L’Encyclopédie de l’histoire du Québec / The Quebec History Encyclopedia
Age Cannot Wither Nor Custom Stale
Horatio Walker, One of Canada's Outstanding Painters is Still
Young in All But Years
[This article was written in 1934; for the exact reference, see the end of the document.]
IT was about three o'clock of a bright Sunday afternoon that I took the ferry to Ste. Petronille, Isle of Orleans, the home of Horatio Walker, dean of Canadian painters, widely renowned, yet better known perhaps amongst collectors and dealers of the United States than in his native Canada. The sail down the St. Lawrence from Quebec by ferry was a delightful one.
In the steadily receding distance one could obtain a good view of the ramparts of Quebec, with the clustering old houses and church of Notre Dame des Victoires grouped picturesquely and compactly at the foot of the cliffs.
On arrival, a five-minute spin by taxicab through a twisting, turning, tree-lined road brought me to my destination. I unlatched the garden gate. A winding path of field stone bordered by flowering peonies and iris, led me to the door of the house, a rambling, low-lying structure built in roomy bungalow fashion, I pressed the bell button. There was a sound as of a chair being pushed back. The door opened, and through the outer protecting screen came the brisk, hearty tones of a masculine voice in salutation. In the shade of the garden summer house we chatted for a while.
"May I ask, Mr. Walker," I said, as I admired the view of the river and distant shore, "what brought you, Ontario-born, to the Isle of Orleans to work and live?"
"Well, I liked the place the first time I saw it. Fifty years ago, I came here on a sketching trip, landing first at St. Laurent and then here.
And what is, more I have lived in the same house ever since. It was originally owned by a habitant. According to French law, he couldn't sell until his sons came of age. So he rented it to me. Meanwhile - of course this was some years later - I saw my lawyer and instructed him if the property ever came on the market to let me know at once wherever I might be. It happened that when I was in the Old Country one time a cablegram came saying that if I wanted the place I'd better hurry home. I got back in four days, closed the deal and here I am.
"I remember," he continued in a reminiscent vein, "my first order. I was a lad of about fifteen, living at home at Listowel. The Orangemen of the town wanted a banner and they came to me. Somebody I suppose had told them I dabbled in paints a bit, and the result was I got my first commission." He smiled broadly as he raised his head, gazed out at the garden, and no doubt thought of the contrasts which fifty years had brought.
"How did you get the materials for your banner?"
"Oh, I just got a piece of silk of the right proportions, sized it, roughed out my designs and went ahead and painted. It was quite the conventional subject. I recall it had four long tassels commemorating the four Orange victories - Aughrim, Derry , Inniskilling and Boyne. One side bore a picture of King William on a white horse with arm outstretched leading his troops into action, while the reverse side showed an open Bible with crossed swords. It was not very original, but the Orangemen were proud of it, and they paid me twenty dollars. Not all at once; I got it in four instalments.
"Our neighbors were kind. One in particular. At a time when any youngster who seriously aspired to make a living at painting was regarded as touched, or as they called it, soft in the head, he stuck up for me, fought my battles against the sneering or contemptuous; and on one occasion did physical combat for me as one entitled to some consideration as an artist. He did more; he sat for my first portrait, and later exhibited it quite proudly in one of the drugstores in town, where it attracted the admiring attention of the townspeople, who began to think I might amount to something after all. Not that they were wildly enthusiastic. You can't make rural folk act that way. They live too close to realities. But from then on I met with more outspoken encouragement."
"What became of the portrait?"
"I wish I knew. My friend died some years later. His widow moved to Toronto, and so far as I know took the portrait with her. She wrote to me a short while ago. I shall have to write and ask her about the old painting, if I can find her letter."
"Why," I asked in a momentary pause, "have so few Canadian artists developed a distinct style in portraiture?"
"Because of a slavish obedience to academic traditions, for the most part. They are afraid to be themselves, to follow their own bent. Anyone can copy, imitate or repeat. It takes an unusual man to strike out for himself, to devise new ways of doing things."
I dropped that subject for one that I thought would interest him more,
"What is your opinion of modernism in art? Has it made any worthwhile contribution to Canadian painting?"
Mr. Walker reflected for a moment. "No," musingly. "I can't say that it has. At any rate its influence is not perceptible. It is just a passing phase," I should say.
"Would you apply such stricture to Matisse, Picasso and Cezanne of the new school?"
"Cezanne I rather like. He seems to have got somewhere. His work is lucid, sincere, intelligent. Of the rest," with a characteristic throwing out of the hands, "I'm not so sure. I suppose they have their place, but I can't say much for it. Personally, I enjoyed a meeting I had with Matisse in Pittsburg, where he and Augustus John and myself had pictures on view. We afterwards had dinner together."
"To what extent do you consider Continental art is influencing painters on this side?"
"Not as much as formerly. Not nearly as much I should say. Of course our rich men still buy Dutch interiors and signatures. But even they are gradually being weaned from a worship of foreign art to a perception of the good qualities of their own. Indeed my suggestion to individual collectors and to the curators of galleries would be to buy good Canadian paintings now when they can be had cheaply. There will come a day when such pictures cannot be had at any price. Take some of our earlier painters like Kreighoff, for example. Where can you pickup a Kreighoff today unless you are willing to pay a stiff price for it? So far as Canada is concerned, I don't believe we shall amount to much in the arts unless we achieve something more than the status of a crown colony. The shadow of the Old Country hangs over us, influencing all we think and do."
Mr. Walker branched off to consider the future of Canadian art.
"If Canadian painting continues to be Canadian in spirit," he said, "the outlook is encouraging. In supervising the work of a class of students in the city, when I am partly engaged during the winter months, I try to teach them to be themselves; for only in this way, I am convinced, can a truly Canadian art be evolved. My own attitude toward painting is to paint the thing as I see it."
Mr: Walker finished rolling a cigarette, then he said: "How would you like to visit the studio?"
Needless to say, I accepted the suggestion eagerly.
The studio, a square, roomy and barn-like structure, was situated at the north-east end of the garden close to the river. It has what is the main desire of artists, a steady north light.
As we enter the studio a collection of small sketches marked by spontaneity and freedom of handling, characteristic of rapidly recorded impressions, caught my eye.
"Oh, those," explained Mr. Walker casually, "are some things I did when I was in Spain during my student days."
What particularly impressed me, however, was their pronounced variation in style from the artist's later work. Not that there was a lack of decision and force, as if of one feeling his way; there was plenty of both to be observed. Perhaps it was a matter of subject, climate or color. Maybe all three.
By this time we had made the round of the studio. Tea was served in view of the garden. There was, for me at least, more delightful conversation.
As we strolled through the flower-lined walk to the gate the trees were casting long shadows across the lawn. We chatted of many things, of life in Ontario, of travel, of the condition of art, of old friends, of religion, even.
"All religions you know, are pagan," he observed, "only for gods we have substituted saints." A clue here to the philosophy of the man. At the gate we said good-bye. As I turned down the road to the dock, he wave me farewell, his tanned face ruddy in the setting sun. Genial host, companionable man, artist. Full of life, humor and the zest for work and living which even the years cannot dim.
Source: William G. COLGATE, "Age Cannot Wither Nor Sustom Stale. Horatio Walker, One of Canada's Outstanding Painters is Still Young in All But Years", in Canadian Magazine, October 1934.
© 2005 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College