Canada has sent thousands of soldiers and a number of artists to war, and both roles have remained distinct and perhaps opposite in nature. Soldiers are trained, as best as they can be, for the grim environment of war, but the artist is in alien territory trying to record his surroundings with sensitivity and nuance—a setting he has little training for. The two vocations are disconnected, yet Will Ogilvie excelled at both. He endured years of wartime service on battlefields and simultaneously produced watercolours that stand among the best in this country.
Born at Stutterheim, South Africa, in March 1901, Ogilvie moved to Toronto in his mid-20s and by 1932 had established himself as a promising artist. He enlisted early in the Second World War and went to work as an army staff artist. In 1943 he became Canada’s first official war artist and was promoted to major.
He followed 1st Canadian Infantry Division through Sicily and Italy after which he continued on to the June 1944 invasion of Northwest Europe where he joined the 4th Canadian Armoured Div. He recorded the activities of the men on the ground as well as airborne activities in Normandy, and he stayed with the troops until the Allies entered Germany. His Normandy paintings of destroyed buildings in Caen and the Falaise Gap are particularly well known.
Landing in Sicily and later Normandy presented practical problems for an artist who needed to keep his paper and paints dry. Ogilvie wrapped his sketching kit in a gas cape and then tied an extra Mae West around the bundle. “A length of cord was attached to this,” he later noted, “so if it meant having to go off in deep water there would be a chance of towing it ashore.”
During the long years in the field, Ogilvie spent much of his time with the forward troops, often under fire and certainly facing the same hardships. He sketched continually amidst gunfire, explosions and death, and those watercolours have a sharp and sometimes frenetic immediacy. They are dark, gritty and haunting—much like the art found in today’s graphic novels. Ogilvie later recalled, “The Germans were retreating through the Falaise Gap (in Normandy) and the roads had been blasted by rocket-firing planes. They were littered with bodies and equipment. It was a pretty horrifying experience.”
His watercolour sketches became the source for his final oil canvases, and although the works were similar in composition, they are utterly different in style. The oils are surreal, as in the canvas titled Dead City–Caen, and reminiscent of the work of Salvador Dali.
After he was discharged in 1945, Ogilvie spent 10 years teaching at the Ontario College of Art in Toronto. He then spent another decade as a special lecturer in the Department of Fine Art at the University of Toronto. Much to the delight of other Canadian war artists, he was awarded the Member of the Order of the British Empire in 1946. Years later, in 1979, he was made a Member of the Order of Canada.
Many of this country’s most recognized artists considered Ogilvie the best watercolour painter in Canada, and there is no question that his paintings of the Canadian Army at war are some of the strongest in the collection at the Canadian War Museum. They were rendered by an artist who was also a soldier. Soldiers may retire, but artists seldom do and Ogilvie painted until his death in 1989.
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Many of the Canadian War Museum’s holdings are available in reproduction at affordable prices. For more information, contact Image Reproduction Services, Canadian War Museum, 1 Vimy Place, Ottawa, ON K1R 0C2; tel: 1-819-776-8686; fax: 1-819-776-8623; e-mail: Imageservices@warmuseum.ca