Thurston Topham

September 1, 2002 by Jennifer Morse

An Ammunition Column.

Thurston Topham was Canadian by choice, not birth. Born in England in 1888, he emigrated to Montreal when he was 23. His British education prepared him for architecture and interior decoration, but after his experiences in World War I he decided to pursue a career as an artist.

In WW I, Topham joined the 1st Canadian Siege Battery, where he was put to work creating panoramic observation sketches as well as routine duties. He often worked on his personal paintings by moonlight during the Battle of the Somme.

These drawings from the trenches are primarily in tones of sepia and grey and capture the muddy world our soldiers inhabited. Light filters into the cheerless canvases to illuminate his subjects, perhaps a wounded soldier or troops trudging over the front. They were created using black and white wash and water colour or whatever materials he could scrape up while serving as a gunner with the battery. After two months in the trenches, the artist was exposed to gas, and for the next two years moved between hospital and other medical facilities until he was finally discharged in 1918.

After the war, Topham returned to Montreal and set to work, intent on establishing himself as an artist. The National Gallery acquired 50 of his drawings from the Battle of the Somme for their records and he sold some pieces to magazines in England and the United States. He exhibited regularly in art exhibitions and was awarded the Jessie Dow prize twice by the Montreal Art Association. When WW II came around, Topham was keen to be hired as an official war artist, but by the time the program opened he was in his mid-50s and too old to be considered.

Night Scene On The Somme.

The spontaneous sketches he left us with give a rare view from the trenches during the Battle of the Somme. He died in 1966 in Montreal.


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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

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