Orville Fisher

May 1, 2004 by Jennifer Morse

Orville Fisher landed with the troops on D-Day, and his paintings record the historic assault and the chaos of battle. Clockwise from top: Engineers Clearing Roads Through Caen; Stormont, Dundas and Glengarry Highlanders; Scheldt Crossing; Battle for Carpiquet Airfield.

The will to survive must have been the overwhelming instinct for our soldiers as they fought through the waves and shelling to Juno Beach on June 6, 1944. Orville Fisher also thought about painting. He was the only Canadian war artist to land with the troops and he sketched every step of the way. Born in Vancouver on Nov. 24, 1911, Fisher was the oldest of six children. He studied at the Vancouver School of Art, under F.H. Varley and Lawren Harris, members of the Group of Seven. He became friends with artists Paul Goranson and Ed Hughes, and the trio established a graphics firm. The three went on to paint murals for the British Columbia pavilion at the 1939 World’s Fair in San Francisco.

All three applied for appointments as official war artists, but rather than wait for a reply, Fisher enlisted in August 1940. He worked as a sapper and service artist, and in February 1943 he became one of Canada’s first official war artists. Both Goranson and Hughes were also accepted into the War Art program.

At 7 a.m., June 6, 1944, Fisher landed on Juno with the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division at Courseulles-sur-Mer. Rough sea conditions and heavy shelling meant that his Landing Ship Tank could not make it fully ashore, and so tanks, support vehicles and men were dumped from the off-ramp into deep water where they had to struggle towards the beach. Fisher strapped a sketch pad to his arm and began to draw. He caught a ride on a truck to the beach, stationed himself at a captured gun position and from there continued to record the assault. The artist was able to work a few of the sketches into watercolours that morning and then, for safety, sent all of them by landing craft to England. The painting featured on our cover, D-Day—the Assault, was painted from those sketches.

The Canadian War Museum has almost 250 of his works on paper. About a third of his realistic canvases beckon the viewer into images painted from the Normandy invasion, and the subsequent Allied push through France, Belgium and Holland. Overcast skies, ghostly ruins and soldiers on the move are rendered in sombre tones.

My favourite painting by this artist, Battle For Carpiquet Airfield, breaks with tradition. It is surreal, and the eerie palette and stylized composition create a monument to the soldiers he served with.

After the war, Fisher returned to Vancouver where he began a teaching career at the Vancouver School of Art. He continued painting until his death in July 1999 at age 87. His powerful images of Canadians on D-Day live on.

Email the writer at: writer@legionmagazine.com

Email a letter to the editor at: letters@legionmagazine.com

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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