Author: Flora M. Spencer
Publication Date: 2008
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Evan Macdonald, Wellington Hotel, (pen and ink and graphite). Collection of Flora Spencer.
History books are often enhanced by drawings and paintings to illustrate the atmosphere or events of the past. In considering a few of Evan Macdonald's drawings that depict buildings that once stood in Guelph, I would like to start by making a general point about the use of art to illustrate a text. Occasionally an artist may be commissioned specifically to illustrate an historical artefact or event, but that is not true in most cases. Instead, the artist is not a designated illustrator, so we must recognize that she or he had personal reasons for making the picture, reasons that go beyond providing a mere record. In the latter case the use of the artist's work to accompany a text would be like using the music from Swan Lake to accompany a cartoon - the context is lost.
Most of us look at art the way we look at the world - to orient ourselves, to recognize the familiar, to be safe, and to be informed. When art does not seem to serve this purpose, we often turn away from it, possibly missing opportunities for shaking up our complacent convictíons. Artists look at the world through a dfferently focused lens, and make art to call attention to what they see, how they see, and how they feel. In the process, they edit, draw contrasts, and exaggerate as they strive to separate their personal vision from the commonplace and present it to others. Artist Evan Macdonald has left Guelph, his native city, with an interesting and personal view of its architectural history and cultural values.
Evan Macdonald was born in Guelph in 1905, and lived there for most of his 67 years. His family had moved to Guelph in 1831, settling first in a log cabin on the site of the Wellington Hotel where Wyndham and Woolwich Streets and Eramosa Road meet. Evan grew up steeped in the history of his ancestors' roles in the founding of Guelph (a great uncle, John McDonald, was a surveyor for the Canada Company; his grandfather, Evan Macdonald, was a pioneer who cleared a farm on the Gordon Street hill and was involved in building and quarrying enterprises in the early days.)
Evan happened to have a strong interest in history and structures of all kinds and was trained from childhood to draw from nature. As a student at the Ontario College of Art in 1924, he was instructed to use landscape and architecture in order to extend his skills. During his five years of study in England, he honed his draughtsmanship to become an excellent printmaker and portrait painter. When he returned to Canada in 193I, he expected to make a living from painting portraits, but the Great Depression forced him to take on every kind of commercial art in Toronto. However, by 1938, working at the family business, D. E. Macdonald Brothers in Guelph, took up much of his time.1 In 1937, Evan helped his father and uncle reshape the building into storefronts for other merchants, and narrowed their own enterprise to a men's clothing store that specialized in made-to-measure clothing and fine accessories. After 1940, Evan was able to make more opportunities for drawing and painting, and aside from two years in the army, he began what was to become a lifetime of finding in Guelph and the surrounding countryside subject matter for his sensitive depictions of structure, colour, and light.
In 1947, Evan made the detailed drawing of Carden Street - the view that someone might have had on arriving in Guelph, leaving the CNR station in the morning sunlight in spring. Through the mesh of telephone and hydro wires, the architectural details of the varied facades of the shops on the north side are visible, and the slightly off-centre focal point of the Church of Our Lady, made into a dark silhouette by its own shadow, stops the eye and identifies Guelph. The massive quoins of the City Hall form the left-hand frame of the picture. For Evan, this was a scene that was absolutely familiar: looking towards the hill where he and his father had walked daily, past the looming church, from his childhood home on Cork Street to the family business, which was to his back as he drew this picture. The quotidian scene shows the changes that had been made since those childhood walks, by the modernity of hydro, telephone and the automobile - the tangle that progress had made in 40 years. Evan often deplored the disfiguring ugliness of poles and wire, but here he edits some out, and emphasizes instead his delight in the details of cars and trucks that mark the town as busy and newly more prosperous, after the Depression and the war. The broad street, the lone pedestrians - a mother and children and the dark beauty of the church make a strong contrast of quiet and continuum balancing the commerce. We see past, present and future; it is a celebration of stability within change - and not merely a record of buildings.
Evan Macdonald, Carden Street, 1947 (etching). Collection of Flora Spencer.
By the early 1950s change began to tread on Evan's sensibilities, and in his 1953 depiction of the demolition of the Royal Opera House, at Woolwich Street and Eramosa Road, he shows his dismay. The theatre was to be replaced by the more modern Odeon, and a Simpsons-Sears store. Evan was not indiscriminately sentimental about the original architecture of Guelph; he felt quite free to criticize what he found unattractive, and I recall him making the comment that the architecture of the Opera House was more imposing than beautiful. However, as the structure was being demolished, he became increasingly aware of the skills of the local stonemasons who had built it, as the structural underpinnings were revealed. He prophetically suggested that Guelph might, one day, regret the loss of this once-useful facility, especially in view of the then recent birth of the Stratford Festival and the new interest in live theatre in Canada. His drawing was reminiscent of pictures of the post-war bombed out cities in Europe, expressing his dark feelings about the destruction and change. The composition focuses on the massive space, the dark underground passages built to accommodate large theatrical productions, and the colourful patchwork of paint on the walls, indicating the multiple levels, and contrasting with the tiny workmen on top, shovelling a shower of debris into the abyss. The painting that he developed from this sketch provides Guelph with a mournful memorial to the Royal Opera House, the pride of the fund-raising of an earlier generation.
Evan Macdonald, The Royal Opera House, 1953, (felt pen, pen and ink). Collection of Flora Spencer.
Evan did recognize that the downtown streetscape was largely an integrated statement, united in its use of well-proportioned design and skilled stonemasonry, built on a human scale. Evan had a personal interest in Guelph buildings, a few built by his ancestors, and his time in England and Europe had trained his appreciation for good architecture. In 1960, he was among the frustrated and angry citizens who fought the destruction of the Post Office and Customs House that was the "masthead" of the main street, forming a worthy focal point for St. George's Square. Years before, the growth of the City had required the building of a larger and more modern post office, whose architecture was integrated into Upper Wyndham Street, but this had made the original building redundant. Evan and many others were ahead of the times in suggesting that the building could be renovated behind its original façade, providing modern space for a bank and offices. The retort was a precipitous wrecking to forestall further argument. Evan's drawing of the gaping black windows staring from behind the hoarding suggests his mood. The detail of the ground floor windows with their graceful arches, the imposing tower with classical lines and the horizontal delineation of the three floors, topped by the carved gables make the aesthetic loss of an important design abundantly clear, even in a small and simple pen and graphite sketch.
Evan Macdonald, The Post Office, Customs House, 1953, (pen and ink). Collection of Flora Spencer.
The 1960s completed the downtown's transformation to "modernity". After the Bank of Nova Scotia had replaced the old Customs House with a flat glass and slab structure, the rest of the City's banks marched their respective corners to the "slaughter." In 1961, the Bank of Montreal and its adjacent manager's residence fell. Earlier Evan had caught the dignity of these buildings in a small pen and ink sketch that emphasized the interesting contrast between the simple classic style of the bank and the French mansard-roofed residence. He later drew the Bank of Commerce, across St. George's Square, whose design was "Scottish Baronial." It had been built almost a century before, to harmonize with the Customs House, its neighbour. ln 1963, Evan made this particular graphite and ink picture of the Bank of Commerce to illustrate what remained of the unique architectural qualities of Guelph. It was commissioned by the Guelph Chamber of Commerce for a tourist brochure. The picture includes the now ironic text, written by Dick Brimmell of The Guelph Mercury and handlettered by the artist: even that interesting edifice was torn down in 1968.
In 1964, the Guelph Public Library was declared inadequate for the growing population of the City. To a regular patron like Evan, it was clearly true, and, though he had frequented the building from childhood, he was not aestheticaliy attached to the design, and not vociferous in its defence. Still, he had watched the construction of the building as a child, and he made a long series of drawings and paintings, marked with dates in December, to show the progress of the demolition, and to record his interest in the intricate construction, made evident as the layers were removed. In some of the pictures the tower, once massive in appearance, is shown as vulnerable beside the wrecking machinery. Bare trees, winter snow accumulation and the skeletal building lend a funereal mood.
Evan Macdonald, Bank of Montreal; Goldie House, circa 1960 (charcoal, ink and wash on paper). Collection of Evan Macdonald Estate.
These library studies also provide a catalogue of Evan's skills at the peak of his career, when he was working quickly and enthusiastically in charcoal, pen and ink, oil, watercolour and tempera.
Evan Macdonald, The Bank of Commerce, (pen and ink and graphite).
Evan Macdonald, Guelph Public Library Tower, 1964. Collection of Flora Spencer.
Evan made a detailed drawing of the Guelph City Hall in 1961. His original purpose was probably to make a large painting of the City Hall, showing the scale of the handsome tower, as it was being dismantled, but that was never done. Again, the artist's point of view affects what we see, even in this simple pencil sketch: he chose to view the building from the side; he even extended the paper as he realized that the structures behind told an interesting story about the early development of the town, and he included the silhouette of the Church of Our Lady, perhaps because he felt that the towers of both buildings were important to the familiar skyline of his native City.
Evan (and many others) wished for creative solutions that might have spared the unique character of the downtown core, and this has finally come into fashion. The recent effort to preserve the original facades of the City Hall/Market complex and the attempt to integrate the stonework of the new addition are a bow to this approach. It is obvious that the City's growth has outstripped the founders' intentions of broad streets and grand buildings. The expansion was necessary and has kept the original neo-classical facade of the City Hall in place, albeit, somewhat dwarfed by the new. It will take another generation of artists to pronounce judgement on the result.
Evan Macdonald, The Demolition of the City Hall Tower, (graphite on paper). Collection of Flora Spencer.
1905: Born June 9 in Guelph, Ontario to Evan Alan Macdonald and Susannah Weekes Macdonald. Evan Alan is a partner in the D. E Macdonald Brothers Department Store, Guelph.
1919: Completes junior matriculation at Central School, Guelph.
1921: Susannah Weekes dies in January.
1923: Graduates from Guelph Collegiate Vocational Institute. Enrolls at the Ontario College of the Arts in the fall.
1924: Completes first year with distinction and is awarded the Ontario College of Art Drawing Scholarship.
1926: Enrolls at Chelsea Polytechnic (affiliated with King's College), London, England. Awarded First Year Prize for etching.
1928: Accepted into the Royal Academy School of Painting.
1930: Exhibits in London with the Royal Institute of Painters in Oils.
1931: Retums to Guelph to live and work.
1933: Elected to the Ontario Society of Artists.
1937: Travels from Toronto on weekends to help restructure D. E. Macdonald Brothers Department Store.
1938: Works in the farnily business full time due to father's illness. His father dies on June 4, 1938.
1940: Marries Mary Elizabeth in Chesley, Ontario.
1943: Enlists in the Royal Canadian Engineers and posted to British Columbia. Birth of daughter Flora Mary in January.
1945: Discharged from the army and returns to Guelph.
1948: Elected Associate of the Royal Canadian Academy of Art.
1950: Birth of son William Evan in September.
1953: Begins chronicling the destruction of Guelph's historic architecture.
1959: Closes D. E. Macdonald Brothers Department Store.
1967: Teaches at Southampton Art School.
1970: Receives honorary Doctor of Laws degree from the University of Guelph.
1972: Dies at home in Guelph.
Flora Spencer Macdonald, Evan Macdonald: A Paínter's Life. Waterloo,ON: Wilfrid Laurier Press. pp. 102-105.
- D. E Macdonald was Evan's Uncle Donald, and the brothers were his father, Evan Alan and another uncle, William. From 1889 to 1936 the business took the form of a large department store, offering men's and women's clothing, millinery, shoes, and luggage. The Depression, however, nearly bankrupted the company.
Spencer, Flora Macdonald. Evan Macdonald: A Painter's Life. Waterloo, ON: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2008. Available through Wilfrid Laurier University Press or Macdonald Stewart Art Centre.