By Jesse Robitaille
Released in time for Remembrance Day, a new commemorative stamp issued today features a 1919 painting by First World War artist Mary Riter Hamilton.
Designed by Québec artist Réjean Myette, the Permanent domestic-rate stamp reproduces Trenches on the Somme, one of about 350 works produced by Hamilton between 1919 and 1922. Her work comprises the largest collection of Canadian First World War paintings by a single artist according to the 2017 book, No Man’s Land: The Life and Art of Mary Riter Hamilton, 1868-1954, by Kathryn Young and Sarah McKinnon.
“I made up my mind that where our men went under so much more dreadful conditions, I could go, and I am very proud to have been able even in a small way to commemorate the deeds of my countrymen, and especially if possible to lend a helping hand to the poor fellows like those of the Amputation Club who will be life-long sufferers from the war,” Hamilton said in a 1922 interview with the McClure Newspaper Syndicate.
Despite petitioning the Canadian War Memorials Fund to become a frontline war artist, Hamilton was denied as female artists were assigned to Canada’s home front; only men received commissions for the battlefront.
Once the war was over, however, she was commissioned by the Amputation Club of British Columbia (now known as the War Amps) to paint the beat-up battlefields of France and Belgium for its veterans’ magazine, The Gold Stripe.
Then living in Victoria, B.C., Hamilton left for Europe in March 1919. She first arrived in France, where she visited several major battle sites, including the Somme, Ypres and Vimy Ridge.
“It is fortunate that I arrived before it was too late to get a real impression. The first day I went over Vimy, the snow and sleet were falling, and I was able to realize what the soldiers had suffered,” Hamilton is quoted as saying in No Man’s Land.
“If … there is something of the suffering and heroism of the war in my pictures it is because at that moment the spirit of those who fought and died seemed to linger in the air. Every splintered tree and scarred clod spoke of their sacrifice.”
Working long hours with substandard shelter, food and finances, Hamilton produced hundreds of paintings, drawings and etchings and was awarded France’s prestigious Ordre des Palmes académiques (Order of the Academic Palms) in 1922.
“To have been able to preserve some memory of what this consecrated corner of the world looked like after the storm is a great privilege, and all the reward that an artist could hope for.”
After experiencing the poor living conditions of war-ravaged Europe, she was hospitalized in France and the United Kingdom while facing dire financial straits. To fund her return trip back to Canada, she painted silk scarves in Paris, where she won a gold medal for one of her entries at the International Decorative Arts Exhibition in 1925.
That year, Hamilton returned to Canada to little fanfare.
“This was likely because Canadians were moving on from the war by this time, and perhaps because her European painting style contrasted with the Canadian national style popular in this period,” wrote Toronto historian Emily Gwiazda for the Canadian Encyclopedia.
Refusing to sell any of her battlefield paintings, Hamilton instead donated most of her work to what’s now Library and Archives Canada (LAC). After moving to Winnipeg and then Vancouver, Hamilton was “in and out of hospitals and psychiatric institutions” from 1928 until her death, Gwiazda added. She died blind and in poverty on April 5, 1954, at the Essendale psychiatric hospital in Coquitlam, B.C. She was buried in Port Arthur, Ont. (present-day Thunder Bay) alongside her husband, Charles Hamilton, who died just four years after the couple wed in 1889.
In 1988, the War Amps released a short documentary – also entitled No Man’s Land – highlighting Hamilton’s war-time art legacy.
In 2018, the War Amps and Canadian War Museum launched a free nine-month exhibition entitled “Resilience,” featuring 15 of Hamilton’s paintings from the LAC collection.
The Hamilton issue is available in 10-stamp booklets, 130,000 of which were printed by the Canadian Bank Note Company using six-colour lithography. Each stamp measures 36 millimetres by 36 millimetres.
As part of the issue, 7,000 official first-day covers, each measuring 190 millimetres by 112 millimetres, were serviced with cancels from Teeswater, Ont., where Hamilton was born.
While the stamp references Hamilton’s birth year as 1867, other sources provide varied dates, including “either 1867 or 1868” by the Canadian Encyclopedia and 1873 from both LAC and the Manitoba Historical Society.
“There is clearly a discrepancy in these records, but it would seem that the artist was born in either 1867 or 1868 (according to census and marriage records) or 1869 (according to her death certificate),” reads the 2017 book No Man’s Land, which uses Sept. 7, 1868, as Hamilton’s date of birth.