“Canadian Destroyers” by Edwin Holgate

 Canadian Destroyers by Edwin Healey Holgate

1. What aspect of war, or event, does this piece of art depict?

The canvas painting depicts two Canadian destroyers anchored in the Halifax harbour in the winter of 1941. The ship closest to the dock, marked with the letters H83, is the HCMS St. Laurent, a battleship built in by the British Royal Navy in the early 1930s and transferred to the Royal Canadian Navy in 1937. The snowy scene also contains several men, most likely sailors working on resupplying the ship, and parts of a crane, possibly at Jetty Three in the Halifax Dockyards, which was a prominent motive featured in several works of art.

The painting provides insight into Canadian naval warfare during World War II in several ways. On a basic level, it portrays a scene any passer-by might experience on a visit to Halifax harbour during the war. Considering that Canada participated in a war that was not fought on Canadian soil, the harbours were one of the only places Canadians were actually exposed to physical evidence of the state of war, which makes them an important symbol for the home front experience.


The HCMS St. Laurent on open sea in 1943.
Source: Government of Nova Scotia Virtual Archives – H.F. Pullen NSARM accession no. 1984-573 Box 1 F/18

The depiction of the HCMS St. Laurent also holds noteworthy significance, as it is a product of the Commonwealth’s naval military strategy. Built in England as part of general armament efforts in the 1930s, the St. Laurent was sold to Canada in 1937, when a European war became increasingly likely and the Canadian government sought to upgrade their traditionally insubstantial naval force, a program that kicked into full gear on the onset of the war. The St. Laurent rescued more than 850 people after an attack on the transatlantic liner Arandora Star by German submarines in 1940, and took part in the Battle of the Atlantic military campaign, where it participated in the sinking of two German submarines in 1942. As such the St. Laurent can be considered a symbol of naval military success in the Canadian war efforts.

 Battle of the Atlantic 1941 Map

 Map showing activities of the Battle of the Atlantic in 1941. The St. Laurent was part of a convoy regularly protecting transports between Newfoundland and Northern Ireland (sometimes Iceland)

2. Who created this piece of art?

Edwin Holgate was born in 1892 in Allandale, Ontario. He is most famously known for being not only a draftsman, but also a portraitist, war artist, educator and in addition to being known as one of the key players in the development of modern art in Canada. Holgate enlisted in the Canadian army during the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 while travelling through Europe. He served in the Fourth Canadian Division until 1919. During the early 1930’s, Edwin Holgate was invited to join the Group of Seven, a group consisting of Canadian landscape painters formed between 1920 and 1933. As a part of the group, he played a pivotal role in initiating the first Canadian national art movement. Holgate would become a prominent figure in the Montreal art’s community, where he not only bridged the cultural gap between the English and French art communities, but also became an educator at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. During the Second World War, Edwin Holgate moved to England where he was appointed as an official war artist. When the war finally came to an end in 1945, Holgate, surrounded by an ever-developing art scene in Montreal would find it difficult to adapt. Edwin Holgate would die in Montreal in 1977 due to health reasons.

3. Where was this piece of art created?

There is no information concerning the creation of the painting, apart from 1941 being the year of manufacture. It was most likely painted between March and July 1941, when the St. Laurent was anchored in its hailing port of Halifax for refitting. The depiction of snow, while not being entirely unlikely considering Nova Scotian weather patterns (sigh), might originate from the artistic vision of Holgate.

The setting of the Halifax harbour, marked by what we can assume is a pretty recognizable landmark with the crane of Jetty Three, suggests that Holgate wanted to highlight the local war effort in the Maritimes. This notion is enforced by the fact that the artist chose Halifax as the setting in the first place, rather than the more significant Canadian naval base in Montreal.

4. For what purpose was this art created?

Edward Holgate’s painting of the “Canadian Destroyers” was initially created out of his own desire, as he was determined to record Canada’s war. It is important to note this painting was not officially commissioned by the Canadian government; it does however depict Holgate’s support for the war effort, considering that he was in fact a war veteran himself, serving in the army during the First World War. This piece was an unofficial painting and was not used for propaganda, however, the art does enable its viewers a certain motive to encourage the war efforts at that time, through possible enlistment or war bonds. The painting itself does depict a sense of true patriotism in Canada. For instance, our winter, known to be long and severe, is also beautiful with the snow covering the grounds, creating a pristine landscape that Canadians are so proud of. It also represents Canada’s mobilization on the home front, particularly its naval fleet, which served during the Battle of the Atlantic. The HMCS St.Laurent, shown in the painting, proved Canada’s naval importance in the war as it rescued more than 850 people after a German submarine sank the British Arandora Star line on July 2nd, 1940.

5. What does this piece of art tell us about the experience of war?

As we look at the piece of art Edwin Holgate painted in 1941 of the Canadian destroyer, particularly the HMCS St. Laurent docked in the harbour in Halifax, we can get a better understand of just what was occurring during the war. The Halifax dockyard, where the destroyer was located, played a major role during the Second World War, especially on the naval war front as it was considered to be a crucial role for Britain during the Battle of the Atlantic where it was used to harbour Canadian and allied ships but also as a port to send supplies to troops fighting abroad. The weather, as portrayed in the painting, also plays an important role describing the war experience. Canadians, accustomed to the long and severe winters, were preparing themselves for the harshness and unpredictability of what they assumed would be a long war. Just like winter weather, naval ships were never certain what the next day would behold, whether it was calm or the need to prepare for the worst. Finally, the destroyers themselves can symbolize Canada’s strength during the Second World War as it evolved and expanded from a small naval fleet during the 1920’s to one with such abundance it played an essential role during the Battle of the Atlantic.

6. How accurate is this depiction of war?

There is little reason to question the authenticity of this representation of the Canadian war efforts, since the painting portrays a rather uneventful scene of docking ships. The sight of destroyers anchored in Halifax was, given the small size of the Canadian navy at the time of painting, probably not a daily occurrence, but surely nothing that drew too much attention to itself in 1941. This begs the question why Holgate should choose such a motive for his painting, rather than depicting a more emotionally impactful event. It is easy to envision a scenario in a similar setting, maybe a destroyer full of soldiers leaving the harbour, cheered on by dozens of enthusiastic supporters of the war.

The painting suggests that the artist was interested in accurately portraying an everyday occurrence, an aspect of the war as it would be experienced by the inhabitants of Halifax. This observation is supported by the information we have on the life of Edwin Holgate, who initially sought to record the Canadian war effort by himself, until he got commissioned as a war artist for the RCAF in 1943. It is easy to imagine why he was chosen for this position given the potential for promotional content this painting suggests, and it would be interesting to compare his earlier works to the paintings commissioned by the RCAF for a possible change in focus.

Group Question: How does your piece of art further our understanding of Canadian history?

The painting represents the Canadian war efforts during World War II in several ways. The portrayal of destroyers as part of the Canadian navy is a symbol of the overall expansion of the Canadian naval force since the Great War. The HCMS St. Laurent, built in England and later transferred to Canada, exemplifies that the ties between Britain and Canada remain significant in this era, especially in regards to military spending and foreign affairs. The St. Laurent, which had participated in several successful military engagements at the time of painting, can also be considered a symbol of Canadian national pride and military success.

It also adequately represents the Canadian war experience on the home front to some extent. Participating in a war that was fought – at the time of painting – exclusively in Europe and in the Atlantic, did not affect Canada in the same way it affected the European mainland and Britain. The military vessels anchored in harbours were one of the few ways the Canadian public actually experienced physical evidence of the war, and harbours, as places were most Canadian soldiers were sent off to fight in the war, definitely hold a symbolic value in this regard. This is not to say that the roughly 1,1 million soldiers who enlisted were not dearly missed in Canadian society, but battleships in harbours can be considered one of the few public displays of imposing military equipment on Canadian soil.

Lastly, the painting, being set in Halifax rather than a more significant naval port, arguably emphasizes the regional war effort of Nova Scotia. With the affirmation of distinct regional identities being a prominent theme throughout Canadian history and culture, it is interesting to note that these notions might influence the creation of art, especially considering that war efforts generally tend to be interpreted as a national struggle with a strong unifying influence.

Written by:

Paulo Holldack (Questions  1, 3, 6) and Julian Verboomen (Questions 2, 4, 5)










Posted on March 18, 2014, in War Art: WWII and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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