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HISTORY FROM THE ARCHIVES: Sculptor marks the lessons of war

November 18th, 2016 · No Comments

Walter Allward designed Vimy Ridge, local war memorials

By Alfred Holden

In honour of Remembrance Day, this month we reprint former Citybuildings columnist Alfred Holden’s November 2003 piece on the sculptor who designed many of the nation’s most affecting and prominent war memorials.

Though he was an artist, Walter Allward believed no picture, story, or other artistry could adequately capture and represent the real horrors of war. Humility is a sign of wisdom and talent, and Allward, a sculptor, delivered. In his home studio at 76 Walker Ave., north of the CPR tracks just west of Yonge Street, he designed one of the most inspiring war memorials yet created.

“War memorials have long been flashpoints for such debates. They are sanctioned and official — the king’s version of events, as it were. They are symbols, necessarily abstractions representing complicated, chaotic events, to which there are varied interpretations. They are also, just as hotly, public art.”

It stands today at Vimy Ridge in northern France, two majestic pylons rising like an apparition from the white stone base on the edge of the Douai Plain. Visitors walk right onto the monument and among the thousands of names of Canadian war-dead, etched on impregnable walls, at the site of the horrific First World War battle. Carved figures thrust from points on the monument’s geometric edges: a cloaked, brooding mother stares down at a tomb, where her sons are buried; a dead soldier seems to be aiding the living — for that’s what humans now dead here did, said the sculptor.

“There is in Allward’s work much of the character of Beethoven in music, something of the great writer of sonnets in literature,” a Canadian reviewer wrote about the Vimy design. “He never wastes a line.”

An American profiling Allward in The New York World was less reserved. “By reason of the work he is doing on war memorials, Walter S. Allward, a Canadian, is acclaimed as the greatest sculptor for monumental work in the world. It is claimed, indeed, that he is doing the best work in that line since the days of ancient Egypt.”

What a compliment.

So too is the fact that most people today know of the Vimy memorial, but have never heard of Allward. The art speaks, not the brand. “He creates not merely for himself or for the present, but for the nation, for the crowd, and the future,” wrote Augustus Bridle, an art-critic contemporary of Allward’s.

You need not go to France to see an Allward. If you live in midtown, you don’t even have to board a streetcar to find half a dozen. Just go over to Queen’s Park.

The statue by Allward of General Simcoe, first governor of Upper Canada, stands east of the legislature doors. A few steps west, Sir Oliver Mowat, of Mowat Block fame (and an Ontario premier), has been immortalized in a signed and dated bronze. So has the other Macdonald, J. Sandfield, Ontario’s first premier. On the west side of the legislature, for some reason hidden in the bushes, is Allward’s bust of William Lyon Mackenzie’s push for democracy in Upper Canada.

Allward grew up in Toronto and attended Dufferin Street Public School and Toronto Technical School (now Central Technical School). He apprenticed as an architect, but got the sculptor’s bug. He got his first major commission in 1895, at the age of 19, to create a figure of peace for the top of the memorial to those who fought in the 1885 Northwest Rebellion. This was Louis Riel’s battle. Appropriately, an olive branch is yet today in the lady’s hand, where she stands on her pedestal at Queen’s Park Crescent and Grosvenor Street.

The sculptor’s most notable Toronto artwork stands a few blocks south of the legislature, along University Avenue on the north side of Queen Street. Available for viewing on the centre boulevard 24 hours a day and 365 days a year, it is the monument to the 1899-1902 South African or Boer War.

It is dignified, substantial, unconsciously erotic — a 70-foot obelisk topped by the bronze figure of winged victory. At the base, a beautiful gowned woman, flanked by sinewy soldiers armed for combat, looks purposefully south.

The Boer War is considered by some to be an ignoble war. The white descendants of Dutch settlers fought the British (and the Empire, including a typically divided Canada) in remote southern Africa, over gold and diamonds that more rightfully belonged to the Xhosa tribes who lived there.

Does Allward’s monument at University Avenue and Queen Street offer sober commemoration and consolation for those lost on behalf of an important national cause? Or does it glorify violence, distort truth, and justify injustice?

War memorials have long been flashpoints for such debates. They are sanctioned and official — the king’s version of events, as it were. They are symbols, necessarily abstractions representing complicated, chaotic events, to which there are varied interpretations. They are also, just as hotly, public art.

“Vulgar taste was typified by the civic monuments which began to dot American towns in the late 1870s — statuary pieces of a pronounced foundry type intended to commemorate the heroic achievements of the late (civil) war,” the great Harvard historian Arthur Schlesinger Sr. commented in his urban history, The Rise of the City. “Nothing less than an earthquake could have cleared away the monumental excrescences of American cities….”

But some people see the broader power of monuments. In Moby Dick, Herman Melville compared mast-heads — brave men who’d grow weary, even die, weathering storms high on a ship’s rigging as they watched for whales and reefs — to “iron and bronze men”, dead at their posts, such as “Napoleon, who, upon the top of the column of Vendôme, stands with arms folded…careless now who rules the decks below”. It is true that in memory and experience, maps for the endless human voyage can be found.

Allward, who left with his wife Margaret and their two children on June 5, 1922, to begin construction at Vimy Ridge and remained in Europe until the monument was completed in 1936, must have observed the rise of Nazism. He considered metal a “material” for war, so the whole monument was planned in stone, and left untouched during the Second World War.

I was there in June of 1988, and will never forget it.

Remembrance Day is November 11. We all remember in our own way, as the complexity of war dictates we must. At intervals war is seen as a great adventure, a patriotic duty, an unavoidable circumstance, a bloody mistake, or mass-murder. It represents the greatest failing-point of humanity.

It is worth remembering, taking lessons from, brooding over, analyzing, commemorating — until such a day as war is no more.



FROM THE ARCHIVES: If buildings are art, should they be altered from their original form? (September 2015)

FROM THE ARCHIVES: A grand gesture in the age of thrift (September 2015)


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