A closer look at a superb oil painting by Edwin Holgate and its pencil drawing
In the early spring of 1926, Edwin Holgate, A.Y. Jackson, and Albert Robinson executed a body of memorable paintings around La Malbaie. In a letter to Clarence Gagnon dated May 7, 1926, Holgate wrote, “[…] This March I went off with Père Raquette [A.Y. Jackson] to La Malbaie — where — after two weeks we were joined by [Albert] Robinson. I stayed just over three weeks — worked continuously — and came home somewhat improved and somewhat more [indistinct] in snow-painting. [...] I also got a number of drawings — one of which has developed into a wood-block already" .
It is possible that in this letter Holgate may be referring to the pencil sketch, Near Malbaie, 1926 [Fig. 2] and, by extension, the related oil sketch, La Malbaie (Murray Bay), [Fig. 1] as the composition that he developed into a woodblock print.
This drawing and the corresponding oil sketch relate to a woodblock print called The Village. Ian Thom, in The Prints of Edwin Holgate, explains that a number of the woodblocks created by Holgate for Georges Bouchard’s 1928 publication of Other Days and Other Ways, Silhouettes of the Past in French [Fig. 4] were made into independent prints .
Thom writes of The Village, which he dates 1927, “This print was used by Georges Bouchard [...] as a Christmas card" . One such example of the greeting card can be found in the collection of the National Gallery of Canada called, The Village: Christmas Card for Georges Bouchard [Fig. 5].
In studying the preparatory pencil drawing alongside the woodblock print and oil sketch, one can observe and appreciate Holgate’s various executions of the same scene. Though the composition of the woodcut is inverted, due to the nature of the printmaking process, in all three images we note similarities. A road in the foreground in a corridor of houses. In the background of all three works is the same snow covered church with its spire interrupted by the roof of a home. In the print, one notes the same energy and volume of the great, rounded snowflakes that we see in the oil sketch. One observes the building obscured slightly by a telephone pole — which is truncated in the print — in the foreground of all three works. Notably, however, the fence in front of this same house can be seen in both the painting and the drawing but is eliminated entirely from the woodcut.
The most obvious change is that the man riding in the horse-drawn sleigh, who is present in the oil sketch, does not occupy the centre of the print nor the pencil drawing. Likewise, the oil sketch presents the scene from a slightly lower vantage point than in the pencil sketch and print.
Our La Malbaie is an outstanding testimony to Holgate’s abilities and a signature achievement from that 1926 trip. All three depictions of the scene occupy a unique position in Holgate’s oeuvre as draughtsman, painter, and printmaker. Though they differ in their composition, each scene is no less in its rhythmic grace and are splendid depictions of early spring in La Malbaie. They also situate Holgate as an important artist in the narrative of Canadian modernism in the 1920s.
In his letter to Gagnon, Holgate also remarked at Jackson’s accomplishments, writing, “Alec got a batch of sketches which — to my mind are ahead of his Baie St. Paul work — and very distinguished” . Indeed, we can see the strength of Jackson's output during this trip in his sketch Street in Murray Bay [Fig. 6], which can be found in the The Thomson Collection at the Art Gallery of Ontario.
In April of 1926, Jackson too wrote of the trip, “...had an interesting winter. Holgate and I went to Murray Bay in February. Then Robinson came down and Holgate went home. [...] ...it was a nice winter lots of sunlight and not much wind. [...] We were all a little serious perhaps. Trying to get a lot of work done. Particularly Robinson who was only allowed two weeks but later had it extended to three.” . Later, in his autobiography, Jackson wrote fondly of his trips to La Malbaie, “It was a charming little town, and Robinson did some of his best work there” .
Robinson’s part in the legacy of the sketching trip with Jackson and Holgate, is the quality of paintings he produced, represented by and Sunny Day, La Malbaie [Fig. 7].
Then, of course, only a few months after their return from La Malbaie, Holgate and Jackson were to go west at the encouragement of Marius Barbeau. The paintings inspired by that trip have taken on an iconic stature.
1. McCord Museum, P116 Fonds Clarence A. Gagnon, P116/D9, General correspondence, Digitized Documents, p. 38, 36
2. Ian Thom, The Prints of Edwin Holgate, (Kleinburg, ON: McMichael Canadian Art Collection, 1989), no. 35, unpaginated
4. McCord Museum, P116 Fonds Clarence A. Gagnon, P116/D9, General correspondence, Digitized Documents, p. 38, 36
5. David Silcox, The Group Seven and Tom Thomson, (Richmond Hill, ON: Firefly Books Ltd., 2011), no cat. no., repr. in col. p. 202, as A Street in Murray Bay
6. McCord Museum, P116 Fonds Clarence A. Gagnon, P116/D9, General correspondence, Digitized Documents, p. 28, 30, 33
7. Alexander Young Jackson, A Painter’s Country: The Autobiography of A.Y. Jackson, (Toronto: Clarke, Irwin, 1967), p. 66
External Images Cited
Fig. 5. Edwin Holgate (1892-1977),The Village: Christmas Card for Georges Bouchard, 1928-after 1928, Wood engraving on wove paper, block: 1 7/8 x 4 in (4.8 x 10 cm); sheet: 11 1/4 x 6 1/2 in (28.6 x 16.6 cm), National Gallery of Canada, Access. No. 36721, © Estate of Edwin Holgate, Jonathan Rittenhouse, executor.
Fig. 6. A.Y. Jackson (1882-1974), Street in Murray Bay, c. 1929, Oil on wood, 8 7/16 x 10 1/2 in. (21.5 x 26.7 cm), Art Gallery of Ontario, “A Street In Murray Bay | Art Gallery of Ontario”, The Thomson Collection at the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, AGOID.104025, © Estate of A.Y. Jackson. Photo: Michael Cullen.
Fig. 7. Albert H. Robinson (1881-1956), Sunny Day, La Malbaie, 1926, Oil on canvas, 22 x 23.6 in (55.9 x 60 cm), Jennifer Watson, Albert Robinson, The Mature Years, (Hamilton: The Kitchener-Waterloo Art Gallery, 1982), cat. no. 32, reproduced p. 46.