Women representing the Great War in Canada and Newfoundland

In a letter to his wife Margaret in March 1917, the British artist Paul Nash wrote “I am no longer an artist,[…] I am a messenger who will bring back word from the men who are fighting to those who want the war to go on for ever. Feeble, inarticulate, will my message be, but it will have a bitter truth, and may it burn their lousy souls”[1]. Nash painted some of his most moving, brutal landscapes during this period, as a commissioned artist for the Canadian War Memorials Fund. The Great War provided an unprecedented opportunity for public art in Canada through the Fund and other commissions; Nash and his British contemporaries Wyndham Lewis and C. R. W. Nevinson all painted as part of the Fund, as well as future Group of Seven members A.Y. Jackson and F.H. Varley.


Paul Nash. Void, 1918. Oil on canvas, 71.4 x 91.7 cm. Transfer from Canadian War Memorials, 1921. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Photo: NGC

Their role in defining the Canadian artistic view of the war is well documented; what is less well known is the experience of female artists looking to participate in this momentous period for public art. Did women artists benefit from public funds? How was women’s participation in the creation of war art necessarily different than that of their male counterparts? What was the place, if any, of women in war art during this time?

These are some of the broad questions posed by Parallels: Women representing the Great War in Canada and Newfoundland, which will be explored through the experiences of three women creating art during the war; the painter Mary Riter Hamilton, the sculptor Frances Loring, and the portrait photographer Elsie Holloway.

Mary Riter Hamilton and the Post-War Landscape

Widowed at 22, Mary Riter Hamilton (1867-1954) had long supported herself as a single woman through the sale of her art. After the death of her husband, Hamilton began her career as a professional artist, training in Europe before returning to Canada in 1906 to care for her ailing mother in Winnipeg. Before the war, Hamilton mounted several shows in Canada, the most successful of which was in 1912, and had a career painting portraits, selling her work, and teaching.

At the outbreak of the war, Hamilton was in Victoria, British Columbia, and planning a return to Paris; her trip was put off indefinitely due to the war and she stayed for five years in the city, running a portrait studio. During this time, Hamilton expressed a desire to go to the Front in Europe to paint the wartime landscape, which she felt was an important part of Canadian history[2]. According to extensive research done by Dr. Irene Gammel, of Ryerson University, in 1917 Hamilton began to petition Eric Brown, and Sir Edmund Walker, the art advisors to the CWMF, and Prime Minister Robert Borden for permission to go overseas to paint[3].

Though Brown and Walker eventually gave commissions to fourteen women artists for CWMF work, they were all for home front subjects. No woman was given a commission for work on the front lines, and both women who applied, Hamilton and E. Dorothy McAvity, were turned down and not even offered home front subjects. Undeterred, Hamilton continued her search for a patron who would support her to go overseas, and in 1919 she finally found one.

The Amputations Club of British Columbia commissioned a series of illustrations for their veterans’ publication, The Gold Stripe, and Hamilton left immediately for France to paint the landscapes of the recently finished war before they were cleared and the towns reconstructed. She arrived in the area still controlled by the Canadian military contingent, and spent the next three years painting the sites of Canadian battles in France – St Julien, the Somme, Vimy Ridge, and more. Her over three hundred works, painted in dugouts, tin huts, and tents along the front, make her the most prolific Canadian war artist of the First World War.

Hamilton’s independence through her privately funded commission, was in many ways a blessing. She was free of the restrictions of subject that the advisors for the CWMF, Brown and Walker, imposed on all their artists, and could represent the war as she wanted. Hamilton’s view of the war, partially because of her circumstances, is different from that of her male contemporaries. Her works, painted on cardboard, plywood and whatever else she could scrounge, show a transitory landscape that is almost unpopulated, except by the dead. Graves scatter her paintings, interspersed with poppies, and the metal remains of the war that littered the Front.

Menin Road, British Cemetery, ca 1920, oil on cardboard, Mary Riter Hamilton fonds, Library and Archives Canada, Acc. No. 1

She returned to Canada in 1926, after showing her work in Paris and London to international acclaim. The Canadian welcome, however, was tepid; Hamilton was already ill from her years spent outdoors in France, and could not find a buyer for her paintings, nor would the National Gallery, under her old adversary Brown, accept her work[4]. Hamilton was finally able to arrange a donation of 227 of her pieces to the Dominion Archives, later Library and Archives Canada, where they remain today. By the 1940s, Hamilton was living in near poverty, after being unable to teach due to blindness, and efforts by a family friend to secure a federal pension for her proved unsuccessful. She died in 1954, with no major Canadian exhibition of her war work ever being realised during her lifetime.

“Munitionettes” and War Memorials: Frances Loring

Unlike Mary Riter Hamilton, Frances Loring (1887-1968) received the full support of the Canadian War Memorial Fund for her work during the war; six of the statuettes that she created were purchased by the National Gallery and she enjoyed public acclaim during the CWMF exhibition of 1919. In fact, biographer Elspeth Cameron calls the war “the best thing that could have happened to [her], although at first glance it seemed inimical to [her] life and art”[5]

Born in the United States, Loring trained in sculpture at the Art Institute of Chicago, where she met the woman with whom she worked and lived for the rest of her life – Florence Wyle[6]. Sculpting was seen as an odd career choice for a woman, it was considered a man’s métier, but by the time both women entered the Institute, in 1903 and 1906, there were many women students participating in sculpting classes. After graduation, Loring and Wyle moved to New York and began their careers as professional sculptors.

Both women struggled to find work in New York and by 1911 were so poor that they had to ask Loring’s father, Frank, to pay their bills. During Loring’s time in Chicago, her family had moved to Toronto for Frank Loring’s work, and so Frances and Florence moved there in 1912 to have better support. Frank Loring paid for a studio for them, and they began to establish themselves in Canada as professional sculptors.

At the outset, the war must have come as blow to Loring. She was on the way to successful career, and she and Wyle had become part of the fledgling Toronto art scene, with friends like Walter Allward, and A.Y. Jackson. The market for art of any kind dried up immediately in the fall of 1914, and it soon became clear that succeeding as an artist during the war meant taking up war work. Luckily, Loring and Wyle had also made early friends with Eric Brown and his wife soon after their arrival from England, a relationship that bore fruit several years later with Brown’s elevation to art consultant with the CWMF.

Loring completed a patriotic installation, Miss Canada, for the T. Eaton Company flagship store in 1917 that was very well reviewed, and when Brown began to consider the need to include depictions of the home front in the CWMF works, he turned to Loring and Wyle to sculpt female munitions workers.[7] Loring’s sculptures highlighted the athleticism of her female subjects, an unusual representation of women at the time, showing them immersed in their tasks.


War Workers. Photograph, 9.5 x 7.5 cm. Gift of the estate of Frances Loring, 1983. Art Gallery of Ontario. LA.LWF.S4.12. Image © 2017 Art Gallery of Ontario.


Both Loring and Wyle exhibited in the CWFM exhibition of 1919-1920 to favourable reviews, and their commission of $5 000 allowed them to buy property, an abandoned church, and gave them financial independence from Loring’s father.

War Memorial, Osgoode Hall. 1920. Photograph, 17 x 13 cm. Gift of estate of France Loring, 1983. Art Gallery of Ontario. LA.LWF.S4.11. Image © 2017 Art Gallery of Ontario.

After completing her CWFM commission, Loring entered the “war memorials business”, completing commissions across Canada for community war memorials. She also submitted a design to the Vimy Monument competition, but lost out to Walter Allward. Her monuments still dot Canada, including one in St Stephen, New Brunswick, and another in Osgoode Hall in Toronto.


Both Loring and Wyle saw increasing fame in the 1920s and 30s, they became in many ways doyennes of the arts in Canada and were instrumental in founding the Sculptor’s Society of Canada. Loring died in February 1968, three weeks after Florence Wyle.

Photographs of a Lost Generation: Elsie Holloway

Elsie (Elizabeth) Holloway (1881-1971) exists entirely outside the realm of Loring, Hamilton and the CWMF. At the time, she existed outside of Canada too, living and working as she did in St. John’s, Newfoundland. Her medium, photography, also existed outside of the traditional definition of art, but she represented an artistic view of the Great War and its effects upon her community nonetheless.

Holloway benefitted from a remarkably accepting father; Robert Edwards Holloway was the Principal of the Weslyan Academy in St Johns, an amateur photographer, and a strong proponent of education for women[8]. This included teaching both his daughter Elsie and his son Bert photography at an early age. They accompanied their father on trips around Newfoundland, photographing the natural environment, and Elsie even had a photograph of an iceberg published in a newspaper in London in 1899.

Robert Edwards Holloway died in 1904 at a relatively young age, and his children had to find a way to support themselves. Bert and Elsie turned to the skill they both had, photography, and opened Holloway Studios in 1908 with support from their mother. Holloway focused on portraits while her brother continued to photograph the landscape of Newfoundland for use as photo-postcards and in books. By the outbreak of the war, Holloway Studios was very successful, and Elsie Holloway had given over care of her mother to a housekeeper to work full time.

The war was an opportunity for Holloway Studios; when the first draft of the Newfoundland Regiment left for Europe in 1915, Elsie Holloway and her brother had photographed most of the members. The studio offered individual studio portraits, and group portraits for sale, as well as passport photographs. Frances Cluett upon leaving St John’s for work as a nurse in France wrote to her mother that her photograph at Holloway Studios “cost $1.25 for two”[9]. Holloway also photographed her own brother before he went to war in 1915.

Lieut. Robert Palfrey Holloway, M.I.D. [1914 -1917] Photograph, Published. Royal Newfoundland Regiment Album. The Rooms. Item VA 36-10.14
Though she did not know it at the time, Holloway was assembling a record of her community before the war devastated it. The Newfoundland Regiment suffered one of the highest casualty rates of the war, and most of the young men that she photographed did not come back. That included her own brother; Bert Holloway was listed as “missing in action” at Monchy-le-Preux in 1917 and was never found. His sister was left to run the business by herself, which she did throughout the war and continued to photograph members of the Regiment before they left.

Elsie Holloway did not document her process, nor did she record much about her life; most of what is known about her comes from communal memories, but she was commonly said to have been a spontaneous and warm person, who charmed her sitters[10]. Her portraits of the members of the Newfoundland Regiment show her ease with them; despite their formal attire, the men look relaxed and Holloway clearly understood how to use light to get a good result.

As with the rest of the members of her community, Holloway got through the war years and the grief over her brother’s death. She continued to run Holloway Studios until 1948, and at one time employed eight assistants to help her with the studio’s large workload. Holloway photographed Amelia Earhart’s landing in Harbour Grace in 1932, as well as hundreds of residents of St John’s. Holloway died in 1971, but her photographs of the lost generation of Newfoundland live on.

Seeing differently?

Women artists during the First World War had a tremendous opportunity to participate in the creation of public art, through funding from the Canadian War Memorials Fund, private commissions, patriotic industry, and the so-called “war memorials” market. While 19th century female artists were limited in their ability to participate as public figures, all the women in this exhibition made a living before the war as a professional in their field, as the view of who was permitted to “make art” was expanded.

However, despite the expanded market for war art, women faced particular challenges. As noted previously, the CWMF funded the work of only fourteen women during its tenure. Maria Tippet notes the Fund’s other faults as well, calling its “central Canadian exclusiveness characteristic of Brown/Walker style of patronage”[11]. Loring, a personal friend of Brown and a resident of Toronto, was in. Hamilton, a Western-Canadian artist with few connections to Brown or Borden’s government, was out.

In subject matter as well, women were limited, though the CWMF limited subject matter for all its artists, assigning them topics that Brown or Walker thought needed to be covered. For women, this meant the home front; the applications to go overseas submitted by Hamilton and E. Dorothy McAvity were flatly turned down. Hamilton’s private commission through the Amputations Club was what allowed her to go overseas to paint the landscapes in Europe.

Financial success because of the war was not limited to male artists, and for both Loring and Holloway, the war allowed them a large degree of financial independence that they may not otherwise have had. In Holloway’s case, this came at a very high cost, the death of her brother Bert in the war, but the post-war environment was such that she could continue to run Holloway Studios with little interference from outside. For Hamilton, the war brought some acclaim, but little financial success, and her struggle to get her work accepted, since it was created outside the boundaries of the CWMF dominated her life in the 1920s.

So, what was the place of women artists in the war? Did they see the war differently? The answer to that is yes and no. Women showed a different side of the war because of the situation in which they found themselves. Women artists in Canada represented what they had access to, which meant that they documented the war’s effects on Canadian society, whether it was female war workers or a community mobilising to go to war. They also documented the grief of a generation; on the abandoned battlefields of France and in their own studios.

Their art is a testament to a society undergoing transition, and the profound effects of the war on Canada. No family and no life were ever the same.

Exhibition texts and catalogue| C. Bailey
Exhibition design| A. Chan
Translation| L. Angot and J. Segovia
Research| R. Lacey and J. Slump

The Centre would like to thank the following organisations for their help; The Modern Literature Centre at Ryerson University, Library and Archives Canada, the Art Gallery of Ontario, Memorial University of Newfoundland, and the Rooms Provincial Archives of Newfoundland.

[1] Cité dans A Terrible Brutality: British Artists in the First World War, p.152.
[2] Dans un entrevue avec le journaliste F.G. Falla en 1922, Hamilton dit «It was always my ambition to make a collection of paintings of Canadian scenes and as fate would have it some of the landscapes with which the history of Canada will be bound up for generations are here in France. »
[3] L’article de Gammel, The Memory of St. Julien: Configuring Gas Warfare in Mary Riter Hamilton’s Battlefield Art publié en 2016.
[4] Dans une lettre au Dr. King, Ministre d’oeuvres public, Brown a écrit que «Après un examen attentif de toute la question, le Conseil a décidé qu’il serait déconseillé d’ajouter la collection de Mme Hamilton à la collection existante et très importante de monuments commémoratifs nationaux de guerre, vu qu’elle reproduit cette collection dans de très nombreux détails »(voir BAC 1940- 01-20 Note de don historique)
[5] And Beauty Answers: The Lives of Frances Loring and Florence Wyle, p.109.
[6] Il y a eu beaucoup de spéculations sur la relation entre Loring et Wyle. Cameron la caractérise comme proche, mais pas romantique et Wyle a eu une histoire d’amour avec un de ses professeurs masculins, mais les rumeurs sur la relation de ces deux femmes les ont suivies depuis leurs débuts. Dans la scène artistique torontoise des années 1920 et 1930, elles étaient connus sous le nom de «Girls».
[7] Dans un essai intitulé «L’art de guerre canadien à l’ordre», Brown déclara que l’art de guerre devait inclure non seulement des scènes de bataille, mais «toutes les phases de la vie changée des gens pendant la grande lutte». Le cabinet de guerre, Christian Science Monitor, 4 novembre 1918.
[8] Dans une lettre au Dr. King, Ministre d’oeuvres public, Brown a écrit que «Après un examen attentif de toute la question, le Conseil a décidé qu’il serait déconseillé d’ajouter la collection de Mme Hamilton à la collection existante et très importante de monuments commémoratifs nationaux de guerre, vu qu’elle reproduit cette collection dans de très nombreux détails »(voir BAC 1940- 01-20 Note de don historique)
[9] Frances Cluett à sa mère, 29 octobre 1916. Collection Frances Cluett, Archives et collections spéciales de l’Université Memorial de Terre-Neuve, coll-174 2.03.002.
[10] Dans un livre publié en 1980, l’historienne Antonia McGrath écrit: «Il n’y avait guère de personne à St. John’s qui ait grandi entre la première et la seconde guerre mondiale et qui ne se souvient pas de Miss Holloway».
[11] Tippet, p. 50.


Primary sources, unpublished
Canadian War Memorial Fund (1917-1923), RG24-C-1-a, Library and Archives Canada

Frances Cluett Collection (1916-1920), Coll-174, Memorial University of Newfoundland

Frances Loring and Florence Wyle Fonds (c.1850-1980), CA OTAG SC029, The Art Gallery of Ontario

Evening Telegram (1900-1918), Memorial University of Newfoundland

Hayward Inventory of Canadian Sculptors (1930-1980), R8270-1-8-E, Library and Archives Canada

Holloway Family Fonds (1892-1946), MG 156, The Rooms Provincial Archives of Newfoundland

Mary Riter Hamilton Collection (1916-1923), MIKAN 181825, Library and Archives Canada

National Defense Fonds, War Memorials Fund Art and War, Canada in Khaki, Canada in Flanders (1919-1938), RG24-C-6-a. Volume/box number: 1750. File number: DHS-7-6, Library and Archives Canada

Secondary sources, published
Brandon, Laura, Art or Memorial? The forgotten history of Canada’s War Art, University of Calgary Press, Calgary, 2006.

Cameron, Elspeth, And beauty Answers: The Life of Frances Loring and Florence Wyle, Toronto: Cormorant Books, 2007.

Davis, Angela “Mary Riter Hamilton: Manitoba Artist 1873-1954” in Manitoba History, No. 11, Spring 1986. Accessed 15 August 2017 from

Falla, F.G. “Dauntless Canadian Woman tells of Grim Experiences While Painting the Nightmare Land of the Somme”, New York, 1922, np.

Gammel, Irene, “The Memory of St. Julien: Configuring Gas Warfare in Mary Riter Hamilton’s Battlefield Art”, in Journal of War and Culture Studies, Vol. 9, No. 1, 2016. p. 20-41. DOI 10.1080/17526272.2015.1100441

Gough, Paul, A Terrible Beauty : British Artists in the First World War, Bristol: Sansom & Company, 2010.

Gough, Ruby L., Robert Edwards Holloway: Newfoundland Educator, Scientist, Photographer, 1874-1904, Toronto: McGill Queen’s UP, 2005.

McGrath, Antonia, “Elsie Holloway” in Canadian Women’s Studies, Vol. 2, No. 3., 1980, p. 42-43 — Newfoundland Photography 1849-1949| Researched and selected by Antonia McGrath| From the Collection of the Newfoundland Museum, St. John’s: Breakwater Books, 1980.

Oliver, Dean F. and Laura Brandon, Canvas of War: Painting the Canadian Experience 1914-1945, Canadian War Museum/Canadian Museum of Civilization Corp., 2000.

Osborne, Brian S. “Warscapes, landscapes, inscapes: France, War and Canadian National Identity”, in Place, Culture and Identity: Essays in Historical Geography in honour of Alan R. H. Baker, Iain S. Black and Robin A. Butlin eds. Saint-Nicolas (QC): Les presses de Université Laval, 2001.

Tippet, Maria, Art at the Service of War: Canada, Art, and the Great War, Toronto: U of T Press, 1984.