William Hind: Illustrating Canada from Sea to Sea

Self-portrait of the artist William Hind

Go back in time! Discover Canada in the mid-1800s through the works of an artist who documented the country from sea to sea. In this episode, retired Collections Manager of Artworks Gilbert Gignac and Art Archivist Mary Margaret Johnston-Miller, both from Library and Archives Canada, join us to discuss William Hind, an artist who played a key role in the development of art in Canadian society.

Duration: 35:45

File size: 40.9 MB Download MP3

Publish Date: November 20, 2014

  • Transcript of podcast episode 16

    Jessica Ouvrard: Welcome to “Discover Library and Archives Canada: Your History, Your Documentary Heritage.” I’m your host, Jessica Ouvrard. Join us as we showcase treasures from our vaults; guide you through our many services; and introduce you to the people who acquire, safeguard and make known Canada’s documentary heritage.

    In this episode, retired Collections Manager of Artworks Gilbert Gignac and Art Archivist Mary Margaret Johnston-Miller, both from Library and Archives Canada, join us to discuss William Hind, an artist who played a key role in the development of art in Canadian society. We explore who William Hind was, his unique contributions to art in Canada, and what is included in Library and Archives Canada’s William Hind Collection.

    Thank you for being here today Gilbert.

    Gilbert Gignac: Oh, you’re welcome; my pleasure.

    JO: I know that you have studied and written extensively on William Hind. What originally attracted you to his work?

    GG: Well, he is an unusual artist. He is very exceptional. We have a considerable collection at the National Archives, and I had the privilege of looking at his work for approximately 30 years before I began writing about it. I enjoy writing about him because his work is very unusual compared to all of his contemporaries, like Paul Kane or William Armstrong. He used very bright colours and his compositions were always unusual. He always had a way of drawing you into his image very easily and there was something very appealing about that. You don’t see other artists work with that kind of access.

    JO: Can you tell us about who William Hind was and his background? How did he get to be this person?

    GG: Well, he was an Englishman. He was born in the land of Robin Hood—Nottingham, England. He went to an art school—a very special type of art school—called the School of Design, and the school was to train artists who were going to be upcoming in designing for every aspect of English manufacturing.

    JO: Right.

    GG: Of course book illustration was an element of that. William studied there and he studied with James Hammersley who had been a designer at Wedgewood, so he was an accomplished artist. His teacher, Hammersley, had also illustrated Canadian views based on the work of artists who had been in Canada. William Hind was taught to draw and paint the truth of nature, and to use his materials that way. He was also taught to be aware that his images would be used for illustration, so he had a sense of design for that specific use of an image. He was born in 1833 and the illustrated press was invented in 1842; it was the first time where newspapers—weekly newspapers—were illustrated with up to 30–40 images, wood engravings. This just exploded across the world, and in the first year, The Illustrated London News sold over a million copies. That never ever happened before. Because it was illustrated, it put a lot of artists to work.

    JO: What brought him to Canada?

    GG: Well, his brother was already living in Toronto. His brother was teaching at the Normal School; he was a scientist. He had trained at Cambridge and had studied the continent. He came to teach at Egerton Ryerson’s new teachers’ college in Toronto. Egerton Ryerson designed the system of education for Upper Canada, for Ontario, and one aspect of that was drawing. Drawing was important in education overall; drawing helped you study natural science; it helped you in mathematics, geometry. It also helped you learn how to write, so the practice of drawing facilitated all of this. Teachers had to know how to draw to be able to use drawing to teach the children and the children were taught how to draw inversely to be able to learn what the teacher was teaching; if you could draw it, you knew it. It’s a method of teaching and learning that William Hind entered into. He was only 18 years old; he was a teenager when he immigrated to Canada and he got the job. It’s very impressive to see that he was a young man ready to involve himself in the development of Canadian culture. Young children at school and also mature teachers.

    JO: What drew him to start travelling?

    GG: Well, it was his brother. His brother was a scientist who was a geologist, amongst other things, a chemist. He was hired by the Ontario Government, the Canadian Government, to explore the Northwest because the country was changing at the time. He left teaching—took a secondment away from teaching to do this over the summer—and he went out West. It’s always been a mystery why his brother didn’t accompany him to do the illustrations. We were never able to fish that out in our research, but it’s very probable that the Government wouldn’t allow an artist to travel with the exploration team. The team was scientific; it was not to create pretty pictures of the place, but to get solid statistical information about the Northwest, which they wanted to amalgamate with the rest of Canada because they were already talking about confederation at the time; this was 1857 and 1858. We do know that William quit teaching at the teachers’ college, and we think that it was with the ambition of going with his brother. Of course, when his brother finished his work, one of his talents was that he could put all of this diverse information together in one publication for the Government. So, MPs could take this report, read it, and get a clear picture of what the Northwest was, what it constituted. There were maps; there were plans; there were outlines; there were geological specimens; there were studies of society: the study of complex society in the West like the Métis; the Hudson’s Bay relationship within the community; the various religious communities that were out there. It was a very comprehensive study and William should have been there to make the drawings, but I don’t think the Government would allow it (would pay for it) so Hind had to get his visual information otherwise. When everybody returned, he gave all of the visual information he had to his brother and he said: “Make me large paintings.” He did; they were sent to the Government and submitted. He was paid $100 for producing 20 large pictures based on the visual data supplied to him. So, he had not even been out West, yet he produced the first biggest exhibition about the West for Canadian people. He was very, very capable as an artist in many more dimensions than just sitting in nature and drawing a landscape. He could summarize and he could reassess a visual document and reinterpret it.

    JO: So he hasn’t even left Toronto yet?

    GG: No.

    JO: Where did he go?

    GG: Well, he went out West three or four years later, in 1862, when a large group of about 150 immigrants from Eastern Canada decided to go out West, and they were drawn there by the discovery of gold in the Cariboo, in southern central B.C. Of course, the gold rush was well publicized in newspapers and it attracted people from all over the world. People usually arrived by boat from Australia and from Europe and from China and from Russia and from South America. They would arrive at Vancouver, then Victoria, and take off from there once they got their kit together. But this group of Canadians decided to go across the country. It could take you up to five months by boat to get there—very expensive.

    JO: Yes.

    GG: And if you went overland, it took you two months. They took off—150 of them—and left Winnipeg in Red River carts and oxen, and on horseback. They crossed the Prairies and he drew every day. When you look at his Overlanders sketchbook, which is preserved in the archives, page 1 started in Winnipeg and the last page is a view of the Rocky Mountains.

    JO: Wow.

    GG: It is a remarkable document that we have. It’s all dated, so we can then take a map of the Prairies and literally dot it with every single page of the sketchbook; we know exactly where scenes were taken. He shows you how they travelled; how they were dressed; how they entertained themselves; how they set up camp; how they fed themselves with buffalo meat on the Prairies; and he showed the journey across the flat Prairies straight to the Rockies. He continued to draw after that. We don’t have a sketchbook of the continuation through the Rockies until he came to Victoria, but we do have a lot of drawings and watercolours and oil paintings of his circuit there. This was a time in 1862, five years before Confederation, when Canadians from Eastern Canada immigrated out West. The immigration out West was usually done through Hudson Bay via the Hudson’s Bay Company. But to leave Toronto and Montreal—ordinary people—to cross the Prairies, it was quite remarkable. There were songs composed about that. Some people who journeyed there kept diaries, which we use also in conjunction with Hind’s sketchbook; they complement each other. Now, he wasn’t the official artist because it wasn’t a Government project, so there was no designated official artist. He happened to be an artist who used the opportunity to travel with the group to be able to draw—again, always with the eye to possible publication of his views—to tell people: “Yes, you can do this; we can do this as a country. We can access the interior of our country in ways that could not be done before.” So this sketchbook is absolutely remarkable. He accompanied them, and it was with the security of being in the group that he was able to draw and paint. Starting from Winnipeg through Saskatchewan through Alberta through the Rockies through British Columbia straight through to Victoria. Then he lived in Victoria for about a decade and decided to come back. His brother was living in Halifax then, so he crossed the country from sea to sea, all the while painting again.

    JO: So he went back painting?                                                                                                                            

    GG: This is it. He literally crossed the whole country twice. The paintings and drawings that he did really describe the country very solidly at the time of Confederation. In the time that he went out to the Pacific and came back to the Atlantic, Confederation had occurred. Canada became an independent nation-state amongst other nation-states in the world. The first historian to write about him called him the Confederation painter because of that.

    JO: Hello Mary Margaret.

    Mary Margaret Johnston-Miller: Hello.

    JO: Thank you for being with us today. Why is William Hind important to Canadian History?

    MMJ: Well, I think there are a couple of issues you can look at. First of all is his importance as an artist, just as part of the development of art in Canadian society and his significance purely for his skill and mastery of art. But he’s also important particularly for us at Library and Archives Canada as someone who provides documentary evidence of the development of Canada, the progress of Canada. In particular at the time, his works were being used as the basis for lithographs, which illustrated a number of important books published by his brother. He also sent artworks directly back to England and Scotland to encourage immigrants to come out to Canada. He is important at the time in that sense. Even though he was not very well known, he is important for providing these illustrations, and then later on, providing them for generations of historians, geographers and anthropologists and other researchers. He’s important in providing us with this excellent source of information about exploration and development in Canada.

    GG: William Hind was very interested in telling people about Canada, what Canada looked like and what it was about, so his work has a very particular character. He always paid attention to telling the truth about Canada because his work was reproduced and redistributed around the world. This was his ambition, so that when you look at his work, you always have to have that in your mind. You have to consider that he was trying to describe Canada to people and not just making pretty pictures.

    JO: So it’s very accurate, like the trees, the plants; the scenery is very accurate to what he actually saw.

    GG: Yes. When you begin looking at his work, you begin to see the detail that you don’t see in other works by other artists who were around him at the time. His ability to convey—not just what a landscape was—but he really gave you the whole environment, which was not a common word used then. But it’s true. In his landscapes, he draws the hunters in the fields with a beautiful sky and all of a sudden you notice these tiny little flowers in the foreground. Well, it tells us a great deal about the abundance of nature.

    JO: Right.

    GG: So when you look at Paul Kane’s work, for example, he was not necessarily attracted to that kind of detail. He was interested rather in making a pretty picture and could add and remove things, whereas Hind didn’t edit himself that way; he drew what was actually in front of him. This was at a time where photography was being used and was challenging painting and drawing. The problem with photography at the time was that it could not convey colour and colour is one of the most characteristic aspects of his work—the brilliance of his colour.

    JO: Yep.

    GG: So we are very fortunate to have had Hind depict his own experience in Canada, but it was always with the intent that he would be illustrating the books that his brother would write about Canada. His brother wrote a great deal about Canada. In fact, they wanted to write an encyclopedia.

    JO: About Canada?

    GG: About Canada, which could be distributed around the world and that would attract immigrants. It never got published, unfortunately. The whole encyclopedia was supposed to be illustrated by the work of William Hind.

    JO: Yes.

    GG: Whenever he worked, he always kept his work with this idea at the back of his head that he would illustrate books about Canada. He did once when his brother explored the Labrador Peninsula. This was Quebec, basically the interior of Quebec. Quebec was always colonized around its shores. It was very difficult to penetrate; it still is very difficult to penetrate. It was always an area that was last to be explored, astonishingly enough. Some of the rivers up to the Saguenay had been explored and mapped because of the lumbering industry for almost a century. It’s when you went beyond that, further North towards Sept-Îles. Nobody had been up there, except two Native peoples—the Montagnais and the Naskapi—who lived there for thousands and thousands of years. Of course in the North there were the Inuit. Hind decided that this had to be explored; this was part of the encyclopedia. We had to know what there was there and he had done that out West.

    JO: How did he manage to draw and paint so much during such a short period of time?

    GG: Well, it wasn’t easy. The access to the interior of Quebec is very difficult because it’s an uphill battle through forests and the only way in is by the rivers. So they selected the best river, the one that connected to a river that went to the Atlantic, which the Native peoples used all the time.

    JO: Right.

    GG: But the Europeans didn’t know how to access it. William prepared himself well; he knew that he had to be very quick because the journey never stopped. They simply went day after day after day and portage. He brought with him a visual drawing aid called a camera lucida, which is a tiny little prism that you look through and it projects an image on a page that you can trace very quickly. This allowed him to take drawings very, very quickly; he filled several sketchbooks and also did watercolours. When he returned to Toronto, in his studio, he transformed these into a selection of illustrations for his brother’s book. When the book was published in London a year later, just before he left to go out West, it was illustrated with his work in colour and this is the only book that we have that they succeeded in publishing together, so it’s a remarkable document. Later, scholars who did the history of the fisheries—the economic history of the fisheries and its importance to Canada—they used Henry’s book as part of the history and considered it one of the finest exact studies of the state of fisheries at the time. This was a high accolade of how precise their work was. He produced in Toronto maybe a dozen oil paintings and about 150 watercolours. We now have a selection of about maybe 30 of his camera lucida drawings, but I’m sure there were much more than that; it’s what survived. Then he went out West.

    JO: Okay, so first he went to...

    GG: Quebec.

    JO: Quebec; then he did the Overlanders.

    GG: Then the opportunity to go out West.

    JO: Do we know what William Hind looked like? Do we have any portraits of him?

    GG: Oh yes! He made sure that we would know what he looked like because he left us nine self-portraits, more than any other artist in the 19th century, and they are spectacular. They’re small, but they’re all undated, which is a bit problematic. To put them in a row to be able to cover his life chronologically is a tricky thing, which I have tried to study. I think we’ve got it, but he produced oil paintings of not just his appearance, but also he gave us traces of his activities. He painted himself, for example, at his painting easel showing his palette and his brushes. He is describing himself to us, not only what he looked like, but also one of the primary activities of his life—an oil painter. He also gave us a self-portrait of himself sketching in the middle of the forest. That’s one of the most amazing self-portraits because he depicts himself in the middle of the bush, in the fall after he’s gone hunting, and he’s sitting on a log with his rifle and partridges next to him; he is looking out at us and he is sketching. We all know that self-portraits involve a mirror, and so, when you see this self-portrait in the middle of the woods, you go: “Where was the mirror?” It’s a self-portrait that is very unusual—his most unusual one—because it’s a contrived self-portrait. It at once consists of a perfect description of him, but the setting had to be fabricated.

    JO: Right.

    GG: He drew the landscape; then he drew himself in that landscape. That self-portrait is in the Art Gallery of Ontario. The portrait of him—the self-portrait of him painting at an easel—is in the Library and Archives Canada collection, but the thing with the self-portraits is that he is controlling the image; he is showing us himself as he wants to be seen. We did find a photograph from one of the descendants, a kind of carte-de-visite that was taken in the Carson Brothers studio in Toronto in we think around 1862, just before he left to go out West with the Overlanders; the descendants still own that little self-portrait. The importance of that photograph is that he didn’t take it; we have a few of him taken by somebody else, so it’s a portrait of him by another person. It’s an interesting document to be able to compare to how he represented himself with the image of how he was represented by others.

    JO: Do you have a favourite piece?

    GG: Yes, yes I do. We acquired at the Archives a wonderful landscape oil painting from a dealer in New York. The work was misattributed, but we knew it was Hind. The name attached to it was not the artist’s name because William Hind very rarely signed his work. So this didn’t surprise us, but the name attached to the work was the previous owner of the painting, which the dealer assumed was the name of the artist, and we find out more about the owner. It’s a landscape of Sussex Valley, and of course, Hind lived and he died in Sussex; it was his home. It was a depiction from the top of the hill looking down across the valley—the Sussex Valley in New Brunswick—and it’s absolutely panoramic; it’s spectacular; it’s the whole universe really. In the foreground, we see farmers collecting hay, and in the distance, you see a tiny village; you see a little white church amongst the trees; you can hardly notice it. In the far, far distance, you see the smoke of the railroad train coming through the valley and so you see the richness of the landscape; it is just filled with the landscape of hills—just covered with trees—so you can see the harvest being done in an abundance of nature under a beautiful, beautiful blue sky.

    JO: It’s prosperous.

    GG: It’s prosperous and it’s inviting. It’s a piece that, if you were in the city of London looking to go make a living elsewhere and to get out of large intercity living, you would think this is paradise. I always refer to the painting as paradise New Brunswick. The National Archives is very lucky to have a dozen of his oil paintings, which are very rare; there are less than 50 in existence and we have about a quarter of them. I think our collection at the National Archives forms a rich representation of Canada’s visual culture and Hind is certainly a major contributor to that.

    JO: Mary Margaret, what do you think was Hind’s greatest achievement?

    MMJ: I think it was the legacy of his art. The fact that you can find these watercolours, paintings, drawings across the country. He documented, you know, in Quebec, Labrador, Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, out West in Manitoba, British Columbia, Saskatchewan; I mean, he really covered the breadths of the country. Now his works can be found in the breadths of the country for Canadians to look at and learn about how the nation developed, especially this idea of progress and that Canada offered so much potential and possibility. He captured that in his artworks, so you can find them at the McCord, the BC Archives, McGill, Archives of Ontario, the Toronto Public Library, out East at Dalhousie, all over the place.

    JO: So they are really scattered everywhere?

    MMJ: Yes, they are scattered everywhere, and that’s part of the interesting work—putting everything together and trying to see how it all fits together.

    JO: What is included here at Library and Archives Canada?

    MMJ: At Library and Archives Canada, we have 149 watercolours, paintings, prints and drawings in the archival collection. Most of them are in the William Hind Collection and they have been acquired from a variety of sources. Some came from the family; in 1937, we bought 15 items from the husband of William Hind’s niece; others are transferred from government departments. For example, the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs transferred stuff to us. We’ve purchased things at auction; we have acquired things again through connections from other family members.

    JO: So LAC has been actively...

    MMJ: Yes, LAC has been very active. The first works, prior to 1937, the Dominion Archivist Dr. Doughty acquired the Overlanders sketchbook from 1862 and that was the first thing that came into the collection. Then all of these other works followed over the years.

    JO: Are any of the works that we have at LAC available online?

    MMJ: Yes, actually, the vast majority are available; 145 of the 149 works have been digitized and are available online.

    JO: Is it possible to view the Overlanders album online?

    MMJ: Yes. In fact, it is one of the special projects on the LAC website. What’s great about the Overlanders sketchbook is that you can view it online page by page; you can flip and go through the sketchbook, see what Hind produced and follow the journey of these men as they made their journey to British Columbia.

    JO: Do you have any final thoughts to add Gilbert?

    GG: Artists who paint landscapes don’t have to convey what they see; they can add a tree, move a hill, shift the river, add a canoe, put a flag up, and add more branches because it looks better in the picture. William Hind, his figures are cut off; in one of the major watercolours, all you see is a guy’s legs. It gives you a sense that you are there; it’s like journalistic; it’s like click; I wasn’t thinking of the guy lying down and resting; I was looking at the guy coming up in the centre. So what happens on the periphery—it is just chopped off, which is a very modern way of working when you think of Manet, Monet and Degas. This was how they composed things. I think it’s what photography brought to a way of looking at the world. Snapshots—you just point and you get what you get. You can then crop, but he in fact used that kind of framework to do his work. So it has a lot of modernity in it that we identify and recognize. When you look at his work, at first, you go: “Oh, that’s really nice; look at the horse that’s drinking water,” and then you look at it again, and you say: “Why did he position the horse exactly like that?” It’s not an accident. You suddenly see the structure in his composition—it’s design; he was educated in the school of design. His compositions—especially the oil paintings, the finished oil paintings—are meticulously constructed and they hold well. I think they always will.

    JO: To learn more about William Hind’s Overlanders Sketchbook, visit our website collectionscanada.gc.ca/hind/. If you would like to explore Library and Archives Canada’s art collection, please visit us online at bac-lac.gc.ca. On our home page, select “Discover the Collection” and then select “Art.” On this page, you will find links to our art Web exhibitions and databases.

    Thank you for joining us. I’m your host, Jessica Ouvrard, and you’ve been listening to Discover Library and Archives Canada—where Canadian history, literature and culture await you. A special thanks to our guests today, Gilbert Gignac and Mary Margaret Johnston-Miller.

    For more information on our podcasts, or if you have questions, comments or suggestions, please visit us at www.bac-lac.gc.ca/podcasts. From this page you can also view the William Hind Flickr album found under related links.


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