Gyrth Russell

July 1, 2007 by Jennifer Morse

PHOTO: CANADIAN WAR MUSEUM—AN19710261-0223

PHOTO: CANADIAN WAR MUSEUM—AN19710261-0223

Courtyard, Camblain L’Abbé.

Using a thick palette of soft lavender, yellow, cream and blue, Gyrth Russell painted the crumbling buildings and landscapes of the Canadian sector of the Western Front. In spite of the devastation, these sun-drenched canvasses have a sleepy Mediterranean atmosphere, and if it weren’t for the occasional figure of a soldier or stretcher-bearer, it would be difficult to find the war in them at all. And yet, as trite as it sounds, looks can be deceiving. The artist was so troubled by what he saw on the front during World War I that he seldom referred to those years in his later papers and manuscripts. “I hated it,” he wrote. “It was contrary to everything I valued and believed in. I don’t think it was just the fear of death…but the thought of being buried alive in a filthy trench and my body serving to fertilize a French peasant’s crop of root vegetables!”

PHOTO: CANADIAN WAR MUSEUM—AN19710261-0618

PHOTO: CANADIAN WAR MUSEUM—AN19710261-0618

White Château, Liévin.

Born in Dartmouth, N.S., in 1892, Russell was the youngest of eight children, and began his study of art in Halifax at age 14. His father was a Justice of the Nova Scotia Supreme Court and–after some convincing–he supported his son’s career decision. In 1912, like so many of the promising artists of the day, Russell moved to Paris to further his art education at the Académie Julian and Académie Calorossi. The influence of the early French Impressionists is evident in his work.

PHOTO: CANADIAN WAR MUSEUM—AN19710261-0618

PHOTO: CANADIAN WAR MUSEUM—AN19710261-0618

Ablain Saint-Nazaire.

When WW I was declared, Russell left France for Rye, a picturesque village on England’s south coast where writers and artists congregated. Just a few years later, on Christmas Eve 1917, he was appointed an official war artist and commissioned with the honorary rank of lieutenant. “I was taken to France (in February 1918) where I joined the Canadian headquarters (at Aubigny). I was allotted a car and a driver who was instructed to drive me anywhere in the area occupied by Canadians,” he remembered.

The majority of his paintings were created from the area around Vimy Ridge near Arras, France. The scenes and ambience must have been dramatically different just one year earlier, in April 1917. Now the land was broken but quiet, leaving Russell free to focus on the effects of the great battle, and the play of light and shadow on the ruined landscapes and buildings.

He was discharged from the army in 1919, six months after the armistice came into effect. Russell settled first in England and later in Wales. He died in 1970.

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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