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REMEMBER THIS: Artist C.W. Jefferys brings Canada's history to life

In this week's column, History Hound Richard MacLeod highlights a renowned artist who is the father of historical art in Canada

This article is a tribute to all the artists who through their work have captured a moment in our history, and in doing so became historians, as well, with a focus on the mastery of Charles William Jefferys (C.W.).

My uncle, George Luesby, captured Newmarket and area in his pencil sketches and watercolours for nearly 70 years, becoming a renowned local historian in the process. Many of his sketches reflect buildings and structures that sadly no longer exist; in many cases, his works represent the only record we have of their existence.

The father of Canadian historical art remains C.W. Jefferys, whose work appears everywhere, in our history books, museums, and art galleries. They represent a moment in our history, captured for posterity with a sense of realism that is astounding. One often feels that they were there beside him.

While most of you will recognize his works, you likely do not know much about the man. Jefferys was a renowned painter and illustrator. While he is broadly known for his illustrations of early Canadian life, our landscape was the principal subject of his paintings. It is for his illustrations of early Canadian life that he is being profiled in this article.

Jefferys was born in Rochester, Kent, England in 1869 and as a child he immigrated with his family to Philadelphia before finally moving to Toronto around 1878. As a teenager, Jefferys apprenticed with a lithography firm and studied oil painting with George A. Reid and watercolours with C.M. Manly. 

Jefferys pursued his career as a reporter / artist with various publications. Over the decades, Jefferys would illustrate numerous historical publications, including The Makers of Canada (1911), Chronicles of Canada (1914–1916) and A Picture Gallery of Canadian History (1942–1950). During the First World War, Jefferys documented military training at Camp Petawawa and Niagara for the Canadian War Records. Later he would teach painting and drawing at the University of Toronto. 

Jefferys possessed an intense interest in Canadian history and his reputation rests principally on his accurate and meticulous portrayal of early Canadian life. The best-known collection of his historical sketches is The Picture Gallery of Canadian History. Jefferys served as the president of the Ontario Society of Artists and was a member of the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts.

Jefferys would receive numerous awards over his lifetime, honorary degrees from universities, and C.W. Jefferys Collegiate Institute, a high school in North York, was to be posthumously named for the artist.

I think this quote attributed to Jeffreys clearly indicates his view of the artist as historian: “It is inevitable that a country with such marked physical characteristics as Canada possesses should impress itself forcefully upon our artists.”

When I was a university studying Canadian history, I bemoaned the fact our history is quite often taught through a series of dates, names, and facts; none of which give anyone a real sense of what it was like to be alive in any given time period.

How could we look at history differently? And what role should it have? I am not speaking here about what history is, is not, or should be, but rather who can help us understand history and its multi-dimensionality. This is where the role of the artist is crucial. Artists, sometimes referred to as the guardians of a culture, document and reflect the times they are in; they might depict a moment of history as a sort of time capsule. ‍

Artists can communicate what is often missing from the official historical narratives, namely, what people felt like in each time period. 

‍History is often tightly controlled and the role of the artist in the process is to “reveal historical truths” and “correct the wrongs that have been done”.

‍The artist provides a form of documenting, intentionally or not, allowing us to become more than just a witness to history, but participants in its unfolding.

If we look to our history, past and present, we can identify at least four different roles that artists have played:

  • Artists have had the ability to express emotions that many of us do not know how to express. In a world that relies too heavily on the rational, knowledge-only approach to life and ignores the senses, the artist can become a sort of translator.
  • The artist also plays the role of historian, documenting what is happening in society beyond the superficial, providing a critical voice and giving us a sense of what things were really like, giving us an insight into what people were actually thinking, what they were feeling; not just what happened on a specific date, who won, or who had the last word.
  • A third role is to reveal the truth, to help us see what we cannot see, liberating us from our assumptions, opinions and judgments.
  • And finally, artists are nonconformists. They are often removed from mainstream thinking and can provide society with another vision of the world, help us think differently about what is all around us.  

The contributions of C.W. Jefferys to the evolution of historical illustration in Canada are many indeed.

In 19th-century Canada, opportunities for artists to create illustrations for a national audience remained limited until the Canadian Illustrated News of the 1870s included works by William Armstrong, William Cruickshank, F.M. Bell Smith, and Henri Julien. In 1882, Picturesque Canada, edited by George Munro Grant, became one of the first illustrated publications dedicated to Canadian themes. Ambitious in scope, the volume reproduced scenes of the “sublime” Canadian landscape through the process of wood-engraving.

In 1886, several young artists established the Toronto Art Students League, an influential group that used innovative technical processes such as photoengraving. An attractive and skilfully produced calendar issued by the League from 1892 to 1904 is seen as a turning point in Canadian illustration and book design as it brought attention to Canadian artists, encouraging publishers to employ resident illustrators instead of foreign professionals.

The League also stimulated the coalescence of a group of artists, including Norman Price, William Wallace, and Thomas Garland Greene, who would go on to specialize in book design. Among this group was the young Charles William Jefferys.

Canadian history textbooks from the first 50 years of the 20th century are full of examples of Jefferys’ pen sketches, which demonstrate his extensive knowledge of history and mastery of the ink medium. Jefferys’ work can be found in numerous textbooks on Canadian and British history, created for public and high schools by the historian George M. Wrong, many of which I used as a student. 

His more than 200 illustrations, maps, and charts appear in The Ryerson Canadian History Readers; and in Dramatic Episodes in Canada’s History, a popular volume first issued by the Toronto Star in 1930 and re-issued in 1934 by Ryerson Press. The pinnacle of Jefferys’ contributions to reconstructing the past was The Picture Gallery of Canadian History: Illustrations Drawn and Collected by C.W. Jefferys. 

Apart from his work as a book illustrator, Jefferys also contributed regularly to the Canadian History Review, was a frequent speaker for the historical societies of Ontario, president of various antiquarian societies, and sat on the Royal Canadian Academy’s council. He designed the Tyrell Medal of the Royal Society of Canada and the Jubilee Medal of Canadian Confederation. His murals adorn three of the nation’s most prestigious buildings: the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, and two luxury hotels: the Chateau Laurier in Ottawa and Le Manoir Richelieu in the Charlevoix.

In recognition of his interdisciplinary accomplishments in commercial publishing, literary and scholarly endeavours, and visual art, Jefferys was elected as a full Academician of the Royal Canadian Academy and received an Honorary Doctor of Laws from Queen’s University. Jefferys was also made an honorary chief of the Mohawks at Brantford and given the name Ga–re–wa–ga-yon. 

Jefferys has been praised for his carefully researched and highly evocative visions of our historical landscape, his images transporting the viewer through time and space, offering us a vision of our past that strives for photographic accuracy. His art today is an important record of the fraught history of colonialism, cultural interaction and ethnic tension that went into the making of modern Canada.

Sources: An “Artist of standing”: C.W. Jefferys and Historical Illustration in Canada by Eric Weichel, Queen’s University; ‘The Picture Gallery of Canadian History: Illustrations Drawn and Collected by C.W. Jefferys’; C.W. Jefferys National Gallery of Canada website; An “Artist of standing”: C.W. Jefferys and Historical Illustration in Canada by Eric Weichel, Queen’s University

Newmarket resident Richard MacLeod, the History Hound, has been a local historian for more than 40 years. He writes a weekly feature about our town's history in partnership with NewmarketToday, conducts heritage lectures and walking tours of local interest, and leads local oral history interviews.