Bedford was once home to one of Canada’s greatest landscape painters. And his time in our region shaped his later work.
Arthur Lismer lived on Cliff Street near the Anglican Church on Bedford Highway from 1916 to 1919. He later became a member of the Group of Seven, all Canadian landscape painters from 1920 to 1933, including A.Y. Jackson.
Lismer, who was born in England, arrived in Halifax in 1916 from Toronto to become president at the city’s Victoria School of Art and Design, which is now NSCAD University.
He immediately discovered the school was located in a rundown building on Prince and Argyle streets. No doubt, he also must have been shocked to learn that the disreputable school only had 12 students.
Lismer was able to convince the school’s uninterested directors they were wrong when they believed art appreciation was only something rich people could enjoy.
His philosophy was that the study of art appreciation is absolutely necessary because it improves the quality of life for all of us.
He soon began to arrange scholarships for young talented artists. He visited high schools searching for potential students and began inviting school children to come to the school on Saturdays to discover the fascinating attributes of the exciting art world.
He also wrote to the National Gallery in Ottawa asking if his school could borrow some of its priceless collection. Lismer received his request and for a year, Haligonians were treated to a wonderful collection that included superb Canadian art.
This exhibit generated so much enthusiasm, Lismer next approached the Art Gallery of Ontario to borrow a wide selection of its paintings.
Lismer was also living in Bedford during Halifax’s biggest disaster. He and his family were in their home on Cliff Street when the Halifax Explosion tore apart many areas of the city.
The day is detailed in an essay written by Gemey Kelly, now the curator of the Owens Art Gallery in Sackville, N.B., for an exhibition at the Dalhousie University Art Gallery. It is entitled, “The Group of Seven and the Halifax Harbour Explosion. Focus on Arthur Lismer.”
“Lismer was at home in Bedford about to sit down to breakfast with his wife, Esther, and daughter, Marjorie, when the explosion occurred. Soot from the stove began quietly to drift down upon the white tablecloth, and the sound of the explosion followed almost immediately:
[Marjorie describes the event] ‘My father sent mother and me and the dog outside, thinking the trouble might be with the furnace in the basement. As he went down the cellar steps my mother called to him to say that whatever the trouble was it was near the city. Looking down the Basin to Halifax we could see a column of thick black smoke rising in the air.’
Lismer’s home was relatively undamaged, but when he reached his art school, the inside of the building was in a chaotic state. Windows were shattered and sections of the property were smashed and broken. The interior of the gallery space upstairs suffered much of damage.
The scene devastated Lismer, but he declared that he realized this awful situation couldn’t compare to what he was witnessing “having my school full of coffins.”
The horror of the tragedy was captured in a headline “When War Came to Halifax.” It appeared in the December issue of the Canadian Courier and included on-the-spot sketches and drawings Lismer had made of the destruction
Lismer also painted murals on the walls of what was once my favourite restaurant in Halifax, the Green Lantern on Barrington Street.
I was delighted to learn that he had spent one summer in Halifax creating exquisite paintings for its walls. The goal of the unusual project was to capture Nova Scotia’s diverse and often beautiful landscapes.
They included flourishing farming countryside, a secluded but very picturesque fishing village, a view of the harbour with troop ships and tugs floating on its expansive and temperamental dimensions, and a breathtaking view of the ocean, perhaps painted from the shores that boldly encircle it.
I now wonder what happened to them when the Green Lantern closed its doors in the 1960s.
The shipping and naval activity of the First World War inspired Lismer. He was obviously captivated, and no wonder, by the spectacularly painted dazzle of the camouflaged ships that often anchored here.
At first, his desire to capture such dramatic surroundings subjected him to a lot of harassment. He was arrested.
Fortunately for him, his striking work came to the attention of Lord Beaverbrook, who arranged for him to be commissioned as an official war artist.
Subsequently, his best-known works from the war years depicted what he observed and learned about in Halifax, including mine sweeping, convoying, patrolling, and harbour defence.
Lismer’s activities in Halifax didn’t stop when, in 1919, he decided to move back to Toronto. He continued on what was known as the War Records, a project he been commissioned to fulfill.
By July of that year, he was still gathering material at the harbour fortifications for a new lithograph. He also continued to work on the paintings over the summer, and it was not until the fall that he presented his final inventory to the War Records Office: the three canvases, Convoy in Bedford Basin; Minesweepers, Halifax; The Olympic with Returned Soldiers, plus a set of 16 lithographs.
Some of these paintings are now at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa. But, he was a prolific artist and has left Canada with a legacy of many paintings that are virtually adorned with his astonishing magical brush strokes. These works now occupy privileged locations in private collections, art galleries, and museums across Canada.
This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.