Lewis Edgar Hyde Parker background

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By A. J. B. Johnston
(Previously published in the 1983 winter addition of The Beaver.)

WHY THE PAST? Why specialize in historical paintings? Lewis Parker looks up. His brush, its tip the colour of the gold trim on the soldiers' hats that he's working on, hovers a few inches from the canvas. Puzzled, seeming to think the answer obvious, the artist shrugs, 'It's my country'.

Lewis Parker is today one of Canada's foremost painters of historical scenes. His work, though not always his name, is known across the country. His paintings hang in the National Museum of Man, Fortress of Louisbourg, Sainte-Marie-among-the-Hurons, Fort Beaus‚jour, and many other museums and historic parks. Now at the peak of his abilities Parker is embarking on a four-year, twelve painting history of Cape Breton, a commission from Sydney's University College of Cape Breton.

It is of course not surprising that Parker mentions the late C.W. Jefferys (1869-1951), the renowned Englishborn painter and illustrator of Canada's early days. He is often called Jefferys' successor and it is a comparison that pleases him; Jefferys was a hero during his youth. But there are differences between the two men's approaches. Jefferys did hundreds of detailed drawings of objects from the past; Parker prefers to work such details into larger scenes that tell a story. Jefferys' paintings often depicted dramatic moments in history; Parker focuses more on the quiet dramas and routine activities of everyday life in bygone times. It makes for peaceful rather than heroic paintings-but ones which tell complex and interconnected stories. Those stories are rendered visually, depicting past cultures: Indian, Inuit, British or French, alive and inaction. Parker was born in Toronto in 1926 and enrolled in a standard art course at the Central Technical School in Toronto at age 13. Three years later, eager to develop his skills he went to work as a junior apprentice for a Toronto art house, Rabjohn Illustrators. The pay was three dollars a week but the job gave young Parker a chance to watch, listen to, and sometimes talk to such artists as Jack Bush, Ron Wilson, and Adrian Dingle. Of all the people Parker met at Rabjohn's the one who most influenced him was Bert Grassick, a staff illustrator who also did political cartoons for Maclean's and the Toronto Telegram.

Parker spent two years as an apprentice illustrator. Then overnight he and a friend decided to enlist for the fighting in World War II. First he was off to Debert, then overseas in 1944, eventually to serve with the Stormont, Dundas and Glengarry Regiment. Soon after the 19-year old reached Europe the war ended. Parker stayed overseas for a year with the army of occupation, and was able to put his drawing ability to work. He started out as an all-purpose illustrator on the regimental newspaper but quickly graduated to The Maple Leaf, the paper for all of Canada's troops in Europe.

Back to Canada in 1946 Parker returned to his old job as an apprentice illustrator with Rabjohn Illustrators, but soon made plans with a friend Gord Laws, and later Bill Sherman, to form their own Toronto-based commercial art company. The partnership lasted a decade, but during it young Lewis Parker was finding himself increasingly fascinated by past cultures. The most important stimulus occurred during a three-month trip to New Mexico in 1947. There, Parker was amazed by the freshness and vitality of the designs of the Taos Indians. The experience stirred in him a profound curiosity about his own ancestry. He had been told that his paternal grandmother had been a Nova Scotia Micmac, but that fact previously meant little to him. Seeing the artistry of the Indians, however, awakened a deep longing to know more about his own ancestry and about North American native cultures in general. Professionally, there was almost no market for paintings or illustrations of scenes depicting native peoples during the late 1940s and 1950s. Parker maintained his interest, but was forced to put most of his energy into other illustrative work for several Toronto newspapers and Maclean's and Chatelaine magazines. Parker's favourite assignments during these years, and likely the ones in which he did his best work, were those with historical themes. His agent in New York recognized Parker's preferences and directed more and more historical work his way. Combined with his years of cartooning, which taught him to look at human actions from every possible angle, these assignments gave Lewis Parker the foundation from which his historical paintings would later arise.

During the mid-1960s Parker was awarded two Canada Council grants to further his research and drawing of native peoples. In 1966 he moved to Mexico with his wife Eleanor and their four children to study the Mayans and Aztecs; two years later he travelled with artist Eugene Aliman to Western Canada to study the Plains Indians. The trips were both personally and professionally satisfying and confirmed his desire to depict Canada's past. Parker's skills and sensitivity in depicting native people soon attracted the attention of the Huronia Council in Ontario, who wanted an artist to do historical paintings for their Sainte-Marie-among-the Hurons site. Parker was awarded a commission to do four illustrations; yet he became so enthusiastic about the Huron project that he enlisted the help of friend and painting partner Gerald Lazare and together they executed 36 illustrations. All were (and are) used in an audio-visual presentation, although only the original four plus six more were paid for. Retaining ownership of them all, Lazare and Parker are still looking for a buyer for the series.

Though the Sainte-Marie-among-the Hurons assignment had not been financially rewarding, it did not dampen the enthusiasm Lazare and Parker felt for historical paintings. Their next major commission was with the National Film Board for a series of paintings on the Inuit hunt of the Beluga whale and the Plains 'Buffalo Jump', illustrations which were used as the basis for films. They teamed up again in 1972 to work for the National Museum of Man in Ottawa, on a project that challenged their abilities as no other had before. First there was the subject to be depicted: the history of mankind from Australopithecus to current times. Second, the tableaux showing this transition were to be painted inside three domes of the museum building, each one of which had a double curve and measured 16 feet by 75 feet. Preparation for the paintings took a full year as Parker and Lazare worked with the research specialists of the museum. The final painting took eight months, with Parker and Lazare doing one each, and teaming up to complete the third. Now with the National Museum of Man about to move into new quarters in Ottawa the future of the painted domes is in doubt.

For partner Gerry Lazare the Museum of Man project spelled the end of his work as a historical illustrator, but Lewis Parker had come to enjoy the experience of working with research specialists (anthropologists, biologists and historians), and arriving at a common agreement on what the past had been like. Rather than resent the suggestions and criticisms of experts, Parker relished them and sought them out. He strives for accuracy, be it a costume detail or behavioural pattern, so that the historical content of the final paintingis as close as possible to the truth.

From 1975 to 1982 Lewis Parker spent much of his time working on east coast historical topics, on a series of projects with Parks Canada.

The work began with an assignment to do a large and detailed painting of the expulsion of the Acadians from lle Saint-Jean (Prince Edward Island, which was featured in a subsequent film produced for Fort Amherst, near Charlottetown. The illustration was very well received and Parks Canada soon commissioned Parker to do more work: one painting on the construction of the Acadian dikes near Grand Pré, Nova Scotia, and seven on the history of Fort Beauséjour. At Beauséjour, a fort that has been left as ruins for two centuries, photographic reproductions of Parker's canvases have been placed at select locations on the grounds of the fort that duplicate the vantage points in the paintings.

Aware of what Parker had achieved elsewhere and with its own interpretive needs, the Fortress of Louisbourg contracted the artist to do two large paintings (10'6" x 5'6") set in mid-August 1744 that would concentrate on the maritime side of life in eighteenth-century Louisbourg. In its heyday Louisbourg was one of the busiest ports in North America, ranking only behind the major American cities in ship arrivals. Yet visitors to the fortress found that historical truth practically impossible to grasp, given the empty modern harbour. The solution to the interpretive problem was thought to be paintings by Lewis Parker.

When Parker arrived in Louisbourg, where he would live for eleven months in 1981 and three months in 1982, he was given the general assignment: one painting to offer a panoramic view of the entire harbour and the other, from the opposite direction, to focus on activities of the inner harbour and along the quay. The particular vantage points and basic compositions were left to Parker to work out. Weeks of sketching, taking photographs, trying a variety of approaches followed, until at last he had two concepts that both worked a esthetically and met the park's needs. In arriving at the final compositions Parker used his artistic licence to its maximum. For 'View from the Clock Tower', to cite the most drastic alterations, he raised the horizon line the equivalent of 500 feet and foreshortened the topography of the far shore another 1,000 feet. Despite the magnitude of the distortions, they were so well executed that few of the fortress staff even noticed the modifications until they were pointed out. On a typical project Lewis Parker estimates he spends 70 per cent of his time on research and preliminary drawings, 30 per cent on painting. So it was at Louisbourg, where the fortress's professionals provided him with the information he needed on the activities, architecture and costumes of the town. Much of this material was already available, having been researched during the past 20 years of the reconstruction project. But there remained some significant gaps. The most noteworthy of these were the designs for the 80 vessels in the harbour and for the dozen or so buildings that had to be depicted but had not been reconstructed. On these particular questions marine expert Alex Storm and restoration architect Yvon LeBlanc, both park staffers, provided invaluable assistance. For their help, and that of all the other people who worked on the project, Parker was extremely appreciative. By the end of his first stay in Louisbourg he seriously maintained that the paintings had been 'mutually created' by all involved. It was a typically gracious remark, but nonetheless an exaggeration. Admittedly, Parker had incorporated many suggestions put forth by the Louisbourg experts and removed other elements they felt to be inaccurate in some detail. Yet the final achievement was definitely his alone. It was Parker who transformed the mass of historical and architectural information into a workable whole, who 'choreographed' the people on the canvases into believable social units and who infused the paintings with their touches of nature's hand. This last aspect preoccupied Parker during the final eight weeks on the project as he devoted himself to painting sky and water, grass and stone, capturing the play of light and hinting at the power of the elements. In the end his attention to such details turned the paintings into distinctive works of art in addition to their value as canvases depicting historical scenes.

A trademark of Parker's historical canvases has been his inclusion in most compositions of children: at play, at work, on their best behaviour, or at their worst. Other historical artists usually focus on the adult world of the societies they depict, but Parker feels that he just can't leave children out. He has kids fishing for fun along the quay, mimicking their elders, annoying a drummer, being disciplined by a priest, helping out with chores, at carefree play and under the watchful vigilance of a nun. Each little vignette suggests a story and provides a sharp contrast with the constricted world of the adults.

When Lewis Parker was in the final days of his stay at Louisbourg he was asked how he rated the two canvases he was completing. He responded that they might be the best work he's done to date. 'They've got everything-ships, houses, people, activities-there's everything involved in it and everything is exact.' That longing to get it right, and the profound satisfaction when he does, seem to explain better than anything else why Lewis Parker loves to paint Canada's past.

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