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Reminders of the First World War loom large in the Senate
July 19, 2018

Parliament Hill is home to hundreds of works of art. Among the most impressive are eight war paintings that hang in the Senate Chamber, vivid reminders of Canada’s sacrifices during the First World War.

Because of their monumental scale — more than three metres wide and two metres high — they present a challenge to the specialists who will ensure they are handled carefully when rehabilitation work begins on the century-old Centre Block.


To that end, in the winter of 2018, a team of conservators from the Canadian War Museum and the Canadian Conservation Institute assessed the paintings’ conditions.

This analysis will help them identify protective measures that will be taken when the paintings come down.

The paintings have hung in Parliament’s upper house since 1921, when they were loaned to the Senate by the National Gallery of Canada.

A century later, they remain sobering reminders to senators of their responsibilities to the country and people they serve.

They are part of a collection of nearly 1,000 works commissioned by the Canadian War Memorials Fund, the brainchild of Max Aitken, the New Brunswick-born media baron who became Lord Beaverbrook in 1917 and later served as a cabinet minister in the United Kingdom governments of David Lloyd George and Winston Churchill.

The collection was entrusted to the Canadian War Museum in 1971.

Senator Patricia Bovey, an art historian and former director of the Winnipeg Art Gallery, said the fund, Canada’s first official war-art program, helped capture the stories of the 425,000 Canadians who served overseas and whose sacrifices bolstered Canada’s international reputation.

“It was the First World War when Canada came of age internationally and the art program helped make that happen. It was our artists, our photographers and filmmakers who depicted the sights, the horrors, the actions of the war.”


While the war artists who painted Canadian troops in action were British, for the most part, several had close connections to Canada, among them James Kerr-Lawson, born in Scotland but raised in Hamilton, Ontario.

His depiction of shell-shattered Ypres, Belgium where, in 1915, German troops unleashed clouds of chlorine gas against Canadian, British and French soldiers, hangs on the east wall.

“The artist’s use of light and colour is poignant,” said Senator Bovey.

“The acidic shade of green Kerr-Lawson has used vividly represents the horror of gas warfare.”

Rebecca Renner, Supervisor, Conservation and Technical Services at the Canadian War Museum, was part of a team of conservators who scanned the canvases, centimeter-by-centimetre, through magnifying lenses.

“We look at the current condition and causes of deterioration before the paintings are removed.” Ms. Renner said.

“This helps us understand the scope of work involved in protecting them when they are being moved out of the Senate Chambers.’’

“Handling paintings of such importance and such size requires careful planning. Removing them safely from the Senate Chamber will be no small feat.”

Explore the war paintings — and the entire Senate Chamber — in detail by taking the Senate Virtual Tour.

British painter Clare Atwood showed soldiers on leave in 1917, crowding a train station as they return to the Western Front. Although female artists were not allowed to document the battlefield, Atwood captured a revealing aspect of the exhausting conflict in this depiction of wartime London. (Beaverbrook Collection of War Art, Canadian War Museum, CWM 19710261-0017)

British landscape artist George Clausen toured war-ravaged northern France just months after the November 1918 Armistice that ended the war. The devastation he witnessed inspired him to paint this scene of destitute civilians returning to their ruined villages. (Beaverbrook Collection of War Art, Canadian War Museum, CWM 19710261-0121)

The Second Battle of Ypres in 1915, where Canadian troops endured poison gas and relentless shelling, reduced the once-magnificent Flemish town to ruins. Canadian artist James Kerr-Lawson juxtaposed the clearing smoke of battle with the shattered remains of the cloth hall and cathedral. (Beaverbrook Collection of War Art, Canadian War Museum, CWM 19710261-0334)

Edgar Bundy portrayed the moment Canadian troops first set foot on the European continent. The First Canadian Division, led by the Royal Highland Regiment pipe band, marches by the cheering residents of Saint-Nazaire, France and on to the Western Front. (Beaverbrook Collection of War Art, Canadian War Museum, CWM 19710261-0110)

English painter Leonard Richmond depicted the Canadian Overseas Railway Construction Corps laying tracks near the Arras front in northern France. The troops responsible for roads, rail lines and bridges endured shelling from German artillery to keep supply lines to the front repaired. (Beaverbrook Collection of War Art, Canadian War Museum, CWM 19710261-0582)


British artist Algernon Talmage painted Canadian soldiers in a mobile veterinary unit, evacuating wounded horses during the First Battle of Cambrai in the autumn of 1917. Tanks were deployed in massive formations at Cambrai but horses remained essential for hauling supplies and transporting the wounded. (Beaverbrook Collection of War Art, Canadian War Museum, CWM 19710261-0596)

After four years of constant bombardment, the northern French city of Arras was virtually demolished. James Kerr-Lawson captured the devastation as evocatively as in his <em>The Cloth Hall, Ypres</em>, which hangs on the opposite wall of the Senate Chamber. (Beaverbrook Collection of War Art, Canadian War Museum, CWM 19710261-0335)

Sir William Rothenstein portrayed the uneasy peace that took effect on November 11, 1918, focusing on an Allied control point along Germany’s Rhine River. A British sentry stands guard next to a howitzer, with Cologne in the background. (Beaverbrook Collection of War Art, Canadian War Museum, CWM 19710261-0601)