In 1985, on the 75th anniversary of the Royal Canadian Navy, Geoffrey Bagley donated 92 naval artworks to the Canadian War Museum, so in this the centennial year of the navy, it seems fitting to celebrate his contribution to Canada’s war art.
The artist was born in England in 1901 and began his education in architecture. Finding it not entirely to his liking, he successfully petitioned his parents to let him study at the Nottingham College of Art. The artist left England in 1929, and moved to Toronto where he worked as an engraver. From there he went to Montreal where he built a career as a respected art director for a fine-paper manufacturer.
In 1942, Bagley was hired as a graphic artist by the Wartime Information Board and the National Film Board of Canada. For his two years in Ottawa, he was tasked with creating wartime propaganda and recruitment posters for the navy. He also secured other assignments to create artwork specific to the navy to ensure all branches of Canada’s military services were represented during the war.
His first assignment was in Halifax where there was no shortage of material for an artist interested in the navy. He joined a short North Atlantic convoy and was able to gather enough material for later paintings, lithographs and sketches of life on ship and shore. When he returned, it was back to Ottawa and the daily grind. In his spare time he developed the convoy sketches into final works. “I produced some finished pictures: enough to smooth the way for a further assignment with the RCN. In September 1944, I was authorized to proceed on a complete transatlantic convoy—Newfoundland to the United Kingdom—on board the corvette Frontenac. Emerging on deck in the early morning I found that whatever way I looked I saw the same ship, which was somewhat disturbing. However, the [answer] was simple but satisfying; they were Liberty Ships—dozens of them. It was a perfect convoy for making drawings. Eighteen days of reasonable weather…. The sub menace was nearly over except for isolated incidents such as that which befell the frigate Magog a month later when she had her stern blown off by an acoustic torpedo.”
Bagley disembarked at Londonderry, Ireland, and made his way to Plymouth, England, and then back to Canada.
His humour and mastery of both medium and design is plain in his work. He worked in many materials: pastel, pencil, watercolour, crayon, Conté, ink, charcoal, oil and pastel. Comical pencil sketches perfectly capture a sailor’s pleasure at the sight of a passing Wren, while detailed watercolours impart the mass and movement of ships at sea. In one work he creates a cross-hatched sea, the vastness of the water perfectly portrayed with snappy rather than liquid strokes.
Bagley resigned from the National Film Board in 1946 and returned to England, where he and his wife settled in Rye, a town he loved and wrote extensively about. He cherished beauty for most of his life, and was fortunate enough to have a career as a commercial and fine artist which allowed him the opportunity to create his own vision of beauty. In retirement he worked for decades to preserve the historic mementos and places in Rye for future generations, and now his work on the Canadian Navy can be viewed at the Canadian War Museum, preserved for our country and our future generations.
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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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