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July/August 2003
Vol. 35, no. 4
ISSN 1492-4676

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Lorne Pierce of Ryerson Press and Canadian Art, 1920-1950

Nicole Watier, Research and Information Services

Dr. Sandra Campbell, who is completing a biography of Dr. Lorne Pierce, was the speaker for the March SAVOIR FAIRE session. An adjunct professor at the Pauline Jewett Institute of Women’s Studies at Carleton University, Dr. Campbell is also a part-time professor at the University of Ottawa. In her presentation, Dr. Campbell discussed Lorne Pierce’s role as a leading publisher and promoter of Canadian art and art history, focussing on his work on the Ryerson Press’s Canadian Art series.

At the beginning of her lecture, Dr. Campbell thanked Beth Pierce Robinson, who was in the audience. Daughter of Lorne and Edith Pierce, Ms. Pierce Robinson provided access to her father’s personal papers, which greatly assisted Dr. Campbell in her research.

Lorne Pierce (1890-1961) was a major figure in Canadian publishing for 40 years as editor of the Ryerson Press, one of Canada’s oldest and most important publishing houses. Pierce never let his physical handicaps of deafness and lupus prevent him from pursuing his goals. Dr. Campbell explained that, driven by his philosophy of cultural nationalism, Lorne Pierce was determined to publish books on Canadian art, hence the Canadian Art series. In A Postscript on J.E.H. MacDonald, 1873-1932, Pierce shares his views:

"No country is fully a nation until it arrives at self-conscious maturity through its poets and artists. …the world moves ahead because of its seers. Something happened in Canada when the foreign lithographs on the walls of pioneer homes were challenged by the paintings of Kane and Krieghoff. "The Horse Fair," "The Doctor," the gusto of [foreign artists like] Delacroix and the sentimentality of a Messonier, repeated a million times on our walls, would never make Canada a birth-proud nation. What we owe to our writers and artists, from Haliburton and Krieghoff down to this day, is beyond compute. They are the real discoverers and master-builders of this nation."

Born in Delta, Ontario, into a Methodist household, Lorne Pierce obtained a Bachelor of Arts from Queen’s University in 1912 and became an ordained Methodist minister in 1916. Pierce’s love of art was first cultivated by his mother, Harriet, also an amateur artist, and by his Queen’s University mentor, Dr. William Jordan, who was both a professor of Religious studies and a collector of art.

Lorne Pierce arrived in Toronto in 1920 to begin work at Ryerson Press. His interest in the Canadian art scene was ever increased by the work of the Group of Seven, several members of whom he met and befriended at the Arts and Letters Club on Elm Street, a popular gathering place in downtown Toronto.

Among Pierce’s wide group of friends was Albert Robson, and it was their collaboration that made the Canadian Art series possible. They worked together over the years to find a way to publish a series that not only focussed on artists from English Canada, but from French Canada as well.

Dr. Campbell explained that before the 1920s, most Canadian art publications were not in-depth or scholarly studies on Canadian art. Pierce himself remarked that in Canada "artists have come and gone, and details about them, how they lived, worked and thought, let alone survived, are often scant, vague and useless."

In 1937, in a strange twist of fate, Christmas cards made the production of the series possible. The firm of Rous and Mann, also responsible for art printing at Ryerson Press, had acquired an elaborate colour press and a collection of Canadian art colour plates for an annual line of Christmas cards, which included the works of Cornelius Krieghoff and Tom Thomson.

Robson proposed that the Canadian Art series be published with booklets on Krieghoff and Thomson. He explained in a letter to Pierce:

"The thought I had in mind was to produce small booklets… standardized in size, and carrying ten or twelve colour reproductions of an individual artist, together with a short appreciation of the work of the artist, including enough of his background and point of view to explain his work…"

With Robson as author, three booklets on Cornelius Krieghoff, J.E.H. MacDonald and Tom Thomson were launched in 1937, with Pierce’s philosophy of cultural nationalism evident in the texts. Robson authored another three booklets in 1938, on A.Y. Jackson, Clarence Gagnon and Paul Kane. After Robson’s sudden death in that same year, the series continued with authors Marius Barbeau, Thoreau MacDonald, Donald Buchanan, William Colgate and other leading art historians and artists of the time writing profiles on artists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The onset of the Second World War resulted in shortages of material and skilled labour in the production of not only the Canadian Art series, but in all of the Canadian publishing industry. Another serious difficulty at the time was that over all, sales of the booklets were generally small, with one exception, Thoreau MacDonald’s The Group of Seven in 1944, which went into several printings. Even though sales of the volumes were slow and a disappointment to Pierce, he remained determined to publish. Pierce was prudent; he used few expensive colour plates and kept the length of the booklets to 40 pages or so.

Pierce’s papers, held in Queen’s University Archives, show that more booklets were planned on artists such as Lawren Harris, Emily Carr, David Milne, Haida stone carvers and many others, but this was impossible due to financial constraints.

By the early 1950s, with his wife Edith’s long battle with cancer and his own health worsening, Pierce’s priorities had changed: he no longer had the energy or the money to continue with his various publishing projects. During this period, Pierce donated much of his personal art collection to public art galleries, including the National Gallery of Canada, Queen’s University and the Art Gallery of Ontario. In 1958, Pierce donated J.E.H. MacDonald’s The Elements to the Art Gallery of Ontario and on parting with this canvas, called it "my most precious possession," an example of his commitment in bringing art and art appreciation to all Canadians.

Dr. Campbell closed her lecture with the following:

"Clearly Pierce the cultural nationalist was as formidable a force in Canadian art as in Canadian literature, the more so because of his unrivalled initiatives in the field in the period 1920 to 1950. Whatever our views of our art, Canadians are thus in his debt for his pioneering mission in art history."

Among the many volumes published by Ryerson Press, Library and Archives Canada holds all 16 titles in the Canadian Art series.