own way,
quite indifferent in his own work to contemporary trends.
Such a state of affairs was not uncommon in Western Canada during this
century. Painters, many British-born and trained worked in isolation from
each other. Walter J. Phillips, reviewing an exhibition of art from across
the conntry in The Winnipeg Tribune, could declare m the early
thirties that the artistic west was devoted to watercolour. Apart from
Phillips himself, who was the leading watercolouist in Manitoba, he pointed
to the presence of aritsts such as Charles John Collings and Thomas Fripp
m British Columbia, and to A.C. Leighton and Frederick G. Cross in Alberta.
After the topographers who had recorded the western landscape in watercolours,
the first professional artists to use the meduun were those who came from
Ontario on the Canadian Pacific Railway. The first "resident"
artists were, for the most part, well trained and inclined to use the
British watercolour tradition of landscape painting. These artists responded
to the raw Western landscape in a very direct way, as direct as the medium
which they preferred. Whereas Colhngs worked in his studio on his personal,
delicate watercolonrs of colour-saturated washes, Fripp was far more literal
and delighted in mists and atmosphere. Phillip, wandered all across Western
Canada after 1926, sketching as he went, later reworking his sketches
into larger warercolours or finely executed colour woodcuts. Leighton's
approach was very much his own. Unlike most of the other painters, he
insisted on finishing his watercolours on the spot, outdoors, occasionally
seeking shelter in a car, or painting the view outside his studio window.
While all this was going on, the art scene in Eastern Canada was undergoing
its own changes. The Group of Seven had come and gone by 1933, but its
influence remained. Other artists were struggling to create their own
style, but the institutions were dominated by the nationalistic mode of
painting, so strongly influenced by commercial design. Relatively few
watercolour painters made their presence felt, with the exception of Franklin
Carmichael and A.J. Casson. These two artists, together with Fred Brigden,
created the Canadian Society of Painters in Watercolour, and this allowed
many other watercolourists to exhibit their work m Canada and abroad.
Western members included Walter J. Phillips, Fred G. Cross and A.C. Leighton.
Since the 1950s, a new generation of western Canadian artists, more inclined
to the French or American modes of painting, which stressed colour and
painting for painting's own sake, has been even less inclined to use watercolour.
Whereas these painters have favoured a broad range of colour, watercolour
painting in the British tradition is, however, essentially tonal m its
approach, according to the medium's requirement to work from light to
dark. As the French and American modes of painting spread in Eastern Canada,
the Western artists, who were still working with watercolours, were hardly
represented in the so-called national society exhibitions in Toronto,
Montreal and Ottawa. Furthermore, transport costs made exhibition there
expensive. In a country that attempted unification by a railroad, it is
ironic to see the railroad's freight rates as such a divisive factor.
New attitudes towards warercolour painting have replaced the old, but
the artistic alienation of the watercolour painter still exists.
The inclination of Eastern artists to form groups, societies and movements
is, in any case, far more convenient for students, reviewers and historians
of art who prefer a context for their discussions and comparisons. Because
such groups did not form in the West, the Western landscape remains an
enigma. The notion that the landscape of the Pre-Cambrian Shield as found
in Algonquin Park, Georgian Bay, Lake Superior or the Laurentian Mountains,
is somehow more typically Canadian than Prairies, the Rockies, and the
West Coast, prevails even today. The groups and societies were the result
of the exchange of ideas and interaction of artists living in close proximity.
Western artists were, however, more isolated from each other and from
other artists elsewhere in the country. Their works were inevitably stamped
with great individuality, and this makes them very interesting, but these
collected mdividualities do not create anything approaching a cohesive
landscape tradition in Western Canada. Yet the landscape has always dominated
Western Canadian painting, much as it dominates everything else. Many
contemporary painters today are landscapists. Abstract painters are affected
by the landscape in a peculiar way. Its characteristic broadness or vastness
influences the scale of their work. The ultimate colour field is the quarter
section seen from the ground or from the air.
Despite his constant movement back and forth between Western Canada and
Britain, the country of tradition, Leighton remained faithful to his individual
style of painting. Having painted himself out of his earlier illustrational
concerns, his work was informed by a far greater concern for light and
its source: the sky. In this way, his kinship with Constable's concerns
a century earlier are obvious. But Constable painted the skies of Suffolk
and Wiltshire. Leighton's skies were those of Sussex, by the sea, and
these are every bit as vast and as open as those seen looking from Ballihamish.
The fact that, somehow, he always returned to Alberta, to its prairie,
foothills and mountains, needs no better explanation than the later paintings
he did, where open skies, pervasive light translated into cool tones of
blues and greys over a dry green earth, are among the best interpretations
that landscape ever received.
Roger H. Boulet
J., "Art and Artists." The Winnipeg Tribune, November,
J., "Art and Artists." The Winnipeg Tribune, October
J., "This Man Leighton" ("Art and Artists"), The
Winnipeg Tribune, May 22, 1936.
Render, Lorne E.,
AC. Leighton, Glenbow-Alberta Institute, Calgary, 1971.
Render, Lome E.,
The Mountains and the Sky, GlenbowAlberta Institute, McClelland
and Stewart West, Calgary, 1974.
Wilkin, Karen, Painting
in Alberta: An Historical Survey, The Edmonton Art Gallery. Edmonton,
on the Life and Work of A.C. Letghton conducted by Mr. Peter jekill, with
Mrs. Barbara Leighton and with Mr. Bernard Middleton, 1970, in the collection
of The Archives of the Canadian Rockies, Accn. 1867, NT 93-1 (1-10).