Lake O'Hara, 1926
Walter J. Phillips first visited Lake O'Hara in 1926, with fellow artists Tom Mclean and Eric Bergman. They were all living in Winnipeg at the time, so the sight of the mountains must have been especially exhilarating. Phillips published an account of this trip in his regular column Art and Artists in The Winnipeg Tribune (August 26, 1926). Later, he revised the article within his intended book on watercolour painting which he called Wet Paint. It was never published.

Canadian landscape painters have penetrated the most remote parts of the Dominion, even to the extreme north, within the arctic circle. Few have been able to resist the lure of the gaunt Rockies; indeed, an army of painters from other lands labours under the same spell.

On my first visit I rested, after a long tramp, at the spot where Sargent set up his easel to paint his famous Lake O'Hara. It was a gorgeous scene; the green lake with pines at its edges, steep walls of rock surrounding it, all in glamorous twilight, while immediately in front, but stupendously high, a great glacier gleamed in warm light. We camped near the further extremity of the lake, beside a noisy stream.

Though many miles from the railway, the spot is easily accessible, and the Canadian Pacific Railway bungalow, set on the lake shore, provides all possible comforts. From the verandah you may see the glacier nearly as described, and from the other side an equally striking view of Cathedral Mountain.


On one occasion the latter scene impressed me most profoundly. It was late in the evening, and the blue peak soared in a sky of citron. The lower tones, representing crevices and depressions, or trees on the lowers slopes, were an intenser blue. Near at hand a forest of spruce, a black silhouette, skirted the shores of the lake which held a jade green image of all. The whole scene was in distinct flat tones, all its details obscured in the fading light.

We had some argument as to the best means to adopt, whether to camp in one spot, to wander, or to submit to hotel meal-hours. We decided to camp, and look forward to an uninterrupted orgy of sketching, carefree, comfortably untidy, paint-slinging furiously from dawn to dewy eve.

  The reality proved very different. We would awaken shivering very, very early, look out on a gray, damp world, and slink quietly back to the comfort of the blankets. When at last we rose, we tried to light a fire in the rain — succeeded — breakfasted by eleven — washed the dishes — assumed our packs — and climbed the nearly perpendicular mountain behind the tent in an effort to achieve a wider outlook above the trees. It was a stiff climb, but nature had placed gooseberry bushes at points where you felt that something to grasp was essential, and there was often water below to soften the impact of a fall. When, after a prodigious effort, we reached the meadow at the foot of the Opabin glacier, it began to snow.

That happened more than once, but we were often up early, in a mood to appreciate beauty of every kind. The sun shone, marmots whistled, rock-rabbits squeaked, bees droned; there was an occasional rumble of rocks falling from the heights, and an ever-present roar of rushing water in which it was easy to imagine voices. The air was heavy with the smell of marigolds. There were delightful views on that plateau without number. Mountain and meadow were at variance, the latter indescribably warm in tone, golden and dappled with flowers, the mountains were invariably cool. Streams, broad and quiet in one place, rushing noisily over a declivity in another —a string of lakes and cascades, and tumbled rocks, and stunted larch that were then yellow, gave infinite interest and variety to the foregrounds. The debris from broken bastions formed screens that trespassed on the edges of the meadow, and above them rose mighty walls of rock. The plateau was some miles long, and was bounded at the northern end by an immense glacier that seemed to flow from a V-shaped break in the mountain range — the Opabin pass.


The Mountain   1926
watercolour on paper
25 x 22.2 cm
Private Collection


Mountains are always changing. One artist may respond to the effect of brilliant sunshine in clear weather; another may see beauty in the vari-hued strata of which the earth's crust is composed, and produce mountain sides resembling a cut of streaky bacon, while a third prefers the soft effects of rain, smoke, or mist, which affords them the opportunity of rendering peaks as easily manipulated silhouettes of blue or gray. We had no choice; we come automatically artists of the third class. We rarely saw the sun, and bacon dominated our diet so completely that we felt we were under no obligation to paint it too.

Sometimes the air cleared of the smoke of forest fires; the mountains seemed appreciably near; the heights of Victoria, which towered above our camp, lost a little of the mystery with which the prevalent haze had invested them. Their colour was still delicate, purer if possible, and the subtle range of tones within their contours was preserved and even amplified. The constant rain that poured upon us suggests it would be most fitting to discourse on the glory of gray in the heights, on diffused opalescent light filtering through clouds, on the subdued harmonies creates by contiguous colours, which under other conditions, would be garish and disturbing. What could be more picturesque than a troop of trail-riders, gaily caparisoned with colours chaps, vivid scarves, and rainbow blankets, all in a sombre setting of gray? But of gray itself we found it difficult to wax enthusiastic — in a tent we were too conscious of its concomitant discomforts, dampness and cold. Even the local bear looked forlorn, and in a mood which, in us, would be designated by the name he bears. The waters alone seemed to retain their boisterous spirits, rushing alongside the camp with a noise like wind through the forest, and pouring persistently from the sky in an anxious effort to leave those frigid heights, and seek the lower level as speedily as may be — a laudable object it seemed to us.

Beauty, pleasure, and the good things of life are intensified, and perhaps only exist, by reason of contrast. When a stray on sunshine appeared our woes diminished, and we recognised a source of warmth more potent physically than the fires of artistic enthusiasm. We would cheerfully take the steep trail again that leads to Lake Oesa, past smaller lakes and entracing falls. It is wiser to stay by the bungalow camps if you want to paint in the mountains, avoiding the chores and the discoverforts of camp, and ensuring as far as possible, the receptive mood, untroubled mind and fresh body that make good painting possible.

From unpublished manuscript, Wet Paint, pp. 93ss