Remembering George Broomfield and the Canadian War Artists

By: Dara Vandor

ADOLPHUS GEORGE BROOMFIELD, O.S.A., R.C.A. GERMAN SEARCHLIGHT CONES, RCAF BOMBERS, HALIFAX, 6TH GROUP, YORKSHIRE, ENGLAND, 1943 oil on board signed; signed, titled and dated to the reverse 17.5 ins x 22.5 ins; 44.5 cms x 57.2 cms Provenance: Private Collection, Halifax, NS.

In a serendipitous turn, three paintings by George Broomfield (1906-1992) were consigned to Waddington’s in the fall of this year, prompting us to reflect on the legacy of Canadian War Artists, specifically those in the Second World War when Broomfield was active.

Since the turn of the 20th century, Canada has supported four major government-sponsored artistic initiatives, beginning with the first official war art program, the Canadian War Memorials Fund (1916–19). WWII produced the Canadian War Art Program (1943–46), while two final initiatives, The Canadian Armed Forces Civilian Artists Program (1968–95) and the Canadian Forces Artists Program (2001–present), have sent civilian artists into both active warzones and peacekeeping regions.

Establishing an official program

Though WWII broke out in 1939, it was not until 1943 for Canada to implement an official war art program. Vincent Massey, Canada’s High Commissioner to Great Britain, had observed that London’s National Gallery was exhibiting war art as early as December 1939 and thought Canada should follow suit. Massey made a pitch to Canada’s Department of National Defense (DND), which went nowhere.

The initiative stagnated until Massey joined forces with H.O. McCurry, the then-director of the National Gallery of Canada. Since the outbreak of war, several enlisted artists had begun contacting McCurry, suggesting that they would be of better use as documentarians rather than as soldiers. Inspired by the programs implemented during the First World War, McCurry began passing these requests on to the DND. A rudimentary, unofficial program was cobbled together, and Private E.J. Hughes and Sapper O.N. Fisher were commissioned to document the war effort. They were soon joined by Trooper W. A. Ogilvie and later by Lawren P. Harris. Their roles were formalized in early 1942, and all four men were promoted to the rank of second lieutenant. Despite these efforts, the first three years of the war produced little in the way of artistic records.

ADOLPHUS GEORGE BROOMFIELD, O.S.A., R.C.A. HALIFAX BOMBERS (RCAF) AND J.U.88 FIGHTERS, 1943 oil on board signed; signed, titled and dated on the reverse 17.5 ins x 22.5 ins; 44.5 cms x 57.2 cms Provenance: Private Collection, Halifax, NS
Exhibited: London England War Exhibit, 1944

Massey revisited his initiative late in 1942, remaining convinced of the need for an official Canadian war art program. This time his efforts were not in vain, and the program was greenlit by Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King. The Canadian War Art Program would begin in earnest in 1943. It was an undertaking so ambitious that it would collect and archive letters and notes from members of the armed forces, clippings from news sources, photographs and even accounting documents, all in addition to the official artworks produced—over 5,000 mostly small-scale paintings that examined diverse aspects of the war effort, with an emphasis on men and machines.

Thirty-one officers were hired to serve as war artists, and were divided more or less equally between army, navy and air force. They were sent across the globe, serving in all Western theatres of war, living and working in close proximity to the service personnel who served as their subjects. Many of the artists had been trained in the academic landscape tradition; the Canadian War Museum notes that this equipped many of them poorly for the reality of war.

requirements of the job

The official government brief required these artists to produce accurate images of wartime activities, machinery and location, noting that “after field sketches and notes have been completed, lose no time in securing additional details of topography, uniform, equipment, weapons and vehicles portrayed; and arrange for participants to pose as models.”  Accuracy was emphasized, and quotas specifying size, quantity and subject matter were put into place—this was no casual artistic jaunt. Artworks had to be carefully inspected and sometimes censored by military personnel to ensure that they did not give away military secrets, and were accurate enough to serve as a faithful record.

Field sketches were later developed into pastel or watercolour impressions, which were then reworked into oil paintings. Many of these paintings were completed in London, or upon their return to Canada after the war was over, in studios provided by the military. The finished compositions softened the many detailed sketches that had been made on the front lines, allowing for more creativity, interpretation and nuance. Some of the paintings that were produced were displayed during the war, frequently exhibited behind the front lines for the military personnel whom the artworks depicted.

The program initially neglected both the home front and the women’s war efforts. Molly Lamb (Bobak), the only female artist in the program, was only send abroad after the war in Europe had subsided in 1945, while artists like Pegi Nicol MacLeod were only hired in 1944 to depict women’s efforts at home.

George Broomfield

Broomfield was born and raised in Toronto’s Parkdale area in 1906. At the age of 14, he enrolled in the Ontario College of Art, where he would study under Arthur Lismer. He would also attend the summer art school run by Group of Seven artists at Port Hope, Ontario. There he was taught by Lismer, J.E.H. MacDonald and Frank Carmichael, while also forming connections with A.Y. Jackson and Frank Johnston. After completing his studies, Broomfield would find work as a textile designer.

oil on canvas, laid down on board
signed; signed and titled to the reverse
17.25 ins x 22.5 ins; 43.8 cms x 57.2 cms

When war broke out, Broomfield enlisted to train as an officer for the Royal Canadian Air Force. He would serve for five years, closely associated with No. 143 Wing, Second Tactical Air Force. This would afford him the opportunity to follow a single formation from its preparatory activities in England through to its deployment to southeastern Holland. Broomfield arrived at Juno Beach in Normandy shortly after the D-Day landings in June 1944, and painted his squadron’s advancement to Eindhoven, Holland, as well as their preparation of new airfields.

Though he applied for a role as a war artist, the government was slow to respond. Broomfield would never officially join the ranks as a commissioned war artist, though he received a special dispensation to work on his art in the field. He noted that “I wanted to be accepted. I didn’t want to be looked on by the erks (lower-ranking airmen) as an artsy-crafty long-haired Joe who messed about with paint brushes and didn’t quite belong.” He would donate 35 paintings to the War Art Collection after the war ended.

Broomfield chose to paint scenes of everyday life as well the dramatic spectacle of battle. He is oft-quoted as saying that “the picture of war is a couple of erks eating their lunch in the sun outside a captured German hangar…. It’s an airman standing out in front of a Dutch cottage surrounded by children. It’s a bombed runway with a windmill in the background. When I’m on my own…I can paint as I please, as I see things. You don’t have to be an artist to paint during a war. Things hit you between the eyes and make you paint them.”

Repatriated early 1946, Broomfield returned to Canada to resume his career as a textile designer and chief stylist at Barrymore Carpet Company. At Barrymore, Broomfield would design the large carpets in the Dundurn Castle in Hamilton and the Queen Elizabeth Hotel in Montreal, among other projects. Broomfield would continue to paint the Canadian landscape throughout his life, also producing etchings, engravings and in his later career, fiber art.

About the auction:

Representing diverse interests from coast to coast to coast, our Canadian Arts, Culture and History includes a good collection of Grenfell Industries hooked mats, John A. Macdonald’s mortgage for a farm in Hastings, ON,  a number of works by RCAF WWII artist George Broomfield, a good library of volumes relating to Northwest Passage and Arctic exploration, early photography of Fort William (now Thunder Bay, ON), a Newfoundland passport, a pair of 18th century portrait miniatures of a St. John’s Newfoundland couple, a Métis Assomption sash, and a polarimeter from Frederick Banting’s lab at the University of Toronto. The auction also includes an extensive archive of documents of historical and political interest.

The auction will be available for bidding online from December 5-9, 2021.


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