Memorable Manitobans: Walter Joseph Phillips (1884-1963)
Born at Barton-on-Humber, Lincolnshire, England on 25 October 1884, the son of John Phillips, a Primitive Methodist minister, and Sophie Blackett, he moved with his family from manse to manse. At age 14 he was enrolled in Bourne College (near Birmingham) and at Birmingham’s Municipal School of Art. In 1901 he became an assistant instructor at Yarmouth College, then emigrated to the Transvaal for five years. By the time of his return he was committed to being an artist.
With his wife and baby he immigrated to Winnipeg in the Fall of 1913, choosing the city “for no particular reason”. He soon found a job at St. John’s Technical High School, and he began sketching and exhibiting with LeMoine FitzGerald and Cyril Barraud. When the latter joined the Canadian Expeditionary Force in 1917, Phillips acquired his press, plates, paper, and tools, enabling him to fulfill a lifelong ambition to make prints. He lived at 32 Bannerman Avenue in Winnipeg from 1916 to 1924.
He and his family spent a year in England in 1924-1925 to enable him to improve his technique, particularly with woodcut blocks, and he acquired a reputation as the nation’s finest woodcut artist. Economic conditions in Winnipeg in the 1930s were as hard on Phillips as on any other artist, and he was anxious to leave. Election to full membership in the Royal Canadian Academy did not alleviate his fear that he was “getting older and getting nowhere” in a “more moth-eaten” city. Life seemed little more than a constant scramble for survival.
In 1940 he began a 20-year run of teaching in the summers at the Banff School of Art, and a year later he accepted a position teaching at Calgary’s Institute of Technology and Art. Finances improved and he built a house at Banff, to which he moved in 1948. He and his wife later moved to Victoria, British Columbia where he died on 5 July 1963.
Phillips was a fine watercolourist in the English tradition, and his woodcuts fetch astounding prices. Although there are signs of critical change, he still has not made his way into the first rank of Canadian artists, however, not least because his exquisite miniature landscapes did not shout their emotions.
Death registration, British Columbia Vital Statistics.
Obituary, Winnipeg Free Press, 9 July 1963, page 2.
We thank Joanne Struch, Ray Phillips, and Nathan Kramer for providing additional information used here.
This page was prepared by Gordon Goldsborough.
Page revised: 8 May 2023