We were given a jeep and a driver and left to do something called war art…. We received our supplies of paint, brushes and things in London before we went over; I took oil and a paintbox and a lot of watercolours.” This was T.R. MacDonald describing his first days as an official war artist in northern Italy during the Second World War. And although the subject of war art was relatively new to him in 1944, by the time he enlisted—in March 1941—MacDonald was a seasoned artist.
Born in Montreal in 1908, the artist studied figurative painting and thrived in the stimulating and diverse culture of his hometown. He continued to paint, and after his enlistment served with the Canadian Army’s 7th Reconnaissance Regiment. Within a few years he was put to work as a service artist. Commissioned in May 1944, MacDonald worked as an official war artist from August that year until the end of the war.
MacDonald remembered his time in northern Italy, and once noted that people kept under cover as much as possible. “I spent the night in trenches. But at that time I guess it was the second largest bombardment of the war—somewhere up in the hills of Italy. This was to break down the German lines before the troops went in. But they would fire on anything you could imagine. The ringed field guns, all calibres, surrounded them and we opened up after dark. The thunder and the flashes were just quite beyond anything I could have conceived…. In the summer it was, as you know, bright, cheery and in the winter it was dismal…. It was awful. I was cold and miserable and that certainly was not on paper.”
MacDonald’s work did not mirror his discomfort—quite the opposite. There is a gentle quality in his subjects and treatment. From four sleeping passengers on a night train to a sunny streetscape in Rimini, Italy, to a stylized performer shrugging on stage, MacDonald maintained calm compositions, but he never settled into one style or one subject. He was clearly at home with a variety of mediums and subjects, from drawings when he first enlisted to watercolours in the field to formal oil paintings after he returned to London.
In oil his colour and treatments are chunky. In watercolour his strokes are sketchy and light and the pigments pale and transparent. His drawings—like the red chalk sketch of war artist Captain G.C. Tinning—are controlled and sensitive. These works are so varied that it is surprising that one artist created them all. To view our story on G.C. Tinning, visit https://legionmagazine.com/index.php/1997/03/campbell-tinning/.
MacDonald resumed his civilian career in the arts after his discharge from the army in September 1945. He was selected to head the Department of Fine Arts at Mount Allison University in Sackville, N.B. He left there in 1947 to become the director of the Art Gallery of Hamilton, Ont., where he remained for over 25 years.
MacDonald was a consistent and prolific artist and the Canadian War Museum houses 80 of his artworks. He died while on a trip to Paris in 1978. Thanks to the foresight of the Canadian War Records his war art of northern Italy reminds us of our past as we go forward to face new conflicts.
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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