Printmaking, which encompasses the production of images by any one of the numerous processes of intaglio, relief, planographic and screenprinting techniques, has a long and complex history in Canada.
Monarch Butterfly


Printmaking, which encompasses the production of images by any one of the numerous processes of intaglio, relief, planographic and screenprinting techniques, has a long and complex history in Canada. Both the evolution of printmaking techniques and artistic innovation on the North American continent play major roles in this history, but the records of these developments are scattered, rare and often nonexistent.

Printmaking in the Early Colonies

There seems to have been little demand for printed images in New France, and what was needed for educational or religious purposes was invariably imported from Europe. Certainly no examples remain of any Canadian-produced prints from the French regime in Canada up to 1760. The earliest printmaking coincided with British attempts to conquer Canada in the mid-1750s and was closely related to the printed word. In 1751 a printing press was established at Halifax, but it was a flatbed type, imported from Britain or the American colonies and was incapable of printing images other than small vignette woodcuts used for advertising or announcements.

With the end of the Seven Years' War in 1763 England sought to colonize its newly won territories by encouraging skilled tradesmen to emigrate from Europe and America. Among these immigrants were some from southern Germany who had the knowledge and ability to make prints. The result was the appearance of a woodcut View of Halifax in the Nova Scotia Calender of 1777 published by an Alsatian émigré to Halifax, Anthon Henrich. He published similar and more elaborate woodcuts in succeeding decades in both English- and German-language versions of his calendar, as did another German émigré, Christopher Sauer (or Sower), whose prints were issued in New Brunswick calendars published in Saint John from 1786 onwards. Unfortunately, this early woodcut tradition did not outlast the 18th century, since it was only a sideline to the more serious venture of book and almanac publications.

Instead, artistic impetus and public approbation for the art of printmaking grew in the region of Québec City, the centre of the British Empire in the northern half of the continent. Here British officers and officials were headquartered, and lively interest in the arts, expressed primarily in watercolour sketching, was maintained (see topographic painting). Many military artists (most notably Thomas Davies, Edward Walsh and George Fisher) brought topographic sketches back to England to be engraved and published prior to the War of 1812, but there were also a few experiments in etching and engraving carried out by officers while stationed in Canada.

James Peachey, a member of the surveyor general's staff, executed a small copperplate etching of the Montmorency Falls in 1779, of which only the plate still exists. George Heriot, deputy postmaster general of British North America, a prolific artist and author of several English publications illustrated with his own works relating to Canada, also experimented with etching. Heriot was associated with Samuel and John Neilson, the publishers of the Quebec Magazine, in which one of Heriot's etched and aquatinted views appeared in 1792.

The Neilsons made the first serious attempt to establish professional printmaking in Canada in that year by importing a rolling or intaglio press and hiring the German émigré printer J.G. Hochstetter to produce a series of views, portraits and allegorical prints for their publications in the early 1790s. The Neilson press was probably responsible for a number of single-sheet broadsides and other prints that appeared during this decade, but by the turn of the century such productions had virtually ceased. For the next decade, no work in professional printmaking seems to have taken place, evidently because Canada had neither the population nor the prosperity to support such activity before the War of 1812.

Newfound wealth brought about by a war economy, a rising tide of immigration, and an enriched national fabric derived from the conflict with the US all combined to allow artistic developments to flourish in the second decade of the 19th century. In the interim, various professional and amateur artists were experimenting with printmaking for their private amusement or satisfaction, including William Berczy, Elizabeth Simcoe and Judge Alexander Croke, an Admiralty court official in Halifax, all of whom made Canadian-inspired etchings that have survived to the present day.

The next phase of professional printmaking occurred in Halifax where Robert Field, an English-born artist resident since 1808, executed and published an etching copied from his full-length oil portrait of Lieutenant-Governor Sir John Sherbrooke in 1816. The print was probably produced on an intaglio press owned by Charles W. Torbett, a local printer specializing in books and maps, who also executed portrait prints, club certificates and book illustrations. His press was probably the one on which a set of 4 coloured aquatint etchings showing views of public buildings in Halifax was printed in 1819 by John Elliott Woolford, official draftsman to Lord Dalhousie, Sherbrooke's successor.

Though Halifax after 1815 was the new centre for printmaking developments, tentative renewals of the art were occurring in Lower Canada. A few prints were published between 1815 and 1820 by isolated firms specializing in jewellery or metalware engraving, but not until the mid-1820s did professional printers establish themselves. In Québec, the arrival from Scotland of the Smillie family in 1821, and James Smillie Jr's subsequent development as a printmaker resulted in patronage from the local military and colonial elite, while Montréal by 1829 saw the beginning of the long career in printmaking and publishing of Adolphus Bourne. Although he was apparently never an active printer himself, Bourne worked in conjunction with a number of artists and engravers, including William S. Leney, Robert A. Sproule, Charles Crehen and John Murray, in producing over 50 separately issued prints (etchings, engravings and lithographs) before Confederation.

Amateur work in printmaking by military artists continued and was stimulated by the decision of the British government in 1807 to purchase the rights to Aloys Senefelders's lithographic process for use in its official establishments throughout the empire. By 1824 Québec City had a press, and lithographic prints of both a public and private nature were widely produced and diffused by the 1830s. Lithography represented a great advance for would-be printmakers because it was easy to operate the press and to copy images. Lithography would become the dominant type of printmaking in Canada from the 1840s onwards, but it was not introduced professionally until 1831, when Samuel O. Tazewell, an English-born printer who had immigrated to Kingston, built himself a press and sought out local varieties of limestone for use in his operations. Tazewell, after producing an image of the Chaudière bridges in Ottawa in January 1832, moved to York [Toronto] in hopes of becoming the province's official printer. There he produced several single-sheet prints for sale and worked in conjunction with the artists George D'Almaine and Henry Bonnycastle until his hopes for official patronage were dashed in the politics of the day. In 1835 he retired to St Catharines to resume his former occupation as a watch and clock repairman, and apparently never printed again.

Other printers, including Bourne, Hugh Greene and George Matthews of Montréal, and Napoleon Aubin of Québec City, rapidly followed Tazewell's example in printing and publishing lithographic views and portraits in the late 1830s and 1840s. Matthews worked with the artist James Duncan to produce a set of 6 lithographed views of Montréal in 1843, following Bourne's format of a set of engraved views published 13 years earlier, while Aubin published prints of local politicians and celebrities, St-Jean-Baptiste Society dinners and a portrait of Bishop Laval.

In the Maritimes the proximity of the great printmaking centre of Boston had a strong influence on local development. As artists such as William Eagar and Mary G. Hall took their work to Boston to be lithographed in the mid-1830s, interest in printmaking withered, not to be revived until the late 1850s. The same was not true of Toronto, which in the 1840s saw a rapid expansion in the field. The most prominent enthusiast was Scottish-born Hugh Scobie, who set up business in 1838. Working with several artists, including John Gillespie, John Howard and Sandford Fleming, and in partnership with John Balfour from 1846 to 1850, Scobie published a number of beautiful and well-received prints until his early death in 1853. Another pioneer was John Ellis, an English printer who opened a shop in 1843, publishing lithographic views until his retirement in 1868 (see print industry).

The Establishment of Printing Companies

By the 1850s many large printing companies had been established in Toronto, Montréal, Québec City, Ottawa and elsewhere. Technological developments such as the steam-driven rotary press, colour lithography and wood engraving stimulated the demand, production and market for prints to prodigious levels, but the quality of these prints was generally inferior. Thus, an artist like Cornelius Krieghoff, in seeking a printer who could reproduce his pictures, turned first to a firm in Munich, and then in New York, to carry out the work. Paul Kane found the Toronto firm of Fuller & Benecke (or Bencke) able to produce a remarkably beautiful multiple colour woodblock print of his Death of Big Snake. Kane did not repeat this exciting achievement and the firm soon failed, a victim of economic circumstances and the trend towards the industrialization of printing techniques.

Canadian artists were becoming increasingly frustrated with their role in printmaking in the 1860s and 1870s, as commercial concerns, technological innovations and the advent of photography reduced them to the status of craftsmen, especially in the larger centres of Montréal and Toronto. At the same time, they were becoming more conscious of their place within Canadian society. Native-born artists were also learning from immigrants about a new attitude towards printmaking that had developed in Great Britain and France. Known as the "Etching Revival," the movement was espoused by artists such as Alphonse Legros and the American James Whistler. These men began to treat the print, not as a method of reproducing images created in other mediums or solely as an illustration, but as a work of art unto itself, of which the artist was not only the designer but also the maker of the plate, the printer and the publisher.

This radical new direction also involved the concept of limited editions of prints, each numbered and signed by the artist and able to stand on its own merit. As these ideas spread and artists elsewhere, including in Canada, took them up, a dichotomy arose between the fine-art print and the reproductive or commercial print that remains even today.

The Stimulus to Fine Art Printmaking

Early Canadian manifestations of the movement occurred among Canadian artists studying abroad. Among the first was Elizabeth Armstrong Forbes, who studied with the Art Students League in New York before going on to London, Munich and Brittany, where she began etching at Pont Aven in 1882. Her example influenced such artists as Charles Henry White, who studied with Whistler in England, and Clarence Gagnon, who went to Paris in 1904 and in the next 5 years developed an international reputation as an etcher/artist. Regrettably, none of these artists had much influence in their native country; Forbes and White both remained abroad, while Gagnon abandoned etching upon his return to Canada in 1909, although he gained a considerable reputation as a painter.

In Canada a number of events occurred that also gave an impetus to fine-art printmaking. The publication of Picturesque Canada in 1882, which featured the work of a number of American artists as well as employing several Canadians, including J. Henry Sandham, Lucius O'Brien and John A. Fraser, had a twofold effect: it demonstrated the potential of the print medium as a means of displaying the beauty of the Canadian landscape; and it evoked a conscious desire among Canadian artists to train themselves in the skills of fine-art printmaking.

The relative neglect of the print medium by the Royal Canadian Academy and the Ontario Society of Artists also had an effect. As the ideas of the "Etching Revival" spread, it was inevitable that its influence would be felt in Canada, particularly in Toronto, where the Association of Canadian Etchers was formed in 1885. The association was made up of several British émigré artists, including Arthur Cox, William Cruikshank and Thomas Mower Martin, as well as the younger Canadian artists William W. Alexander, Henry S. Howland and William J. Thomson. As an organization, they sponsored an exhibition of their work and of earlier European masters; it failed because of financial problems and public indifference but set the example for the development of similar artists' groups in Toronto.

In 1886 the Toronto Art Students' League, loosely based on similar American and English artists' societies, was formed with the purpose of meeting once a week for life study and composition classes. The league lasted until 1904, and included printmakers William J. Thomson, John Cotton, later known for his exquisite aquatints, W.W. Alexander, Alfred H. Howard and William D. Blatchly, as well as artist/illustrators John D. Kelly, Charles M. Manly, R. Weir Crouch, Charles W. Jefferys and Fred Brigden. The league provided a congenial atmosphere for artistic endeavour, and was a training ground for younger artists and a means by which international artistic trends could be diffused within the Canadian art community. Many members were commercial artists with F. Brigden Ltd and Grip Ltd, where their skills were translated into graphic design, and several of them eventually left Canada to work elsewhere: David F. Thomson and Norman Price pursued successful commercial careers in the US, as did C.W. Jefferys and David Milne, who, however, later returned; Milne's drypoint engravings constituted an outstanding body of work, some of the finest printmaking ever produced in Canada. Arthur C. Goode and A.A. Martin went to England and founded the Carlton Studio, which was to develop into that country's dominant commercial art studio.

The Toronto Art Students' League had several offshoots, notably the Mahlstick Club, 1899-1903, and the Little Billee Sketch Club, 1898-99. Its most important successor, however, was the Graphic Arts Club, founded in 1904 by Jefferys, Manly, Brigden, Kelly, Robert Holmes, Thomas G. Greene, John W. Beatty, who would later become a teacher at the Ontario College of Art, and Albert H. Robson, art director at Grip Ltd, which would later employ Tom Thomson, J.E.H. MacDonald and other Group of Seven artists.

In 1924, on the occasion of its first public exhibition, the Graphic Arts Club renamed itself the Canadian Society of Graphic Art, a name formally incorporated in 1933. This organization became the primary artists' group in Canada by the 1940s, with a nationwide membership that included Ivor Lewis, Eric Aldwinckle, Miller Brittain, Carl Schaefer, Nicholas Hornyansky and H. Eric Bergman (see artists' organizations).

Toronto continued to be the centre for fine-art printmaking in the first 2 decades of the 20th century, owing mainly to the effort of William Thomson to gain wider public acceptance for the medium. He found a powerful friend in Sir Edmund Walker, whose influence resulted in the pivotal loan exhibition of prints and drawings at the Art Gallery of Toronto in 1912, with an accompanying catalogue. Further annual exhibitions at the gallery from 1914 to 1917, and the decision of other art bodies, notably the Art Association of Montréal, the Ontario Society of Artists and the Royal Canadian Academy, to recognize printmaking as a legitimate art form on its own, contributed to the foundation in 1916 of the Society of Canadian Painter-Etchers/Engravers. This society, with Thomson as its first president, drew artists from across the country, including Herbert Raine of Montréal, Henry Ivan Neilson of Québec, who was to form and become the first president of the Québec Society of Artists in 1920, and Walter J. Phillips of Winnipeg.

Printmaking in Western Canada

Developments in printmaking in western Canada deserve much closer examination than they have so far received. Although numerous artists recorded views of the West throughout the 19th century, prints based on their work were generally published elsewhere. Little is known of the early developments in printmaking, but by 1882, a steam cylinder and a chromolithographic press had been established in the British Colonist office in Victoria. The Montréal firm of Bishop Printing and Engraving Co established an office in Winnipeg in 1883, and was soon followed by other eastern firms such as Brigdens. By 1900 there were several commercial firms of printers in business across the West.

Serious developments in printmaking, however, only occurred with the arrival in Winnipeg just prior to WWI of the English-born artists Cyril J. Barraud, Hubert V. Fanshaw and Walter Phillips, and of German-born H. Eric Bergman. Cyril Barraud taught Phillips etching and sold him a press before returning to England in 1915 and becoming a war artist. In 1919, as part of the Canadian War Memorials Exhibition, Barraud, in conjunction with Caroline Armington, Gerard De Witt and Gyrth Russell, published a series of drypoints and etchings of Canadian battle scenes.

During and after the war Phillips and Bergman began developing national reputations for their work in etching and wood engraving, and both joined the Society of Canadian Painter-Etchers/Engravers. Phillips also began experimenting with colour woodblock printing, a medium in which he became internationally recognized by the late 1920s. In 1925 Phillips, Bergman and the Scottish-born Alexander Musgrove formed the Manitoba Society of Artists, which also included the Canadian-born Lionel LeMoine Fitzgerald, better known for his paintings than his delicate etchings and drypoints.

By the 1940s printmaking was firmly established as a fine-art medium in Canada. Many printmakers were able to live comfortably from the sale of their work, while others had taken up prestigious positions as teachers in the field. Among the latter were the painter Edwin Holgate, also reputed for his woodcuts, who was an instructor at the École des beaux-arts in Montréal; Frederick Haines, who became the principal of the Ontario College of Art in 1932; and Ernest Lindner, an Austrian-born émigré who came to Canada in 1926 and in 1935 became an instructor at the Saskatoon Technical College where he experimented in linoleum and linocut printing. Lindner was a forerunner of developments to come, as etching and wood engraving gave way to other print processes in the 1930s and 1940s.

Colour screenprinting (or serigraphy) was introduced into Canada in the 1920s by the Toronto commercial firm of Sampson-Matthews, and gradually gained acceptance as a fine-art medium in the hands of artists such as Leonard Brooks. Lithography also enjoyed a renaissance in the 1940s after falling into disfavour at the end of the 19th century. Together with linocuts, lithography and screenprinting would come to dominate post-WWII developments. They were peculiarly suited to the next generation of Canadian artist/printmakers, who continued the traditions of their predecessors in absorbing international trends and ideas and adapting them to the Canadian art scene.

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Further Reading

  • Patricia Ainslie, Images of the Land: Canadian Block Prints, 1919-1945 (1986); M. Allodi, Printmaking in Canada (1980); J. Russell Harper, Early Painters and Engravers in Canada (1970).