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Manitoba History: Review: Angela Davis, Art and Work: A Social History of Labour in the Canadian Graphic Arts Industry to the 1940s

by Marilyn Baker
School of Art, University of Manitoba

Number 35, Spring/Summer 1998

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 As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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Angela Davis, Art and Work: A Social History of Labour in the Canadian Graphic Arts Industry to the 1940s, Montreal and Kingston, McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1995, pp. xx, 187, illus.

Some years back I attended a conference where psy­chologists considered art issues. As I read Angela Davis’ book I was reminded of that experience. Their theorizing would have been far more successful if they too had only had a better grasp of art history. Not only does Davis promote the image of the marginalized and even oppressed graphic artist, a highly questionable characterization, but her tale is further enlivened by an identification of art history as an elitist conspiracy or alternatively by a description of art historians as a seriously challenged group who don’t really understand the complex nature of the visual arts. While I have some sympathy with the first observation, the second seemed both far fetched and mean spirited. Although it is true that art history is undergoing a re-examination of both its methodologies and territories, art historians are by no means alone in questioning their discipline. Rather, it would appear, in academic circles at least, that it is a sign of the times. [1]

Art and Work, A Social History of Labour in the Canadian Graphic Arts Industry to the 1940s is a reworking of a Ph.D. thesis. In the first chapter and introduction the author, Angela Davis, explains her objectives:

This study is not a traditional history of art. Rather it is a social history of the establishment of the graphic arts as a commercial industry in Canada. It considers the work and experiences of those involved in the creation and reproduction of art, the commercial processes and technical changes that affect them, and the businesses they founded or by which they were employed.

The book, however, opens with a discussion of issues which seem unrelated to these goals:

The conflicts between the perception of “art for art’s sake” and art as part of everyday life have stimulated the contemporary critique of the traditional methods of art history. On the one hand, art has been approached as part of an elitist study of ‘fine” or “high” art; on the other, “commercial” art and the development of “popular” culture have been treated as unacceptable in the art world. Consequently, art historians have generally neglected the role of the artists who were commercially employed and have denigrated work produced during periods of com­mercial employment. (p. 8) ... But the rhetoric of art history is frequently at variance with the facts. (p. 9) ... It may not be possible to accept the criticism that traditional art history is only art appreciation, but it is possible to argue that artists should be studied within their social and cultural context. (p. 11)

The extensive coverage within mainstream art history of “graphic artists”, such as Hogarth and Daumier, and of more than just their terrific lines, suggests serious problems with Davis’ thesis. [2]

It is a general criticism of this book that far too much time is spent on questionably relevant issues, such as the aforementioned distortion of art history methodology, and other topics including, but not exclusive to, who admires, who doesn’t admire graphic artists, the social status of the graphic artist from the 18th century onwards, the utopian views of English social theorists and art writers John Ruskin and William Morris and the impact of the employment of artists in the graphic arts industry on the development of a national art.

In Chapter 3, “Transferring the Traditions”, Davis finally commences her discussion of the graphics arts industry in its Canadian context which is ostensibly her focus. She describes early graphic artists and early forms of graphic art as produced in Canada and about Canada before advertising art became a major focal point of production. Given Davis’ stated objectives, this could have been her starting point.

In Chapter 4, “Changing Patterns of Work”, Davis discusses further developments within the Canadian graphic arts industry and the technological advances that, according to her, made it all possible. Davis observes that “Advertising in Canadian newspapers was, prior to the 1870s, almost completely devoid of illustrations with the exception of the occasional simple woodcut, it relied upon the written word for the message.” (p. 61) She disagrees with Stephenson and McNaught who contend “that advertising agencies were the major influences behind the new ideas in advertising ...” (p. 61) Rather she contends “that the emergence of engraving and lithographing companies specializing in the production of illustrations for commercial use ... was the instigator of change.” She does discuss Timothy Eaton, though rather lightly. He played an important role in the development of the Canadian graphic arts industry; according to D. C. Masters he “issued 40,000 handbills a month and gave exact instructions, to the distributor, as to where they should go.” (p. 62)

Davis’ discussion of the technological improvements underlying the development of the graphic arts industry in Canada is certainly a welcome and useful part of this book. A more extensive discussion of other factors participant in the evolution of modern advertising practices in Canada, including more coverage of Timothy Eaton and others like him, would have been a welcome expansion of Davis’ discussions. An examination of the catalogue as a growing marketing tool might have provided another kind of social context for this “social” history and would have been a reasonable extension of Davis’ discussion of the Canadian graphic arts industry and its place in Canadian life. Davis’ preoccupation with issues of the artist’s status and, as a corollary, her discussions of the impact of the Canadian graphic arts industry on the creation of a national art, seems to me to receive disproportionate attention. Ironically it shifts her focus from art for life’s sake, which she is promoting, to art for art’s sake, which she says she deplores.

Graphic art from the Eaton’s catalogue, 1930.

In Chapter 5, “Changing Perceptions of Art, Artists and Commercial Artists, 1870-1914,” Davis continues her examination of the graphic arts firm which organized the Eaton’s Catalogue, Brigden’s Limited. Despite a passing reference to the wisdom of feminist critiques of traditional art history, Davis herself does not discuss women’s involvement in the graphic arts industry—at Brigden’s and in other commercial establishments. It seems a serious omission. [3] Were women employed in the graphic arts industry because it was not a particularly high status job? Were women employees paid significantly less than male workers? As genius was not expected of the typical commercial artist were women then ideal employees? [4] For example, Edith Benson (later Botterill) a former Brigden’s Ltd. employee in the 1930s said she was awfully glad to be allowed to do a head now and again as legs were her specialty. [5] That women at Brigden’s produced the fashion illustrations, while men did the more mechanical drawings, is at the very least a division of labor worth passing comment. Instead, Davis turns to other issues which seemed to me to be wildly off topic—the part that certain graphic artists who at one time or another worked in the graphic arts industry allegedly played in the creation of a national art.

Despite her castigation of art historical elitism, Davis herself romanticizes art and artists. Brigden’s Ltd. produced a catalogue using a production system in which one “artist” would do heads, another legs, another bodies, etc. as Davis does concede. This was assembly line art and, however, “unhistorical” (p. 11) to borrow Davis’ conceptually confus­ing term, it was the artists, not initially art historians, as well as custom and reason, which caused distinctions to be made between commercial work done, for example, for Eaton’s catalogue and other kinds of work such as fine art printing.

Certainly one of the ironies of a book devoted to the Canadian graphic arts industry is the minimal attention given to the layout of this one. While it may be cost effective to group illustrations, the positioning of images at the beginning of the book, the lack of relevant illustrations (or their placement far from their consideration in the text), the lack of illustrations from the Eaton’s catalogue, and the failure to include diagrams to illustrate Davis’ discussion of printing techniques and technologies, diminishes the impact of her information as well as its intelligibility for the reader. [6]

This book is most effective when the author, in telling the story of the Canadian graphic arts industry, discusses technological changes and considers the life stories of some of those who as entrepreneurs made graphic art in Canada a thriving industry. It is disappointing when Davis gets lost in specious arguments and pseudo controversies, relies on questionable authorities and survey level sources or worse at key points in her argument, and promotes a social analysis which seems sometimes trivial and often irrelevant to the Canadian context. [7] Instead of slamming the methodologies of art historians, the author would have been well advised to utilize art historical strategies for identification, classification and yes, even clarification. It might have moderated the polemical tone of her book. At the very least it ought to have encouraged the inclusion of more and better pictures.


1. See for example, Irving Lavin, “The Crisis of “Art History”, Art Bulletin, Volume LXXVIII, Number 1, March 1996, pp.13-15.

2. See for example, Michel Melot, “Daumier and Art History: Aesthetic Judgment/Political Judgement,” The Oxford Art Journal, 11:1, 1988, pp.3-24. This is a sophisticated discussion of Daumier and the conventions of high art/low art. For a discussion of the position of the graphic artists in the Renaissance, see, for example, David Landau and Peter Parshall, The Renaissance Print, 1470-1550, Yale University Press, 1994. Their chapter “Craft Guilds, Workshops, and Supplies” provides a useful perspective on the origins of print makers in the Renaissance period and an interesting discussion of their affiliations and associations.

3. She does mention a few women who worked at Brigden’s, but such references do not constitute an analysis of women’s association with the graphic arts. See, for example, Helen Goodman, “Women Illustrators of the Golden Age of American Illustration” Women’s Art Journal, volume 5, Spring/Summer, 1987. Davis’ failure to examine women’s role as illustrators is odd in light of articles she has written which focus on women most notably “Valiant Servant”: Women and Technology on the Canadian Prairies 1910-40”, Manitoba History, no. 25, Spring, 1993, p. 33 and “Laying the Groundwork: the Establishmnent of an Artistic Milieu in Winnipeg: 1890-1913,” Manitoba History, No. 4, Autumn, 1982.

4. Interviews with former Brigden’s employees Edith Botterill (1994) and Julia Gerrick (1997) and information collected by Helen Coy on Irene Heywood Hemsworth in the mid 1980s. (See also Pauline Boutal and Irene Heywood Hemsworth (by Helen Coy) in Marilyn Baker, The Winnipeg School of Art, University of Manitoba Press, 1984.

5. op. cit. Interview with Edith Benson (Botterill).

6. See “Printing” by Michael Twyman and “Wood-engraving” by Leo. John De Freitas in The Dictionary of Art, Macmillan Publishers Limited, 1996.

7. op. cit. The Dictionary of Art. See individual entries on Sir Robert Strange, Thomas Linton and Thomas Bewick. Davis’ discussion of Robert Strange does not mention that he was knighted, apparently for his skills at engraving, or that his chief rival a stiple engraver was accepted for membership in the Royal Academy. Despite Davis’ insistence it is not unreasonable that reproductive artists might be accorded lower status than those who made the images originally. See also (p. 5) for Davis’ discussion of “mere” illustration. This is an example of Davis’ tendency to rely on questionable sources at key points in her argument. More minorly, it is Alexander Musgrove not Musgrave (p. 117).

Page revised: 13 October 2012

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