The Vision of Peter Clapham Sheppard (1879-1965)
The dedication of two people led to the extraordinary discovery of a cache of paintings and other effects in a dingy basement in Toronto. The treasure they uncovered was the collected work of a Canadian artist, Peter Clapham Sheppard, who had dropped from sight at the height of his productive effort. K J Mullins writes of the quest of Louis Gagliardi who for 30 years, beginning in 1987, sought to discover and learn more about the life and work of Peter Sheppard. Gagliardi could not have accomplished this treasure hunt without the assistance of still one other mostly forgotten Canadian artist, Bernice Fenwick Martin. Martin had been a former student and close friend of Sheppard through the latter part of his life. Upon his death in 1965 she became custodian of Sheppard’s work. Both of these artists left only paintings behind for posterity to know them. There are few records available to help us understand the motivation of these two artists. Observing their art is the best way to know them.
Peter Clapham Sheppard
The early years of the 20th century witnessed a significant change in the paintings of artists in Canada. Homer Watson’s (1855-1936) style of painting...glorification of nature...reflected a parting gesture toward influences from both European and American taste honed by the Barbizon School (1830-1870) in France. In the US we had the Hudson River School (1825-1870) of painters like Frederic Church. Events in the world such as World War I also had a profound influence on life and on the kind of painting created by a few young artists in Canada. In looking at the life of A Y Jackson (1882-1974) we see a new thrust for art in Canada. A small group of painters began a movement extolling the beauty of the Canadian wilderness. Meanwhile, despite many reservations about the legitimacy of Canada’s involvement in a European war, Jackson, for one, exited his painting excursions in northern Ontario and western Canada. He volunteered to fight in Europe. He was wounded in action but after recuperating he became an early official war painter and he began to capture the devastation of the European countryside. His early war paintings were of serene countrysides “...as the war progressed [his] paintings grew darker” and he began to paint haunting scenes of devastation. Jackson returned to Canada and to his art there very much a changed person.
So we have these fundamental changes in the art scene in Canada at this time. While paintings of rugged scenes of Algonquin Park and Georgian Bay eventually moved a spirit among some Canadian artists, there was also a desire to show just how Canadian life was changing. The pursuits of ordinary people began to attract the interest of some artists. Instead of looking to Europe for fashionable subject matters, some artists in North America began a movement toward painting urban life and the changes reflected in society. While the Group of Seven (1920-1933) continued to extol nature in their paintings, some artists preferred subjects found in the hearts of cities. Tom Smart describes it this way: “Sheppard was on the outside looking in at the group’s efforts...his artistic intentions did not align with theirs...His was a different source of inspiration, articulated in a form of urban pastoral and in scenes of economic growth embodied in civil engineering projects and in the rail yards.”
Sheppard painted Canadian nature scenes as well but he began to create art that reflected an interest he found during visits to the east coast of the USA. Apparently he saw the art of members of two groups there that influenced his choice of subjects for many of his paintings. The two groups were named Eight and the Ashcan School. These movements were guided by the American painter Robert Henri (1865-1929) who had been influenced by the impressionist painters during visits to France...especially their preference for painting modern urban scenes which included ordinary people in social situations. The Ashcan School was about life—the “unfiltered environment of the city and the disregard for mediated beauty was radical” for that time. Gregory Humeniuk writes this about Sheppard’s art, “From the 1910s to 1930s, Sheppard skillfully manipulated paint to rewarding effect. Most importantly, his sustained interest in the flux and frisson of urban life is a part of Canada’s century and a half of urbanization.” Instead of views of Algonquin Park or Georgian Bay, Sheppard saw scenes in Toronto that demanded the attention of an accomplished artist. “Sheppard was a little older than most of the members of the Group, and his beginnings were similar to theirs….His professional career overlaps nearly perfectly with the Group. He began exhibiting in the mid-1910s, hit his stride in the mid-1920s, plateaued in the mid-1930s and was treading water by the end of the decade. Many artists would be lucky to have that much of a career.” (Humeniuk, 2018)
Since he left little for us to read, we cannot quote any direct thoughts of Peter Sheppard. We can learn much about him by examining his paintings. Here you can read about four of his major paintings and note the vision he had of life in Toronto and Montreal between 1915 and the 1930s.
The Bridge Builders, Construction, Bloor Street Viaduct - c.1915
The Engine Home - c.1919
Elizabeth Street, Toronto - c.1930-1931
Cabstand, Montreal - c.1917
The 1915 painting Sheppard created about the construction of the Bloor Street viaduct is an extremely powerful, impressive work of art as is the scene showing the locomotives. “The bridge was an ambitious engineering project…indeed a powerful and positive symbol of growth and development [that] represented hope in future prosperity and signified a young country and city poised on the brink of self-defining growth.” (Smart, 2018). In the Elizabeth Street painting, Sheppard sought to capture the Ward’s “gritty working class streets…alleys, houses and shacks as portraits of resilient survival in places defined by transition and impoverishment.” (Waddington’s, 2018)