The Group of Seven’s Spirit River Connection

The Group of Seven (1919 – 1932) was and is the most famous circle of pioneering Canadian artists.  Franklin Carmichael, Lawren Harris, Arthur Lismer, J.E.H. MacDonald, A.Y. Jackson, Frank Johnston and Frederick Varley were landscape painters – interested in capturing the wild beauty of our young nation.  Yet, for A.Y. Jackson at least, there was a brief foray into the art of portraiture; an experience that, from the midst of World War I, connected him to a peaceful little town in Alberta’s north.  The town was Spirit River and the subject of the portrait one of our most honoured citizens.

It had been decided that Canada’s achievements in war should be recorded in a series of pictures.  Each holder of the Victoria Cross was to have a portrait painted by a notable British artist.  With the support of Lord Beaverbrook, it was suggested that Canadian artists might also be appropriate.  A.Y. Jackson was summoned to the Canadian War Records Office in August of 1917.

By then Jackson had seen too much of war.  He was enlisted in the 60th Canadian Battalion, wounded at the Battle of Sanctuary Wood, and sent to hospital for 14 months.   Facing reassignment, probably to the British offensive in Flanders but in any case back to the trenches, he was also mourning the mysterious death of his great friend and fellow artist Tom Thompson.  His summons to the War Records project brought reprieve from the battlefield, a promotion, and the chance to soothe a troubled mind through his artwork.

It was an opportunity not to be missed, even when his first assignment turned out to be a portrait.  Jackson felt that his previous experience with portraiture, which amounted to one portrait of a headmaster and one of his aunt’s dog, left him ill qualified for such a serious task as painting winners of the Victoria Cross.  However, since turning down the opportunity might mean return to the nightmare trenches, Jackson decided to blunder through the job.

Luckily, easygoing Private John Chipman Kerr was a patient subject as well as an interesting one.  The following passage is from Defiant Spirits: The Modernist Revolution of the Group of Seven by Ross King:

If painting Corporal Kerr held little appeal to a landscapist like Jackson, the young soldier’s story was at least a remarkable one.  Jackson jocularly called him “the boy who took 62 Huns hisself”.  A former lumberjack in Kootenay and and homesteader in Spirit River, Alberta, Kerr had trekked fifty miles to Edmonton in the middle of winter in order to enlist.  During the Battle of the Somme in September 1916, in a mind-boggling feat of toughness and daring, he single-handedly seized sixty-two prisoners at Courcelette, having penetrated enemy lines and assaulted the entrenched Germans with grenades and a rifle before rounding them up in their dug-out.  He told Jackson that if he had also been armed with a bottle of rum “he could have induced a whole battalion to come over”.

Jackson drew and erased Kerr’s head several times before daring to put brush to canvas.  From A. Y. Jackson: The Life of a Landscape Painter by Wayne Larsen comes the following account of the making of the painting:

The portrait progressed slowly.  As a confirmed landscape artist, it had been years since Jackson had made any serious attempt to paint the figure.  He was repeatedly forced to scrape down the canvas and start again – much to the amusement of his sitter, who was just grateful for the ten-day leave he had been granted to sit for the portrait.  Between Kerr’s repeated suggestions that they forget the day’s work altogether and visit some local pubs, Jackson struggled through the assignment and finally managed to capture a passable likeness – although it has been pointed out that he left Kerr’s legs looking like a pair of wooden matchsticks.  Though still officially a private when he began the portrait, Jackson received his promotion and new uniform the day before his final appointment with Kerr, who was amused to have had his portrait begun by a private and finished by a lieutenant. 

Most regrettably, A.Y. Jackson’s portrait of John Chipman Kerr seems not to have made it to the internet.  If anyone can direct us to an image, the tip would be greatly appreciated.

Jackson went on to paint more heroes of the first World War, as well as recording in paint scenes of great destruction and loss.  He returned to Canada, co-founded the Group of Seven and returned to landscape painting.  He died in 1974.

Kerr returned to Spirit River in 1918 with his British bride.  They homesteaded here for a while, turned to the oil fields, then returned to Spirit River.  During World War II Kerr joined the Royal Canadian Air Force.  He was posted to B.C., where he stayed once retired.  He died in 1963.  You can find more about J. C. Kerr here.

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This entry was posted in Artists, Featured People, history, Our Veterans and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Group of Seven’s Spirit River Connection

  1. Thanks for yet another little anecdote to open our minds to our rich history. Very interesting.

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