Manitoba Historical Society
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Manitoba History: The Art of W. J. Phillips

by Robert Coutts

Number 52, June 2006

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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Our cover illustration entitled “Red River Expedition, 1870. Near Lower Fort Garry” was painted in 1934 by the renowned western Canadian artist, Walter J. Phillips. We are especially proud of this cover as it represents the first public presentation of this 24” x 21” Phillips oil painting which was recently found in the collection at Lower Fort Garry. The painting has been authenticated by Mr. John Crabb, a lifelong collector of Phillips’ work and the leading expert on Phillips and his art. Manitoba History would like to thank Parks Canada for permission to publish the painting and Mr. Crabb for his enthusiastic and invaluable help in gathering information about the work.

“Red River Expedition, 1870” was commissioned by the Hudson’s Bay Company for its calendar art series depicting various aspects of company and Canadian history. Although some of Phillips other works graced the front of this popular series (most notably his water colour of york boats at Norway House), this painting was never used by the company.

During his three decades in Winnipeg Phillips became fascinated with the Red River and with River Road, the historical river edge byway that was such an integral part of life among the early settlers of the St. Andrew’s area. He produced a number of works that depicted these subjects, the first of which, a 1917 etching entitled “Lockport” depicted a scene very similar to our cover, but without the members of the Wolseley Expedition. Phillips used the same scene again in a 1923 colour woodcut entitled “Red River Road” which added the church at Gonner across the river. His 1923 woodcut of historic St. Andrew’s Church was used on the cover of the book Women of Red River.

One of Canada’s most celebrated artists, Phillips was born in England in 1884. Later, he moved to South Africa where he worked as teacher, newspaper reporter, surveyor’s assistant, law clerk and diamond miner. Phillips returned briefly to England before emigrating to Winnipeg with his wife Gladys in 1913. The couple lived in Winnipeg for the next thirty years.

While in Winnipeg Phillips produced hundreds of woodcuts, watercolours, and oils depicting scenes from Manitoba and northwestern Ontario. He eventually moved to Calgary, then Banff, and lastly to Victoria where he died in 1963.

Phillips gained international fame for his colour woodcuts and many of his pieces can be found in galleries around the world, including the Smithsonian, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, and the National Gallery of Canada. However, the best collection of Phillips' work is the extensive exhibition at the Pavilion Gallery in Assiniboine Park. This collection was originally assembled and donated to the gallery by John Crabb. Mr. Crabb’s many years of dedication to the work of Walter J. Phillips has been exemplary; he has helped, not only protect the works of this talented Manitoba artist, but has promoted his accomplishments to a new generation of Canadians.

Page revised: 2 March 2019

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