This article was originally published in Maclean’s magazine on August 2, 1999. Partner content is not updated.
Orville Fisher was already an accomplished professional artist when the Second World War broke out in 1939. But when he joined the army the following year, it was as a private in the Royal Canadian Engineers. The army soon recognized what it had, transferred Fisher to officer training and made him an official war artist. On June 6th, 1944, he was the only Allied war artist to take part in the D-Day invasion of Normandy, coming ashore with the 3rd Canadian Infantry. To Fisher, who died last week at 88 at his home in Langley, B.C., after a series of strokes, his war work was among his best.
Born in Vancouver in 1911, Fisher studied at that city's School of Art under GROUP OF SEVEN painter Fred VARLEY. His major pre-war work was painting murals with two other artists for the B.C. pavilion at the 1938 San Francisco World's Fair, depicting scenes from the province's economic life. The giant murals, which required him to work 15 hours a day for five months, were a far cry from the quick, vivid sketches made under fire on a Normandy beach.
Bobbing offshore, watching Canadian troops struggle in water already stained with blood, Fisher realized that the 30 kg of art supplies in his backpack would drown him. So he threw them overboard and landed with only a 15-by-13-cm sketch pad of waterproof paper strapped to his wrist and a charcoal pencil. On the beach, in the midst of the carnage, Fisher made a series of sketches recording the successful landing. He stayed with the 3rd Infantry until November, when the division reached Nijmegen in the Netherlands. In all, Fisher sketched 246 images that he later turned into powerful and evocative oil paintings or watercolours. Now in the Canadian War Museum, they are a testimony to another kind of military courage.
Maclean's August 2, 1999