How Walter S. Allward's Monument at Vimy marked a turning point in the nation's art history

Commissioned 100 years ago, the monument was to be "a sermon in stone against the futility of war."

Commissioned 100 years ago, the monument was to be 'a sermon in stone against the futility of war'

The Canadian National Vimy Memorial created by Walter Seymour Allward. (Art Institute Canada)

The following text is excerpted from Walter S. Allward: Life & Work by Philip Dombowsky, published by the Art Canada Institute.

This week marks the anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge. Fought during the First World War, the brutal four-day conflict began on Easter Monday, April 9, 1917, and saw more than 10,000 Canadian men killed or wounded. A pivotal moment for Canadian history, the combat marked the moment when Canada emerged from under the shadow of Britain to assert its autonomy. Vimy later became the site of the country's most revered and iconic art monument, created by the foremost sculptor in Canada in the early 20th century, Walter S. Allward. The work also marked the end of an era in Canadian art, as younger sculptors such as Emanuel Hahn, Frances Loring, and Elizabeth Wyn Wood began to create smaller, more introspective works.

Born in 1874, Allward began life modestly in Toronto. He left school at 14 and learned about sculpture by looking through books and magazines at the local library and by studying replicas at a nearby museum. By 20, Allward had won his first commission and never looked back. 

He embarked on the making of the Vimy Memorial — the most ambitious and demanding project of his career — after winning a national competition organized by the Canadian Battlefields Memorial Commission in 1920. Chosen from a total of 160 entries, Allward's proposal featured sculpted allegorical figures adorning two pylons and a horizontal base signifying an "impregnable wall of defence." It was unanimously chosen by the jury of the competition for its "individuality and complexity."

For the next 15 years, Allward worked on the commission. Honouring Canadians killed in France during the First World War with no known graves, he felt his responsibility to the dead keenly, creating over 150 drawings as he worked on his final design. Departing from the tradition of monuments glorifying military victories, he envisioned the Vimy Memorial as "a sermon in stone against the futility of war," with figures conveying themes of sacrifice and redemption. 

The Canadian National Vimy Memorial created by Walter Seymour Allward. (Art Institute Canada)

For the focus of the monument, Allward designed two pylons, soaring 27 metres tall and representing the bond and sacrifice shared by Canada and France. At their base, he created a figure entitled Canada Bereft to represent the country's grief. Nearby, another figure portrays "The Passing of the Torch," a reference to one of the most famous poems of the First World War, "In Flanders Fields" (1915), by the Canadian Army Medical Corps Officer Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae. 

Statues symbolizing the mourning parents of dead soldiers sit on each side of the stairs at the rear of the monument, while the top of the pylons features allegorical representations of Peace, Truth, Knowledge, Justice, Faith, Charity, Hope, and Honour — values to which Allward hoped humankind would aspire.

Allward spent the first two years of the project travelling throughout Britain and Europe searching for a stone that possessed a colour, texture, and luminosity suitable for the north of France. After the Vimy site was cleared, a team of carvers worked to create the monumental statues, using half-size plaster models created by Allward in his London studio.

Engraved on the lower walls of the Vimy Memorial are the names of 11,285 Canadian soldiers killed in France during the First World War whose final resting place is unknown. Allward designed the lettering and chose to list the names alphabetically from left to right across the memorial's lower walls — an homage to those who had paid the ultimate price in service to Canada.

The grand unveiling ceremony of the Vimy Memorial was held on July 26, 1936, officiated by King Edward VIII in the presence of President Albert Lebrun of France. An estimated 100,000 spectators, including more than 6,000 Canadian veterans and their families, attended the commemoration. In his address to the large crowd, the king declared: "This glorious monument ... is the inspired expression in stone chiseled by a skilful Canadian hand of Canada's salute to her fallen sons." 

The Canadian National Vimy Memorial created by Walter Seymour Allward. (Art Institute Canada)

After 14 years abroad, Allward returned to Canada, satisfied that he had created a memorial that was "worthy of the men who gave their lives." However, he soon discovered that during his time in Europe, interest in public sculpture had diminished significantly and that sculptors were mostly producing smaller works for exhibition and beginning to explore different modes of aesthetic and personal expression, rejecting the patriotic tendencies of Allward's work.

Despite his enormous success, Allward was largely ignored in the years after his death in 1955. As contemporary tastes in sculpture changed, the artists of his generation were dismissed for being too reliant on European art in their style and too nationalistic in their subject matter. But Allward had already had a profound impact on other sculptors in Canada. His high aesthetic and technical standards, and the positive reception of his work, significantly raised the profile of sculpture throughout the country, greatly benefiting many Canadian artists — including Hahn, Loring, Wyn Wood, and other founding members of the Sculptors' Society of Canada, a group that greatly expanded the language of sculpture in this country, taking it in new directions. Still, the Vimy Memorial was widely respected, and no one could have foreseen that the artist who had brought it to life would be almost completely forgotten for the next several decades.

Things changed in 2001, when Allward appeared as a fictional character in Jane Urquhart's celebrated novel The Stone Carvers. In a 2001 CBC interview Urquhart said: "One of the reasons I was so interested in [Allward] was ... partly because of his fabulous work of art that's in France, but also because he seemed to kind of disappear after the memorial was completed." 

Today, Allward is recognized as a sculptor with an extraordinary career in which he mastered classical and modernist styles, and the Vimy Memorial was his crowning achievement ― an unforgettable tribute to Canada's fallen soldiers that today is internationally celebrated not only as a symbol of peace but as a genre-defining work of art whose monumentality and ambition has never been equalled.


Philip Dombowsky is an Archivist at the National Gallery of Canada. He holds an MA (Art History, Concordia) and a Master of Library and Information Studies (McGill). Dombowsky has curated numerous exhibitions for the NGC Library and Archives, most notably in the area of book design and illustration. He is the author of Index to the National Gallery of Canada’s Exhibition Catalogues and Checklists 1880–1930, which won the Melva J. Dwyer Award in 2008.

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