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.