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Peter Clapham Sheppard: His Life and Work

by Tom Smart

The image that comes to mind when thinking of early 20th century Canadian painting, particularly from Toronto, is likely the landscaped vistas created en plein air by Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven. But what about the work undertaken in the shadow of the Group’s self-defined “national” school? Tom Smart’s ambitious monograph on the work of Peter Clapham Sheppard takes a look at a painter working contemporaneously yet independently in Toronto’s small, quickly developing art world.

Smart, currently the executive director and CEO of the Beaverbrook Art Gallery in Fredericton, New Brunswick, and the author of several books on Canadian artists, began this project at the behest of curator Louis Gagliardi, who had spent decades expanding an archive of Sheppard’s work acquired from the artist’s close friend Bernice Fenwick Martin. Despite little available written information, Smart fleshes out a life story using the work itself. From Sheppard’s student days at the Ontario College of Art to his commercial illustration work and his most productive years in the 1920s and ’30s, his remarkable draftsmanship and technical skills shine. Indeed Sheppard’s work was much admired during his lifetime. Smart often guesses at the thinking behind the art, encouraging a closer look at each plate. Did the paintings reflect a socialist point of view? Was Sheppard an outsider? Could his affinity for certain subject matter belie a deeper message?

The book comes alive through images of urban scenes in Toronto, Montreal, and New York. The depictions of snowy 1920s Montreal in particular, with their confident daubs of white paint, seem remarkably modern, as do excellent close-up sketches of water rushing along rocky streams in northern Ontario. Smart posits that by 1927 Sheppard had reached a “watershed” moment in his career, perhaps tempted by the new movement toward abstraction, though he subsequently shows his disinclination to pursue this form. Overall, Sheppard is presented as a talented artist whose interests aligned more with John Sloan and the American Ashcan School than his immediate contemporaries, which Smart suggests is why his work has been sidelined. This book corrects that grave oversight and provides readers with a more expansive picture of historical Canadian art.