In March of 1990, at the invitation of Lakehead University, I gave an illustrated talk on the subject of Walter J. Phillips and the Lake of the Woods. When I was contacted by Sophie Lavoie, Curator of the Muse: Douglas Family Art Centre, informing me of the exhibition W.J. Phillips: At the Lake at the McMichael Canadian Collection, Kleinburg, Ontario, from 15 February to 10 May 2020. I recalled the lecture from three decades ago, and thought I could recast my old notes into a new blog entry.
The Nicki and Bryce Douglas Gift to the city of Kelowna consists of about 65 works by Walter J. Phillips, centred on the Lake of the Woods area. It celebrates the idea of ‘summers at the lake,’ something dear to the Douglas family, as it had been to the Phillips family several decades previously. Phillips found much inspiration at ‘the lake’ with his own family, and fortunately, he recorded his thoughts in miscellaneous texts, both published and unpublished.
This essay is about Walter J. Phillips and the Northern landscape, more specifically that of the Lake of the Woods. The lake straddles the Ontario-Manitoba border, at their southern-most borders, the southwest in Ontario and the southeast in Manitoba. If you drive through northern Ontario going west, you come to the Lake of the Woods after days of lakes, rocks and pines. The Lake of the Woods marks the border between the Canadian Shield country and the great plains to the West. Coming from the west, you come to the lake after countless miles of flat open prairie. The transition is rather abrupt. All of a sudden, the landscape is dotted with coniferous trees, rocks and lakes of varying sizes. Lake of the Woods is one of the larger lakes, and extends southwards into Minnesota. Most of the ‘cottage country’ seems to be centred around Kenora, on the northern edge of the lake. In fact, the name Kenora is an amalgamation of Keewatin, Norman and Rat Portage, the latter being the original name of the place, something to remember as we look at the titles of some of Phillips’ works, especially Keewatin and Norman.
Early years; Immigration to Canada
Great Britain was the birthplace of some of the greatest Canadian artists, including Fred Varley, Arthur Lismer, and J.E.H. MacDonald, to name a few of Phillips’ contemporaries, who would become members of the Group of Seven. Many came to Canada and were to produce a very different kind of art than that of the Group of Seven. One of these was Walter Joseph Phillips.
He was born at Barton-on-Humber on October 25, 1884. As his father was an itinerant Wesleyan Methodist minister, the family moved about a great deal. He did take some evening art classes relatively early on, and eventually attended more professional art classes at the Municipal College of Art in Birmingham, while going to a Boarding school near Birmingham for his regular education. Needless to say, his father was opposed to a career as an artist which, for a Wesleyan Methodist, meant certain damnation. It is perhaps to get away from such an oppressive atmosphere that, in about 1902, Walter J. Phillips went to South Africa at the age of 18. There he worked at various odd jobs, hoping to raise enough money to study art in Paris.
He returned to England five years later in 1907, not having made much money, and so he set out to work as a commercial artist, first in Manchester, and then moving on to London. It was in London that he met another artist (Ernest S. Carlos) with whom he was to go on a number of sketching trips in the south of England. Perhaps with Carlos’ assistance, he obtained the position of Art Master at Bishop’s School in Salisbury in 1908. Two years later he married one of his students, Gladys Pitcher. In 1911, he held his first one man exhibition at the school where he worked. His artistic progress seems to have been constant and his sales were relatively good. In 1912, one of his watercolours, The Pier, Newlyn, was exhibited at the Royal Academy in London.
By 1913, he had decided to emigrate to Canada. He had not been able to convince Gladys to go back to South Africa. He had apparently told her too many stories about life with snakes. They decided on Winnipeg for “no particular reason”, although they had relatives in Toronto and in Vancouver, and thought that Winnipeg would be far enough away from both.
They sailed from Liverpool with their infant son John on the SS Franconia, arriving in Portland, Maine, then taking the train to Montreal, and another train to Winnipeg, where they arrived on June 8, 1913. Gladys was four months pregnant with their next child Margaret. After various rooms and apartments during their first year in Winnipeg, Phillips purchased a home at # 32 Bannerman Avenue in north Winnipeg. From that time, Phillips taught various subjects at St. John’s Technical School, a position he kept until 1924.
In 1914, the Phillips family spent their first summer holiday at Lake of the Woods, renting a room at Norman. He would return to the Lake of the Woods to sketch at different times of the year, such as at Easter break. But the family did not really begin to vacation there regularly until 1920, after the First World War.
In Winnipeg, one of the first artists Walter met was Cyril Barraud, an English-born etcher and watercolour painter who lived on the second floor of a house in Norwood across the Red River from Winnipeg. Barraud had also arrived in Canada in 1913. The two artists held a joint exhibition of their work at the Richardson Brothers Gallery on Donald Street in October of 1914. Phillips exhibited many of his new Lake of the Woods subjects along with earlier work he had brought with him from England.
First Etchings in 1915
The friendship with Barraud resulted in Phillips’ first attempts at etching. Barraud was an example to Phillips since he managed to earn a living from the sales of his work, as well as from a teaching position at the newly established Winnipeg School of Art. Phillips learned the technique from Barraud in the fall and winter of 1914, and produced his first nine etchings in 1915. This was the year Barraud left Winnipeg to join the Canadian Expeditionary Force, and Phillips bought Barraud’s etching press, tools and papers. The first nine etchings were followed by seven in 1916 and twelve in 1917. Of course, he continued to work in watercolour as well.
Many of Phillips’ etchings were of Lake of the Woods subjects, sketched during various excursions to the Kenora region.
Phillips sold his first etchings “literally through the Richardson’s”, as he said, and this is how he told the story:
They framed a few of my etchings and put them in the window for the populace to see. The people did not react, at least in the way we hoped. However, one day a lady was having some difficulty with her new car and finally backed right into the Richardson’s window in which my prints were displayed. These became a sorry mess once the plate glass crashed and shattered. The lady’s husband made no bones about it, and paid for all the damage. Thus, fortuitously, I acquired my first patron. (1)
A more bona fide patron was the National Gallery of Canada whose trustees purchased two etchings in 1916.
But Walter’s etchings did not satisfy him for long:
My thoughts were in colour; consequently, I had little sympathy with the convention of line as a means of expression: I came to abominate the cold unresponsive nature of metal, the smell of acid and oil, and the dirtiness of printing inks. (2)
I made a score of etchings before I discovered my comparative antipathy to metal and my atavistic zeal for wood-working, and I tried my hand at aquatint and lithography. (3)
Phillips made about thirty etchings in all before turning his attention to the colour woodcut. He was probably experimenting with colour woodcuts late in 1916 or early in 1917. As he related:
I had no guide whatever (remember–Winnipeg was hardly an art centre) excepting a very brief article in The Studio written by Allen Seaby which I read after struggling for months. I have a stubborn streak, however, and I determined to find out all about it, with or without help. I was beset by difficulties from the start, chiefly with regard to paper. I did not know there is no good substitutes for Japanese papers. Cutting the blocks was simple enough, but registering the blocks puzzled me for awhile. (4)
Apart from difficulties in registration, the proper method of sizing paper eluded him completely. Nevertheless, after one aborted attempt, and some prints of experimentation, Phillips produced his first original woodcut in 1917, entitled Winter, printed in an edition of 50.
From this time on, Phillips worked principally in the medium of the colour woodcut, besides that of watercolour. His first attempts at the woodcut could be described as being a little crude, but he quickly improved. He soon learned to dispose of the heavy outline of the key block, in favour of overlapped and gradated tones, which were very much like watercolour. Small wonder that Phillips found the medium so sympathetic. The inks were water-based and didn’t smell.
But he did not abandon the etching medium until about 1919, and we find some subjects appearing in both media, based on subjects first sketched in the area of Lake of the Woods.
- W.J. Phillips, “Pictures on the Wall”, undated and unpublished manuscript, p. 7.
- W. J. Phillips, “The Technique of the Color Wood-Cut”, (New York: Brown-Robertson Co. Inc.) 1926, p. 13.
- W.J. Phillips, “Pictures on the Wall”, p. 5.
- W.J. Phillips, “Pictures on the Wall”, p. 8-9.