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Olympic with Returned Soldiers

Witness – Canadian Art of the First World War Art Exhibition

September 15 – January 6, 2019

Hours of Operation:
Monday | Closed
Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday & Sunday | 11 a.m. - 4 p.m.
Thursday | 11 a.m. - 8 p.m.
Saturday | 10 a.m. - 5 p.m.

Closed on December 25, 26, January 1

Location: Varley Art Gallery
216 Main Street Unionville  map

Witness – Canadian Art of the First World War examines how Canadians used art to communicate and commemorate their First World War experiences at home and overseas. Some, like future Group of Seven members A.Y. Jackson, Arthur Lismer and Frederick Varley, were official war artists commissioned by Lord Beaverbrook’s Canadian War Memorials Fund to document the conflict. Others, like Frederick Clemesha, Thurston Topham and Vivian Cummings, were ordinary soldiers who made small drawings to send home to loved ones, or whose works were acquired by the Fund after the war.

The Museum’s Beaverbrook Collection of War Art, one of the largest such collections in the world, contains about 2,500 paintings, drawings, sketches, prints and posters from the First World War. The exhibition features over 50 works of art by both official artists and soldiers in the field.

Canadians at War

The war offered professional and amateur artists opportunities to capture impressions of soldiers overseas and civilians on the home front. Official war artists and soldier-artists portrayed Canadian soldiers both as brave combatants and as wounded survivors. On the home front, official war artists depicted men and women labouring to produce the ammunition and equipment required by the fighting forces.

One of this section’s highlights is Women Making Shells (1919) by Mabel May, one of the few female commissioned war artists. The painting depicts women and men working in a Canadian armaments factory. Munitions factories were one of the few First World War subjects that female artists painted in which women are featured. Another notable work in this section is Sergeant T.W. Holmes, V.C. (1918), painted by Ernest Fosbery, one of Canada’s first official war artists, around the time Sergeant Holmes earned his Victoria Cross.

Tools of War

The world’s first mechanized war spurred the development of a massive array of technology. Fighter planes and tanks were entirely new, while machine guns and artillery were made more lethal. At the same time, some traditional equipment, such as pack animals, remained in use. Whether new or old, the tools of war provided fodder for many artists. Works in this section depict the building of airplanes and ships, tanks in action and in ruins, and several scenes showing horses on the battlefield.

In British Tank in Action (1917), soldier-artist Daniel Sherrin portrays his memory of the Battle of Flers-Courcelette, during which tanks were used for the first time. In Lumbering Aeroplane Spruce in B.C. (1919), official war artist Charles Simpson shows the harvesting of spruce for aircraft production in British Columbia. Simpson first painted in England, before dwindling resources forced the Fund to assign him to a subject closer to home.

Ruins of War

Homes, churches and villages destroyed in the fighting served as powerful symbols for many artists, who found not only a tragic beauty in the devastation, but also a gentler way to communicate the true carnage. This section includes three works by artists who each illustrated the ruins of the 16th century Church of Ablain-Saint-Nazaire, near Vimy Ridge in France, and four works depicting the destruction of the Belgian city of Ypres.

Gyrth Russell’s White Château, Liévin (1918) highlights the devastating cost of war through a destroyed building and an injured soldier. Cyril Barraud’s First Glimpse of Ypres (around 1919) shows a plume of smoke, perhaps from an artillery shell, rising above the distant, rubble-strewn city of Ypres, Belgium.

Landscapes of War

Landscapes, a favourite subject of Canadian artists, feature prominently in the art of both official war artists and soldier-artists. Instead of bucolic scenes, however, they painted the European countryside as a battlefield, scarred by shell holes and trenches, illuminated by shellfire at night and populated by fighting soldiers. Artists sought to show the horrific conditions Canadians faced on the front, and highlighted their bravery on the battlefield.

In Mud Road to Passchendaele (around 1917), soldier-artist Douglas Culham communicates the chaos of the Battle of Passchendaele by painting men and horses transporting ammunition through billowing smoke. In A Shell Hole (painted between 1917 and 1919), official Canadian war artist William Beatty paints the aftermath of a massive explosion.

Witness - Canadian Art of the First World War is a travelling exhibition and developed by the Canadian War Museum.

Opening Reception:  Sunday, September 30, 2018 | 2 – 4 p.m | Free Admission

Exhibition Related Programming

Lunch & Learn

Friday, November 21 & December 19, 2018 from 12:30 to 1:30 p.m. | $5 or FREE for members of the Varley Art Gallery of Markham, York Region Arts Council, Markham Group of Artists and Markham Arts Council.

Every third Wednesday of the month, the gallery presents Lunch and Learn. These informal artist talks provide our community members with the opportunity to learn about current and future exhibitions, as well as hear about on-going curatorial research happening at the gallery. This program also supports emerging and established artists by providing them with a forum in which to present their work. On November 21, to coincide with Witness, Nichola Feldman-Kiss will discuss her experiences with the Canadian Forces Artist Program and her travels to Sudan in 2011.


Art Bus

Saturday, October 20, 2018 | FREE

Join us for a FREE art bus tour! Seats are limited! Reserve your spot online at


Waddingtons Appraisal Clinic

Thursday, November 1, 2018 from 6:00 to 8:00 p.m. | FREE admission with registration

Special treasures passed on through generations? Bring them to the Varley for a free appraisal with Waddington’s auction house. Register at


Varley Remembers

Sunday, November 11, 2018 from 11:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. | FREE Admission

To mark the 100th anniversary of end of the First World War and of F.H. Varley’s role as a war artist, join special guests for a guided tour of our current exhibition and participate in a hands-on art activity exploring memory, place and nostalgia. Tour begins at 1:30 p.m.


Family Ties - Witnessing Our Past

Sunday, November 18, 2018 from 1:00 to 3:00 p.m. | FREE Registration required

Bring in your family photographs, archives or clippings from the past to create an original and collaborative work of art. Register at

Click here to view more great events held this week in Markham.

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