The Paintings  

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.

"This Man Leighton" by Walter J. Phillips
(May 22, 1936, "Art and Artists", The Winnipeg Tribune.)

"A picture, " 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 last—the Rocky Mountain subjects—predominate. Since he first carne to Canada, Leighton has been obsessed by the grandeur of the peaks.

He deliberately 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, attractive personality.

Watercolor undoubtedly 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 man.

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-making—his 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 work.

F. Hopkinson Smith wrote what is perhaps the best book on watercolor painting published in the U. S. In it he remarked:

"As to 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 master—never; neither do they follow any other brush at home. They do not believe in each other sufficiently to pay the highest form of flattery—imitation."

"The Englishman," 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 example—a 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, Plymouth—a 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 effective—almost 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
Vancouver, 1981.


Selected Bibliography

Phillips, Walter J., "Art and Artists." The Winnipeg Tribune, November, 1929.

Phillips, Walter J., "Art and Artists." The Winnipeg Tribune, October 10, 1931.

Phillips, Walter 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, 1980.

Taped Interviews 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).

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