Halifax Harbour 1918: Harold Gilman and Arthur Lismer

Arthur Lismer, Mine Sweepers at Sea, 1917. Oil on board, 30.4 x 40.7 cm. Purchase, 1974

Halifax was founded by the British as a naval base, capitalizing on the natural advantages of the Great Harbour, advantages known by the Mi’kmaq from time immemorial. K’jipuktuk has always been a place for working on the seas, a centre for trading and a gathering place for diverse peoples.

Once dubbed “Warden of the North,” Halifax has also long played a central role in the geopolitical fate of North America and the world. From the heights of Citadel Hill, to the islands and shores of the harbour, military installations, active and historical, remain evidence of Halifax’s role in the martial history of Canada and the world.

While shaped by numerous wars, perhaps none has the impact of the First World War.

“More than any other city perhaps in the Dominion, Halifax is of vital interest as a war city and there is a tremendous amount of activity that I’d like to record: the departure and arrival of troopships, convoys, hospital ships… Camouflaged men-of-war of different nationalities,” Lismer wrote to Eric Brown, director of the National Gallery of Canada, in 1918. “It’s extremely interesting and graphic and no one is painting it.”

Lismer sought Brown’s help in getting permission to document the bustling wartime activity in Halifax Harbour, leading to his appointment as an official war artist. Lismer had been living in Halifax since 1916 as the Principal of the Victoria School of Art, later the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, and he was two years away from being a founding member of the Group of Seven.

Lismer wasn’t alone in thinking that Halifax was of “vital interest.” Also in 1918, the war records commission, founded by expatriate Maritimer Max Aitken, later Lord Beaverbrook, felt that the city’s war record deserved commemoration and dispatched Harold Gilman, a noted British painter, to Halifax to do the preliminary work for a commissioned painting of Halifax Harbour.

The year before, Halifax Harbour had been the site of the largest manmade explosion in human history, a tragedy that killed almost 2,000 people and injured thousands more. Halifax’s North End, parts of Dartmouth, and the Mi’kmaw community of Kepe’kek (Turtle Grove in Tufts Cove) were all but levelled.

A year later, the harbour once again bustled. It was that activity that Lismer and Gilman were to record. On view now at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, is Halifax Harbour 1918, a collaboration between AGNS and the National Gallery of Canada, originally mounted in Ottawa to commemorate the centennial of the end of the First World War.

The exhibition features Gilman’s monumental painting “Halifax Harbour” (1918) plus numerous paintings and drawings he completed in Halifax as studies for this work.

The exhibiting also includes numerous works by Arthur Lismer: paintings, sketches, and other drawings show the extent of his efforts to record the activity in and around Halifax Harbour.

Several of the works are familiar to regular gallery-goers, as they are borrowed from local collections, but there are also works from the NGC, Canadian War Museum, and Art Gallery of Ontario, among others, that add context to the more familiar works such as Dalhousie Art Gallery’s masterpiece, Lismer’s “Halifax Harbour, Time of War.”

The Gilman painting is the stand-out, an immense work (with the frame it is almost 7 x 12 feet) with a commanding presence and striking technique.

Gilman dies in the Spanish influenza epidemic that swept the world in 1919, and this was his last major work. Looking at the work one can only imagine where the artist was heading, as there are strikingly modern aspects of this panoramic view of the harbour. This is a fascinating exhibition that highlights an important part of Halifax’s past, a reminder of this city’s central role in the history of the 20th century.

This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.

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