William Redver Stark: The Soldier and the Artist

Rough sketch of soldier writing by candlelight

Discover the life of a soldier through his eyes and gain insight into how day-to-day activities may have unfolded during the First World War. In this episode, Art Archivist Geneviève Morin and Conservator Lynn Curry from Library and Archives Canada join us to discuss the William Redver Stark fonds. We explore William Redver Stark’s background, his time as a soldier during the First World War, and the artwork he produced, specifically the 14 sketchbooks included in his fonds.

Duration: 24:43

File size: 28.2 MB Download MP3

Publish Date: September 4, 2014

  • Transcript of podcast episode 13

    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, Art Archivist Geneviève Morin and Conservator Lynn Curry from Library and Archives Canada join us to discuss the William Redver Stark fonds. We explore his background, look at his time as a soldier during the First World War and the artwork he produced, specifically the 14 sketchbooks included in his fonds.

    Hello Geneviève, Hi Lynn. Thank you for being here today.

    Geneviève Morin: Hi, glad to be here.

    Lynn Curry: Hi, me too.

    JO: Excellent. Can you tell us a bit about William Redver Stark and his background?

    GM: Sure. There is not much we know about Stark. Most of what we know comes from his military records, but the little bit we have been able to find on top of that is that he was born in Toronto in 1885 and he studied at the Ontario College of Art and he also studied somewhere in the United States. We’re not quite sure where, somewhere possibly in Pennsylvania, but we are still looking into that. He became a member of the Society of Graphic Artists and before the war he actually did quite a few exhibitions. He exhibited with the Ontario Society of Artists as well as with the Royal Canadian Academy. On a few accounts, he exhibited quite a few works and most of his favourites were landscapes or even animal depictions, which later in life he would become known for his actual animal depictions. We do know that after the war he did some more exhibitions; he actually did some exhibitions in Wembley, England, and as well in Paris, but most of his exhibition work was done in Canada. Other than his exhibitions, he worked as a freelance artist for the Toronto Star Weekly and he also did freelance illustrations for children’s books as well as education books. In 1921, he married a young woman by the name of Marjorie Crouch who was 24; he was 36, I believe. So he started a new life with a young woman after the war and they had one daughter together. That’s pretty much how he ran his life until his death in Toronto in 1953, and we find his tombstone in the Mount Pleasant Cemetery.

    JO: In Toronto?

    GM: In Toronto.

    JO: Do we know when Stark enlisted?

    GM: We do. His attestation papers are now available. They have been digitized here at Library and Archives Canada. We can look them up online where we learn that he signed up on June 6, 1916. We learn a few other interesting things: that he had brown hair and grey eyes; he had a scar on his forehead; and he wasn’t a very tall man—he was 5 feet 4 inches and ¾. The ¾ is very important when you are a small person—I know. He still lived with his parents when he enlisted and he listed his mom as his next of kin. What’s getting a little curious is that he gave a different date of birth when he signed up. So we know his date of birth as being February 4, 1885, but on his attestation papers he’s got March 4, 1886, as his date of birth, which is interesting because we don’t understand what he had to gain by telling us that he was 30 instead of 31 when he signed up. The likeliest explanation is back then he must have not known his exact date of birth, or he may have just forgotten, or his mother may have confused him with another sibling and he had his brother’s date of birth in mind. It’s unclear why he would have done that, but there it is.

    JO: How did Stark get involved in creating art during the war given that he wasn’t an official war artist?

    GM: Well, it wasn’t uncommon for artists to draw and doodle while they were on the front. They had some free time; they were, you know, hanging around waiting for their orders, or in the evenings, they would need to find something to do. So often, they would draw to record what they experienced during the day or just to keep themselves busy. It’s not uncommon to see artwork done by soldiers, even those who weren’t really artists. To be an official war artist, Stark was probably not prominent enough as an artist to have been picked up. The Canadian War Memorials Fund was an effort that involved artists from many nationalities to document the Canadian experience on the front during the First World War. They had a really big pool to choose from and a pretty important pool to choose from. Three members who would become part of the Group of Seven were actually official war artists. Arthur Lismer, Frederick Varley and A.Y. Jackson as well as other important artists, such as David Milne and Florence Wyle. So, Stark, despite the fact that he was a good artist, was probably not noticeable enough as an artist to have been picked. So the most obvious reason why Stark would have created art was quite basically because he was an artist and he liked to draw.

    JO: Is it possible to trace Stark’s movement throughout the war?

    GM: Yes, absolutely. William Redver Stark was part of the 1st Battalion of the Canadian Railway Troops and we do have the war diary for this battalion, which is a fascinating read and is available on our website in digital format. The battalion headquarters moved often, but they always stayed in a little pocket, a little area north of France and a bit in western Belgium. It’s very interesting and I’ve actually tried it, sort of writing down the names of the cities and the towns where they were, where the men were stationed. Just go to Google Maps and try to sort of trace out the little pattern that comes up. It’s true; it’s a very small area, but when you think of the work these men were doing—you know railway work and laying tracks, and digging, digging trenches—it was intense work on small territory. It was hard work. What’s even more interesting once you delve into the war diaries is that the sketchbooks get a whole different level of meaning. Stark didn’t identify many of his drawings—didn’t date them—so when you read the war diaries along with the sketchbooks then you’re getting a whole other set of information. The best example I have for this is we have these representations in the sketchbooks of soldiers building these extremely intricate wooden structures underneath a perfectly intact bridge, which is quite curious because the railway troops were always rather working on either building a bridge or repairing one that had been shelled or destroyed somehow. This one is perfectly intact and it’s kind of curious that they are spending all of this time sort of building underneath it. And I found this entry in the war journal, which mentions that the battalion received news that intelligence was telling them that the Germans were eyeing this bridge to blow it up, so they were sent to actually reinforce it before the Germans got there. I’d like to read a passage from the war diary if I can. This is from July 1918:

    Work comprises of the putting in of heavy timber centring in three large masonry arches. The timber being sufficient to carry a dead load of the structure, the live load of the heaviest train on top and in addition a two-deep steel rails covering that has been placed on the floor of the bridge as a bomb burster. The work comprises the framing and erection of about 200,000 feet of timber and over a mile of steel rail.

    So this is the kind of work that these guys were doing, but it’s so fascinating that they were doing pre-emptive work as well. Because of this tiny little passage in the diary, now I have three watercolours that I can identify and date in the sketchbook, which makes it all the more useful for researchers who are interested in this particular bridge that was called the Wimereux viaduct. It was very important for the transport of goods to and from the front, and I think Lynn.

    LC: Yes. Also of interest in sketchbook No. 10 is a paper label on the inside cover with a bookseller’s information, and it reads: “Ragons-Boyaval Dunkerque 1F10.” What that represents is the location of the bookseller where the sketchbook came from in Dunkerque, the location of the building, and 1F10 is the price that would have been paid for that sketchbook. There are other ticket labels in other sketchbooks, but none of them are so specific as to the location and the cost of the sketchbook itself. So that shows that he was there as well buying that sketchbook.

    GM: Dunkerque is actually one of the locations that has been identified in the war diaries as being one of the battalion’s headquarters. So we’ve got all this information that’s accompanying the war diary.

    JO: That’s amazing. How did Stark manage to draw and paint so many works in so little time?

    GM: Well, Stark was in France from October 1916 to October 1919. If you count his training days at Valcartier beforehand, he was in the army for almost 1,000 days. So, if you look at his 480 drawings—and we do know that there are other sketchbooks out there—he wasn’t all that prolific. It was maybe on average a drawing every two or three days. The nice thing about Stark’s work is that he did it in these very tiny sketchbooks that were very easy to transport; he could put one in a pocket or in a backpack. They were always ready, always near him, so he could grab one whenever the inspiration struck. The other thing is his choice of medium; he would always work with pencil or mostly with pencil and watercolour, which are something that explorers and soldiers have carried around for centuries. They’re easy; they’re fast. It’s not as fast as taking a snapshot with a camera, but almost, where you take your pad out and you scribble something quickly and you finish it once you’re back at camp having dinner, or maybe after dinner with a cigarette.

    JO: What is included in the Stark fonds and what steps is Library and Archives Canada taking to ensure that his works are available for future generations?

    GM: Well, as I mentioned, the Stark fonds doesn’t contain any of his textual archives. We do have the 14 sketchbooks that are made up of roughly 480 drawings and watercolours. Now what we have been doing to ensure that the public has access to them—they’ve all been digitized and described at the item level, so researchers can actually look at each and every single drawing through our website. I think Lynn.

    LC: Yes. As well as the preservation copy and the accessibility of the images on LAC’s website, the conservation treatment of the sketchbooks will take place to repair and consolidate the binding structures and the pages. Components, such as the sewing structure that holds the pages together as well as the materials that make up the exterior covers of the sketchbooks, all need to be consolidated. The conservation treatment will enable the sketchbooks to function as intended; pages will be able to turn again, etc. As well as that, all 14 sketchbooks have been rehoused in archival containers and they’re in a temperature environmentally controlled vault at Library and Archives Canada’s Preservation Centre.

    JO: How long is the conservation process and what kind of challenges do you run into?

    LC: Well, the conservation process begins with a thorough examination and documentation, both photographic and written documentation of what we’re finding. As well as that, a conservation treatment proposal and a time estimate are done for each book. And the consultation occurs with the conservation team, the archival specialist Geneviève and the collection management team to agree upon the conservation that will take place as well as to set priorities for which sketchbooks will be done first. In this project, it was determined that 5 of the sketchbooks were more likely to be requested for loan and then the other sketchbooks will follow after that. In the case of the 14 Stark sketchbooks, the conservation estimate ranges from 8 hours to 80 hours per sketchbook, depending on the severity of damage and deterioration. The sketchbooks exhibit the same type of damage, but to varying degrees, I can say that the damage is mostly physical wear and tear as opposed to any type of chemical instability within the paper or the binding materials. Then, the most challenging part of the project is the fact that pages have been removed from each sketchbook. Now it’s speculation to say whether Stark removed the pages before, during or after drawing in the sketchbooks, or whether they were removed later, much later, by a family member or another person. Nonetheless, the action of removing a page from the sketchbook leaves the other half of the folder folio. Sometimes it remains securely in place, but most often it breaks off, leaving a detached page within the block. Three of the sketchbooks were found to be virtually a pile of half folios or single sheets, apparently in random order. We’ve just completed what we call a “page mapping,” where we look at every detached page and try to locate it within the text block.

    JO: That’s quite the puzzle.

    LC: It is. It’s like a forensic examination looking at every detail of the paper, the binding, the drawing marks, the overlapping media, image transfers, indentations and stains. When this is complete, then the sketchbooks can be reassembled in the original order.

    JO: Or the suspected order. It’s not 100 percent sure that that is the actual order.

    GM: It’s not. And I recently had another surprise because this acquisition came in before I was an archivist here. I just had the wonderful opportunity to take over from where the other archivist left off; he sort of left on retirement halfway through. What I didn’t know was that some of the sketchbooks were actually returned to the family, most likely at their request. But, we thought we only had these 14 sketchbooks; it turns out that there are more out there, so Lynn’s puzzle had become more complicated, yet less frustrating because she knows that if a page doesn’t fit, it doesn’t necessarily mean that this is it; she knows now that maybe it fits into one of the missing sketchbooks.

    JO: Have you discovered anything exciting?

    LC: Well, yes. We have discovered a lot of interesting details about the sketchbooks. In our examination, we really look deeply at all the components of the format of the sketchbook; we’re not looking so much at the works of art, but rather the materials on which they are painted and the bindings that hold them together. When you lay out all of the 14 sketchbooks on a table, you really notice certain similarities in the style of the binding: the covering material, a very plain canvas, cotton, very coarse, utilitarian-looking, totally no decoration on the covers. There is almost always a little slot for a pencil to be held and an elastic or a snap or ties or something on the fore edge just to keep the binding closed when it’s probably in your rucksack or wherever it is. Some of the details about the nature of the paper and the binding components were quite interesting in that six of the sketchbooks had very high-quality watercolour paper from known papermakers where there was a book ticket, a colour maker’s label, or some such identification of the paper within the book.

    JO: Can you explain a little bit what that means?

    LC: Okay, sure. In watercolour paper, one of the devices that papermakers use to identify their paper is a watermark, which is visible only through transmitted light. You hold the sheet up or you put a light source under it and then you can see a watermark. What we were finding is that there were a number of watermarks, or that there are a number of watermarks in the Stark sketchbooks and they are all from English papermakers. We have one watermark in sketchbook 1, “1915 England,” in sketchbook 7, “1916 unbleached Arnold,” and Arnold was a papermaker in England, and in sketchbook 11 we have a watermark “England handmade.” Another device used by either the manufacturer or bookseller is known as a book ticket or a colour man’s label and these two devices can be printed on a paper label with information about the paper or the sketchbook as well as perhaps an address from where it was sold. We have a number of those tickets and labels in the sketchbooks. I’ll give you a couple of examples. Sketchbook 1 has “Newman Soho Square” as the source of the sketchbook and that is also in London. Sketchbook 3 has “Windsor Newton England.” Actually, three had “Windsor Newton England.” Then there were two from France: the one I mentioned earlier—Dunkerque paper label—and another ink stamp from “Maison Chambre Paris.” So these would have been where the sketchbooks were sold.

    JO: Wow! That’s interesting. Geneviève do you have a favourite Stark work?

    GM: I do. My favourite is a very simple view of two women in a field and it’s such a wonderful work because the colours are so vibrant and saturated. The play of light and colour in the image is just beautiful. You can see the wind blowing through the trees; you can image it just by looking at the image because you have a sort of dappled light. These are just two women seen from a rather good distance: one is crouched down and she is picking something in the field; the other one is standing straight up with her hands in her back—she is looking off into the distance. The first time I really stopped and looked at this image, I realized that it kind of looked like a snapshot—like a split second—where one is bending over, the other one standing up, and it’s something that Stark might have seen while he was marching by. Then I realized, is that what that woman is watching? Is Stark’s battalion just marching by in the field going to their next assigned job and they are just watching this train of men with giant machines walking by? So it’s a really interesting photo just because it keeps you guessing at what is that woman looking at. Where was Stark when he took this? Was Stark actually marching by and he thought, “I have to remember this for later”? The sheer beauty of it, the colour and the light are just beautiful.

    JO: Lynn how about you?

    LC: Well, I think my favourite image is a very simple sketch of a man crouched down by candlelight; he’s drawing in a book. And I just imagine that it’s Stark or another one of the men in their quiet moment with their little sketchbook by candlelight, drawing or writing in their journal or their sketchbook. On the outside covers of two of the sketchbooks we found drops of wax, and it just really made me feel that this was a true image that was happening and they were using those books in those conditions; it just brought it to life for me.

    JO: What stands out most about Stark’s artwork during the war? How is his artwork different than the other art that was created at the time?

    GM: I think for me what stands out the most about Stark’s artwork is the serenity of the works. We are dealing with very horrible conditions, a very horrible situation; it’s the war and it’s one of the most gruesome wars the world has ever known. In reading the war diary again, the battalion’s war diary tells us that these men went through a nightmare. They were constantly under the threat of attack from German troops or from the German army that was targeting the railways they were working on and the bridge they were building—constantly trying to blow them up. So men were always under the threat of fire and they lost a lot of friends; a lot of the men they worked with were killed by these attacks. They were doing tough physical work: they were digging; they were pushing; they were pulling; they were lifting; they were moving rails; they were shovelling; they were doing all of this horrible tough work in even more miserable cold and wet conditions; but, you wouldn’t guess that by looking at the sketchbooks. The sketchbooks have such a beautiful serenity to them; there is no record of the horrors that these men were seeing, so that’s again causing us to believe that this was a bit of an escape for Stark when he would sit down and do his drawings. He would do drawings and illustrations that he would do back home, the landscapes or the dog that would be hanging around the camp, the horses. There are so many depictions of horses because that’s what brought him comfort, or that’s what would have brought him comfort. So sort of the sheer peacefulness of the drawings is something that I find extremely different from other war art that we see. Even in his depiction of the soldiers in the sketchbooks, they aren’t depicted in anyway different than the farmers who are haying in the fields. They are just people who were doing their jobs and it’s extremely interesting that he doesn’t at all put in that tinge of wartime. It’s just a lovely picture book.

    JO: Thank you so much for being here this afternoon.

    LC: Thank you Jessica.

    GM: I loved it. Thank you so much.

    JO: For more information on William Redver Stark, check out our blog articles on thediscoverblog.com or to learn more about the First World War, please visit us online at bac-lac.gc.ca. On our home page, select “Discover the Collection,” then select “Military Heritage.” On this page, you will find a link to our First World War: 1914–1918 website containing a list of all of our resources related to the First World War.

    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, Geneviève Morin and Lynn Curry.

    For more information about our podcast, or if you have questions, comments or suggestions, please visit us at www.bac-lac.gc.ca/podcasts.


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Related links

William Redver Stark: Life on the Lines with the 1st Battalion of Canadian Railway Troops
William Redver Stark Flickr album
Watercolours and Drawings by William Redver Stark
Military Heritage: First World War
Military Heritage articles on the Library and Archives Canada Blog

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