Academic journal article Newfoundland and Labrador Studies

Alan Caswell Collier (1911-1990): An Ontario Artist of Newfoundland and Labrador

Academic journal article Newfoundland and Labrador Studies

Alan Caswell Collier (1911-1990): An Ontario Artist of Newfoundland and Labrador

Article excerpt

Visiting artists have greatly enriched the cultural heritage of Newfoundland and Labrador, with such sojourners sketching and painting what they could get to and see. (1) Historically, their work was both facilitated and limited by the means of transport available to them in the region. Over time these changed remarkably. When the celebrated American painter Frederic Edwin Church (1826-1900) visited in 1859, he arrived in St. John's by boat from Halifax and then chartered a vessel to explore along the east coast of the island and as far north as Battle Harbour, Labrador. (2) He next sailed down the west coast of Newfoundland before crossing over to Sydney, Nova Scotia. There were few roads in Newfoundland at the time, but, while staying in St. John's, Church chose to venture overland to Petty Harbour and made a sketch of that thriving outport.

From 1898 travel by train across the island from St. John's to Port aux Basques (where a connecting ferry service to Nova Scotia operated) offered visitors another perspective on the topography of Newfoundland. Eventually, there were also branch rail lines and an extensive coastal boat service (the inspiration of much story, song, and verse) tied to the railway enterprise. The artists who touched in, though, continued to focus their attention on the coastal scenery and seascapes for which the island is justifiably famous.

In the 1930s, the English artist Rhoda Dawson (1897-1992), who worked for the industrial department of the medical mission established by Sir Wilfred Grenfell, produced excellent watercolours depicting a variety of locations in northern Newfoundland and coastal Labrador. (3) Her base of operations was St. Anthony, where the Grenfell headquarters was located, but she eventually

sojourned in Twillingate (with the accomplished Dr. John Olds) and in St. John's, where she spent several months recording, in picture and word, the life of the harbour.

In the 1940s the Canadian war artists who came to Newfoundland and Labrador had access to military transport by land, sea, and air, the last made possible by the bases built by Newfoundland (using British expertise) at Gander and by Canada at Torbay (site of the present-day St. John's airport), and Goose Bay, Labrador. (4) Thanks to Canadian and American defence spending (the United States constructed bases at St. John's, Argentia/Marquise, and Stephenville), there was a transportation boom in Newfoundland in the decade. Trans-Canada Air Lines (TCA) began scheduled service to St. John's in 1942 and this welcome development has greatly facilitated travel to and from the island ever since. (5)

When the London, Ontario, artist Clare Bice first visited the new Province of Newfoundland in 1951 (just two years after Confederation), he flew into St. John's with TCA and then went over the Conception Bay highway, one of the oldest roads on the island, to the Port de Grave/Brigus area, which had been recommended to him by fellow painters for its natural beauty and artistic potential. (6) He made the locality the setting for his beautifully illustrated children's story The Great Island: A Story of Mystery in Newfoundland (New York: Macmillan, 1954), which also refers to Gander, now easily accessible and also on his Newfoundland itinerary. By this time, road building was a major economic activity in Newfoundland, with the construction of the island portion of the proposed Trans-Canada Highway, a daunting task, in prospect. As this highway was pushed across the island (essentially following the route of the railway), it opened up Newfoundland as never before to Newfoundlanders and visitors alike.

Among the early travellers over the full length of the new road were the Toronto artist Alan Caswell Collier, his wife Ruth, and their young son Ian. During the summer of 1963, the Colliers drove from Port aux Basques to St. John's and back at a time when an artery that would change the face of Newfoundland was still under construction and only paved here and there. …

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