Archive for May, 2011

Unseen Silkscreens

May 10, 2011

THE SAMPSON-MATTHEWS COLLECTION
May 20 to May 24, 2011, Pegasus Art Gallery and ArtSpring, Salt Spring Island

by Janet Nicol

Lawren Harris, Algoma Lake, silkscreen, c. 1945, 30″ X 40″.

Unseen Silkscreens is a unique historical collection of prints initiated by the Sampson-Matthews graphic arts company in the midst of war. An important contribution to the Canadian art scene from 1941 to 1963, the prints have been gathering dust in attics and institution storage rooms for many decades since. But with this upcoming exhibit, a West Coast curator hopes to bring them back into the light.

“These prints were a complete cross-section of our most prestigious artists,” says Ian Sigvaldason, owner and curator of Pegasus art gallery on Salt Spring Island. “At the time, the art was considered modern, even avant-garde.” He says collectors are just starting to realize the works’ significance. As the value of the original paintings rise, so does the value of the prints, he says. Sigvaldason’s show will consist of about 50 silkscreen prints, several by Group of Seven artists as well as West Coast painters including Emily Carr and B.C. Binning.

A total of 89 silkscreen prints were produced over a 22-year period under the direction of Ernest Sampson, a pioneer of silkscreen printing in Canada, and his partner Charles Matthews. Artists hired by Sampson-Matthews, like Franklin Carmichael and A.J. Casson, made a ‘translation’ of the original onto silkscreen. It was an exacting process, and eventually became obsolete as inexpensive photographic reproduction emerged, Sigvaldason says. By 1963 the unique print-making project had run its course.

“Making a translation of the painting, cutting the silks and running them through the oil pigments was labour-intensive,” Sigvaldason says. “The staff averaged a print run of three paintings a year.”

The struggles of the Depression era inspired the make work initiative, and it was supported by the federal government and the National Gallery of Canada. “Artists had a hard time making money, and people didn’t have the money to buy art,” Sigvaldason explains. Compelled to focus on their day jobs, he says many artists worked as etchers, engravers and printmakers. Emily Carr ran a boarding house and E.J. Hughes became a postal worker.

“This project was a way for them to gain exposure and earn royalties on the prints,” Sigvaldason adds. Prints were sold through the gallery to banks, railway stations, libraries, schools and other public spaces across Canada. “Baby boomers will remember these prints from their school days.”

Prints also covered the walls in military posts overseas during the war years. Images depicting landscape and people from every region of the nation boosted Canadian soldiers’ morale. “It was the first real exposure to mass popular national identity,” Sigvaldason says. “It gave the message to soldiers, ‘this is what you’re fighting for.’ There was a propaganda feature to the project.”

The prints made art more accessible to the public, and more affordable. “Eighty per cent of Canadians lived in rural communities during those years. People had never seen this art or had only seen it in black and white. This was an exciting national project.”

Some prints, such as Isabelle McLaughlin’s Blossom Time didn’t sell well at the time, so print runs were limited, Sigvaldason says. Others, such as A.Y. Jackson’s landscapes were in high demand, leading to several print runs and financially well-compensated artists. But even if the rewards were modest, artists were eager to have their work reproduced, and hundreds applied.

Many of the original paintings, dating from 1906 to the early 1960s, now hang in the National Gallery of Canada, the Art Gallery of Ontario, and the McMichael Canadian Art Collection, and Sigvaldason is now creating a database to share information about the reproductions. “We’ve overlooked these prints for so long,” he says. “This was public-sponsored public art. The collection is a major part of Canadian history.”

Reprinted from Galleries West magazine, Summer 2011