“Suitable Memorials”: The War Sculptures of Frances Loring

Frances Loring, [no date]. Image courtesy Exhibition Place, Toronto.
Frances Loring, [no date]. Image courtesy Exhibition Place, Toronto.
While doing research for another project on the war memorial in St Stephen, New Brunswick, I stumbled across the name of the artist who sculpted the bronze statuette that topped the monument; Frances Loring. Intrigued, I started to look further into this mysterious person, and stumbled upon one of the pre-eminent Canadian sculptors of the early 20th century. 

Like many women artists of the period, Frances Loring is now largely forgotten. Her work, along with that of her longtime friend and collaborator Florence Wyle, pops up in unexpected places, but she still has not received a lot of credit for the many memorials that she produced. In unwinding the story of Frances Loring, I discovered someone who worked tirelessly to promote sculpture as a recognised art form in Canada, and who created moving representations of the strength of the human spirit during conflict.

Loring was an American by birth and had trained in Europe before she moved to Toronto in 1913 with Florence Wyle. At the outbreak of the war, Loring already had established a reputation as an sculptor of some repute, and was not afraid to promote her work; she approached Sir Max Aitkent sometime after 1916 to take part in the Canadian War Memorials Fund, which commissioned works of art by well-known artists to memorialise Canada’s role in the First World War, and was accepted as one of the artists, along with Wyle. Loring and Wyle’s contributions were a series of bronze statuettes that provided a unique “memorial” of the war; women war workers.

Now on show at the Canadian War Museum until 2017 (but tucked away in the hallway by the archives, you’ll have to search for them), these bronzes illustrated the new public roles of women during the war; as munitions workers, and field hands. The bronzes were displayed in 1919 and 1924 to critical acclaim, as part of the “home work section” within the larger art collection. The C.W.M.F. commission brought Loring’s work to the eye of the larger public, and soon she was receiving commissions for war memorials, which became a booming business in the post-war rush to commemorate those fallen in the war.

One of Loring’s early memorials was the statuette for the St Stephen memorial, completed in 1926 and unveiled the same year. The St Stephen Memorial depicts a soldier of the CEF holding a cross and a victory laurel; unlike many memorials of the same era, which had largely heroic symbols, Loring’s soldier acknowledges the cost of the victory. The soldier has his head bowed in mourning, with the cross symbolising the crosses that marked the graves in France.

Loring’s largest memorial project was for the Great Library in Osgoode Hall, to commemorate the members of the Law Society of Upper Canada killed in the war. Sculpted in marble, the Osgoode Hall memorial figure continues the theme of the cost of war; the young figure is casting off his lawyer’s robes to offer himself to what he sees as a great cause. As with her C.W.M.F. work and the St Stephen’s memorial, Loring’s figures remain eminently human, despite the larger events that have taken over their lives.

Frances Loring continued to have success as a public memorials sculptor in the 1930s and 40s, and her work appears in the Canadian Parliament as well as in Gzowski Park in Toronto. With the movement towards non-representational sculpture after the war Loring’s work lost its popularity, but she has been recently rediscovered by academics interested in female Canadian artists. Both Loring and Florence Wyle died in 1968; in their wills they left money that was to be put towards supporting a new generation of Canadian sculptors.

NB: An earlier version of this piece implied that Max Aitken approached Frances Loring to exhibit her work as part of the CWMF. In fact, Loring contacted Aitken herself. Thanks to Christian Corbet for clarifying this point.

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10 thoughts on ““Suitable Memorials”: The War Sculptures of Frances Loring

  1. I owe sincere gratitude to Loring and Wyle for having helped laid the road to sculpting in Canada for without them our nation would be poorer in history and culture.

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  2. This is great work! One of the chapters of my MA thesis was on the St Stephen memorial and the Frances Loring story. I’d be happy to chat with you about the project you’re doing about it!

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    1. Hi Thomas,
      I actually looked for your thesis when I was writing this post, but wasn’t able to find it… The memorial will be appearing in our upcoming exhibition “The Business of War: Canadian Businesses during the First world War” in connection with the Ganong family. I’d love to know more about the selecting board, and any information on Loring’s choice of subject.

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      1. It’s not on the LAC thesis site because it’s being considered for publication. Would it be okay if I sent you an email and we can start a discussion!

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  3. The Loring and Wyle sculptures at the Canadian War Museum are a delight. A shame that only two works of the CWMF commission are on permanent view – Noon Hour in a Munitions Plant (a relief facing the admissions desk) and Girls with a Rail in the WW1 exhibit. Let’s hope the museum keeps the others on display past 2017.

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  4. I am always fascinated with the great variety and individualism of the memorials across the country sharing in common the pain and sorrow that remained long after the shadow of the Great War passed on.Research like this adds another depth to my appreciation.thank you so much.

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