Campbell Tinning’s watercolor work includes from top to bottom: In The Vault Of The Cemetery; an illustrated letter to his mother and father; Drifting Down.
Although Canadian war artist Campbell Tinning witnessed the horrors of WW II, he managed to maintain a quiet sense of objectivity in how he viewed it. In a 1979 interview with Joan Murray, the director of the Robert McLaughlin Gallery in Oshawa, Ont., Tinning said war was “just happening to you. We couldn’t know what was going on all the time.”
While in Italy he climbed up onto a burned out tank and looked down the hatch. Inside, were two badly burned bodies, but years later he described the grisly scene with candidness. “I hadn’t been killed, it was war,” he told Murray. “But I have never forgotten those two men, even though my driver and I buzzed off in the jeep on that lovely Italian September day.”
Eight months later Tinning was in the Netherlands when he spotted thousands of German prisoners walking over a dike across the Zuider Zee. It was just after VE-Day. “They walked all the way along with wagons and pots and pans, in rags,” he told Murray, noting there were Canadian sentries posted along the way, “almost like a prison camp with sentries on the towers.”
Born at Saskatoon in 1910, Tinning studied in Winnipeg and Regina before heading to the Eliot O’Hara Water Color School in Maine and on to the Art Students’ League in New York. He moved to Montreal in 1939 and enlisted with the Canadian Army in 1942. The following year he was ordered to Ottawa and served as an official war artist from April 1943 to October 1946.
Tinning’s first overseas posting was at the Canadian Army parachute training school at Bulford, Wiltshire, near Salisbury. After attending the Canadian Army officers training school in June 1944, he was sent to Italy, disembarking at Naples after the Allies liberated Rome. He stayed with the Three Rivers Regt. near Florence and that same year went to Tomba di Pesaro where the Canadians broke through the infamous Gothic Line. In February 1945, Tinning travelled on through France and Belgium and was in the Netherlands to witness that country’s liberation and the end of war in Europe.
On April 24, 1943, the Montreal Gazette described Tinning as an artist who “handles watercolor with breadth and confidence….” One of his shows in Montreal was devoted to depicting Royal Canadian Air Force activities at various stations and training centres. “This (work) revealed a distinct flair for depicting this branch of the Dominion’s war effort, the works displaying qualities which suggest that his training and ability will ensure a thorough, workmanlike job in whatever sphere he may be assigned to serve.”
Tinning’s sphere included the illustration of letters home to relatives and friends. For example, a May 10, 1944, letter to his mother and father included a poem and a watercolor painting of a bomb shelter in a subway tunnel. Another letter contains a watercolor that depicts a tank and an emergency vehicle on an Italian street among bombed out buildings.
A lot of the people in Tinning’s paintings seem resigned to accept the hell they are experiencing or have just experienced. In Spring in Arnhem, Holland, 1945, a lone figure stands amidst the rubble with his hands in his pockets and head bowed. He does not seem overjoyed that a new era awaits, just resigned to the fact war happens and good people get killed.
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