Glancing Back, Fondly
- Ian G. Lumsden (Author)
Early Views of British North America from the Collection of the Beaverbrook Art Gallery. Beaverbrook Art Gallery (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Diane Eaton (Author) and Sheila Urbanek (Author)
Paul Kane's Great Nor-West. University of British Columbia Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by I. MacLaren
These are two well-produced books about early Canadian painting that break no new critical ground. In 1994, Ian Lumsden chose a safe subject with which to celebrate the thirty-fifth anniversary of Lord Beaverbrook’s gift of an art gallery to the people of New Brunswick. His approach to the topographical painters and their work is art historical in the conventional sense. In some ways, the activity of the inventory sciences in nineteenth-century Canada, which Suzanne Zeller studies so ably in her book Inventing Canada, remains a necessary model for us today, since so much Canadiana still needs to be properly identified. It is always a service to have factual catalogues of collections compiled and biographical profiles drawn, and this text exhibits sufficient care in the details as to render it a dependable resource, but we would all be in the debt of Canadian art historians if they would regularly interpret works rigorously in terms of the larger projects of imperialism, colonialism, dominion building, and, in some cases, capitalism in which they played a not insignificant role.
Even in a project the aim of which is chiefly celebratory, it is disappointing to find expressions of contentment with the old saw about the "unquenchable thirst" of the British "for knowledge, both written and pictorial... of the enormous breadth of the Empire." Aesthetic criticism of some of the works is offered. Lumsden finds a "brittleness" in the work of George Neilson Smith’s compositions, "which attempt to integrate buildings into the landscape with the buildings executed in a manner totally incompatible with the handling of the natural landscape." It remains to the reader to extend this observation to British North America in general, and to look at the ways in which imposing public building and natural, even if idealized, space remained incompatible. In an identification of these four dozen works—depicting people and places as far flung as the Haida at Skidegate (Jules Tavernier), Kakabeka Falls (John Arthur Fraser), the high Arctic (William Smyth), Niagara Falls (Elizabeth Sophie Storie Saunders), St John’s Newfoundland (Robert William Best), and much of New Brunswick, both wilderness (Anna Maria Yorke Head), including Micmac culture (Hibbert Newton Binney and two anonymous works), and settlement (for example, John Hewett and John Elliott Woolford)— Lumsden strays no farther than the summary claim that this significant "part of our national patrimony created by military officers, travellers, government officials, talented amateurs and professionals ... afford[s] the enthusiast a dimension of appreciation and understanding of this nation’s early years that transcends the written word."
This last statement could have appeared in Paul Kane’s Great Nor-West, a "crossover" publication aimed at both scholarly and general readers. Both are told— again—that "Kane’s visual and written records create a unique and immensely varied panorama of the ’Great Nor-West’." This remark suggests that the case of Kane is unproblematic and coherent, yet the editors, having republished excerpts from my edition of some of Kane’s field writings, have argued that "the voice in Wanderings of an Artist is of an altogether different order" from that in the field notes, and that "Kane’s manuscript—like many other travel books of the time, including Sir George Simpson’s—was clearly ghostwritten." Such implicit contradiction will not satisfy either kind of reader. To have one’s research cited must be gratefully acknowledged, but its implications are not taken up. Eaton and Urbanek content themselves with the image of Kane as the national hero, an image into which he has been cast ever since returning to Toronto in 1848 from his travels to the Pacific, in such publications as Paul Kane’s Frontier, Russell Harper’s formidable 1971 study of Kane as an artist.
Colour in some of the reproductions is well used, and the selection of illustrations is careful. Most of the book comprises the rehearsing in Eaton and Urbanek’s words of Wanderings, first published in 1859. The false claim that Kane emerged from a trip through nothing but wilderness is reiterated. (The Willamette valley had been overrun by emigrants to Oregon by 1847, when Kane saw it, and the Red River settlement had long since converted wilderness to rural landscapes.) Thereby, Kane’s urge—somewhat misplaced by the mid-i84os—to record the unchanged lives of Native peoples is offered unquestioningly yet again. With only a measure of accuracy, Eaton and Urbanek regard him as "witness to the last bright flash of the Hudson’s Bay Company empire in its glory days." Theirs is a fond glance back, driven, no doubt, by market demand.
- "Beastly Horrible French," Hein? by Stefan Dollinger
Books reviewed: Obsessed with Language: A Sociolinguistic History of Quebec by Chantal Bouchard and Luise Von Flotow
- Concept and Culture by Jack F. Stewart
Books reviewed: The Beaverbrook Art Gallery Collection: Selected Works by Curtis Joseph Collins, Laurie Glenn, and Ian G. Lumsden, The Third Hand: Collaboratioin in Art from Conceptualism to Postmodernism by Charles Green, and The Maclean's Companion to Canadian Arts and Culture by Tom Henighan
- Mapping Native Lives by Jennifer Kramer
Books reviewed: Songhees Pictorial: A History of the Songhees People as seen by Outsiders, 1790-1912 by Grant Keddie and Lelooska: The Life of a Northwest Coast Artist by Chris Friday
- As Canadian as It Gets by Donna Coates
Books reviewed: When Words Deny the World: The Reshaping of Canadian Writing by Stephen Henighan, Canadian Odyssey: A Reading of Hugh Hood's The New Age/ Le Nouveau Siècle by W. J. Keith, and Carol Shields's The Stone Diaries : A Reader's Guide by Abby Werlock
- Flattening Us Up by Roger Seamon
Books reviewed: Jeff Wall: Figures & Places: Selected Works from 1978-2000 by Rolf Lauter
MLA: MacLaren, I.. Glancing Back, Fondly. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 7 Dec. 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #165 (Summer 2000), (Brochu, Buckler, Davies, Lowry, Ondaatje). (pg. 147 - 148)
***Please note that the articles and reviews from the Canadian Literature website (www.canlit.ca) may not be the final versions as they are printed in the journal, as additional editing sometimes takes place between the two versions. If you are quoting from the website, please indicate the date accessed when citing the web version of reviews and articles.