CANADIAN PRAIRIE WATERCOLOUR LANDSCAPES

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 ALBERTA 

A. C. LEIGHTON, Cathedral Peak, 1927

ALBERTA IS RICH in watercolour painters, especially in the Calgary and Banff areas, due no doubt to the attraction of mountain scenery. Mountain subjects have been close to the heart of watercolour landscape since its beginnings in the 18th Century where it was closely associated with the Grand Tour as well as with a developing interest the sublime. The Rockies were to Canada as the Alps were to the British. There are practical and formal reasons as well as romantic inclinations for painting mountain subjects. The practical one -- to some extent displaced by photography in the 20th century -- was that the materials of watercolour were light and portable. This made them ideal for working out of doors, especially where some trekking was involved. The formal reason had to do with the fact that the experience of mountains is usually affected by atmosphere: ironically, the very massiveness of mountains means that they can be seen in their totality only from a distance where their substance coloured by light and air. These reasons were affected as well by a cultural one, the fact that British oil painting in the latter half of the 19th Century seemed to struggle to convey the substantial mass of mountains -- possibly to impress the viewer with their sublimity -- with results that were all too often heavy-handed.

In the early 20th century the CPR continued its patronage of landscape painting, particularly as a stimulant to tourism to the new national parks. To this end they engaged the young A. C. Leighton to travel to the Rockies in the 1927. He was so impressed that he returned and stayed, becoming the second head of the Alberta College of Art in the early '30s. The mountains also lured Walter Phillips from Winnipeg in 1941 and the Alberta College of Art engaged Illingworth Kerr as head after W.W.II. The presence of Walter Phillips and Leighton in particular -- both English-trained and adept at watercolours -- had a substantial effect upon subsequent watercolour painting in Alberta and to a lesser extent on Saskatchewan.

Kerr was cast very much in the Group of Seven mould, having studied in the late 20s at the Ontario College of Art under some members of the Group as well as C. W. Jefferys. From Jefferys he learned to that he needn't be ashamed of his love of the prairies, but in his latter years he spent much time in the foothills and mountains. In the '70s and '80s, Barbara Ballachey and Ken Christopher painted from nature on a bold scale -- often working of full sheets (22 x 30 inches) of paper. Both artists had strong connections with international modernism, and were close to the spirit of the Emma Lake Workshops of the 1970s. Christopher's watercolours, in particular, have something of the open, seemingly casual arrangements of Reta Cowley, from Saskatoon.

Artists in Edmonton often turned to watercolour only occasionally or on a modest scale. Robert Campbell was an early, English-born amateur of considerable talent. H. G. Glyde painted landscape watercolours from time to time, apparently as a sideline to his interest in figure paintings. After the '60s, artists absorbed influences from by international modernism. Robert Sinclair and Harry Savage in Edmonton painting intimate, stylized landscapes.


TERRY FENTON