Ralph Burton – Views From Bytown
A survey of work by Canadian artist Ralph Burton
Special collection of works by Ralph Burton, on display at our Winnipeg Tuxedo location.
During the years that I taught Canadian Studies courses at the University of Edinburgh, I sometimes asked my British students to complete the phrase, ‘As Canadian as… ‘ The answers they gave were usually fairly predictable: ‘maple syrup,’ ‘snow,’ ‘a Mountie.’ If I had to answer the question myself, I would probably finish the sentence with ‘landscape.’Colin M. Coates, Seeing and Not Seeing: Landscape Art as a Historical Source
Ralph Burton (1905– 1983) was a well-known Ottawa Valley artist whose body of work largely focused on the Canadian landscape, both natural and built. Views From Bytown surveys Burton’s documentary instinct, highlighting eleven of the artist’s paintings. Red-brick school houses, a church, a sugar shack, spring ice– in this collection, Burton has rendered both familiar and iconic Canadian subjects, many of which are history, some of which have endured. These paintings capture the artist’s relationship to his changing environment and a changing Canada.
Burton was one of the many regional artists influenced by the Group of Seven who began to appear across the country in the mid-twentieth century. In 1947, Ralph Burton met and studied under A.Y. Jackson at the Banff School of Fine Arts. They had no difficulty in connecting with one another’s bold and Impressionistic painting styles. Soon, Jackson and Burton became good friends as well as close painting companions. Like Jackson, Burton loved the outdoors and most of his work was done in this setting. Like Jackson, he sketched on-site with oil paints on birch plywood panels, sometimes later committing these works to larger canvases. Over a period spanning more than 20 years, Burton would accompany Jackson on sketching trips to the Gatineau Area, Eastern Ontario and beyond. Together, they each depicted their environs, the physical structures they witnessed and, less frequently, the people of the regions they visited. Naomi Jackson-Groves, A. Y. Jackson’s niece, expressed in a CBC radio interview upon Burton’s passing in 1983 that “Ralph had been one of A. Y.’s dearest, most loyal and helpful friends– a very quiet, modest and gentle man.”
Burton is most often referred to as a plein-air artist who focused largely on the Canadian landscape. His paintings celebrate its rough beauty as well as the tenacity of man-made structures, set in both rural and urban environments, particularly in the Ottawa Valley region. Burton was also widely regarded as a skilled art teacher, with one student remarking on his “love of colour,” “assured draughtsmanship” and the “powerful observation” evident in his works. Another student and art historian observed that Burton’s works are “very rhythmical… straight lines were rare, things are always flowing and moving through his brush strokes and the variation in [his] colours.”
Burton’s bright and declarative use of paint and colour seemed a suitable complement to the aggressive expansion that Canada was experiencing at the outset of the 1950s and early 1960s. Burton had an impulse to record– best demonstrated by his decision to paint the Lebreton Flats and Lowertown areas in 1963-65, just before the National Capital Commission demolished all of its buildings. Eighteen sketches were made of various street scenes at this time. Lebreton Flats was once a working-class neighbourhood in Ottawa’s west end that saw its land expropriated in the 1960s, slated for demolition and urban renewal. The politicians of the day referred to the area as a “slum” that needed to be eradicated from an otherwise blossoming city, but Burton saw the area as a vibrant and hard-working neighbourhood that many people called home. As one art historian put it, “Working just ahead of the demolition crews, Ralph Burton produced a series of small oil sketches that document the final months of Lebreton Flats… [and he] rendered these architectural portraits with powerful observation.” The author also noted that while Burton’s artistic style is generally described as “free” and “abbreviated,” he was nevertheless “a meticulous recorder of architectural detail.” A retrospective of Ralph Burton works “Acres of Time: The Lebreton Flats” was held at the Karsh-Masson Gallery, Ottawa City Hall in 1997.
Many of Ralph Burton’s works now reside in personal collections as well as the Tom Thomson Memorial Art Gallery, the Dawson City Museum and Historical Society and the Canadian Embassy in Washington in addition to the City of Ottawa’s archives. Selections from more than 30 of his paintings from the Lebreton Flats series are hanging in the hallways of Ottawa City Hall in the Heritage Building, Champlain Room. In December 2007, John A. Libby Gallery celebrated Ralph Burton’s contribution with a retrospective of his major works and published a biographical booklet on his life and work. In March 2010, a popular blog on Ottawa architecture and urban design created a photo-essay of Burton’s Lebreton Flats series, comparing photos of the region from past and present with Burton’s artistic legacy. During his lifetime, Burton displayed his works frequently at the Wallack Gallery in Ottawa.
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