Why Paint in Wartime?
The Empire Club of Canada Addresses (Toronto, Canada), 29 Oct 1942, p. 108-119
MacDonald, Miss Sheila, Speaker
Media Type
Item Type
An "open meeting" which included women. Cultural activities in war. Understanding what culture means. Misunderstandings about culture. A definition of culture. How paying attention to culture is part of our war effort. Maintaining our tradition and heritage through culture. How culture is important to us and our society. Our responsibility to keep alive and keep strong cultural activities. What is happening in Britain with regard to their culture, with instances and anecdotes. A look at art, the world of ideas, radio programmes, etc. An increase in the actual creative work itself during wartime: how and why that is so. Activities of the Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts (CEMA). Saving what is attractive and what is of value in our life.
Date of Original
29 Oct 1942
Language of Item
Copyright Statement
The speeches are free of charge but please note that the Empire Club of Canada retains copyright. Neither the speeches themselves nor any part of their content may be used for any purpose other than personal interest or research without the explicit permission of the Empire Club of Canada.
Empire Club of Canada
WWW address
Agency street/mail address

Fairmont Royal York Hotel

100 Front Street West, Floor H

Toronto, ON, M5J 1E3

Full Text
Chairman: Vice-President W. E. Humphreys, Esq.
Thursday, October 29, 1942

MR. W. E. HUMPHREYS: Ladies and Gentlemen: It is with regret that the President cannot be with us today owing to his official duties.

On my own behalf, I should like especially to welcome Miss MacDonald, for it is about fourteen months ago that we had the privilege of receiving her in Toronto to christen one of His Majesty's ships in which Toronto is interested, namely H.M.S. Fort York. I had the privilege, personally, of witnessing a launching a few days before that, and the lady who then christened was not very strong-armed. In other words, the bottle, I think, failed to break on the ship's bows. So I very politely warned Miss MacDonald that, when she christened H.M.S. Fort York, she should make sure that the bottle broke, with the result that I think the sound of the bottle breaking, which Miss MacDonald threw at the ship that day, is still ringing around the world. (Laughter.)

Many persons have expressed keen regret that last Thursday's meeting, at which our guest speaker was a woman, was not made an open one. By rather subtle management, therefore, it was arranged that this meeting should be an open meeting. The reason-another woman guest speaker. And that is the reason for the presence of our wives and daughters and friends and sisters, to all of whom, on behalf of The Club and the President, I extend a warm, cordial welcome.

Our guest, Miss MacDonald, is an outstanding exponent of the ideals of the English-speaking Commonwealth of Nations. Daughter of a Prime Minister of Great Britain, and sister of an outstanding member of the House of Commons who is now High Commissioner to Canada for the United Kingdom-the Right Honourable Malcolm MacDonald, she has had much experience on the hustings and is a seasoned political campaigner and has had a lot of platform experience for both father and brother. While a considerable weight was laid upon her by reason of her family's position, she has added much glory to that which has been reflected by her father and brother.

Miss MacDonald is a graduate of Oxford University, has specialized in politics, economics, and philosophy, and is rather proud of the fact that she has worked in Chatham House, the Royal Institute of International Affairs, and for two years was tutor in a little backwoods island of the British West Indies. We are sure that if it were not for the present wartime conditions she would give us a very interesting talk of her experiences in the British West Indies. She has also been a deputy lady visitor at a boys' prison. As a matter of fact, her main interest has always been with young people-in clubs and schools and prisons.

In deciding upon a subject for her address today Miss MacDonald suggested that she was scarcely qualified to given an address on any highbrow subject but would prefer to talk on a theme which had been rather neglected "Cultural Activities in War". This is the subject of her address, but in order not to allow prejudice to engender fear of scholasticism she has clothed it with the intriguing title: "Why Paint in Wartime?"

Ladies and Gentlemen, it is my great pleasure to introduce Miss Sheila MacDonald. (Applause. The audience rises.)

MISS MACDONALD: Mr. Chairman, Ladies and Gentlemen

It was very good of you indeed to give me such a warm welcome. I must admit I do need reassuring a little because I feel I am more qualified to break bottles over the bows of ships, or talk to you about "why paint in wartime" with reference to cosmetics, instead of, as I intend to, telling you a little bit about cultural activities in time of war.

I spent last winter in Britain, and one evening I was turning over the pages of a journal, while I was in the country, and a photograph of a strutting bird caught my eye. It was an illustration of a letter to the Editor, which .ran as follows: It said, "My photograph is of a cock-bustard in half display. That its display habits should be so closely comparable to that of the turkey is worthy of note."

To me it didn't seem at all worthy of note. What was worthy of note was the fact that owing to the great shortage of coal I had not enough hot water for a bath that night, that I had not enough wool to finish a sweater that I had started, not to speak of the worry of deciding how I should eat my fortnightly egg which arrived from the dairy that morning. Then I thought about it again and decided that perhaps I was glad that people should still be able to take delight in bird habits, and my mind went back to a journey in Germany some years before. I had spent the afternoon-an idle afternoon-with a group of young Nazis. There happened to be in Berlin a magnificent concert that evening conducted by Furchtwangler, and knowing that one of these young Nazis was a very fine musician I said to him, "I suppose you are looking forward to the concert this evening." He drew himself up erect and said, "I no longer go to concerts. My whole life is now a sacrifice to my Leader-Hitler." I must say I prefer the attitude of the bird watcher.

Now I know that a lot of people, particularly at this time, think that there is no place in life for culture. But that is, I think, because they misinterpret culture, they don't understand clearly what culture means. They think of it as some elevated and obtuse intellectual and aesthetic learning; they think of it as something that comes with degenerate leisure, and which if discouraged will eventually die out. But culture is something quite simple, quite humble; a simple appreciation of beauty; it is study, thinking, refinement in mind and sensitiveness. But a lot of people say, even though it is that, we have no time, no place for culture in wartime. We must devote our whole lives to this great war effort, in producing weapons of war and in fighting, and anything which is not devoted to that is a waste and a softening and we must not allow it to interfere with our war effort.

Now please don't think that I think the photographing of birds should take precedence over the photographing of enemy territory, or that we should not give up our binoculars to the services, for, of course, the war effort is our primary concern. I don't know how many times it has been said that we must win the war before we can start winning the peace. But I think attention to culture is part of our war effort. In the first place, we are not fighting this war merely to regain our material comforts, nor to destroy Axis members. We have got to get something more out of our efforts than that.

We have a wonderful tradition behind us, a tradition of individual liberty, a chance for the individual persons to develop as they want to, to follow up their own lines of interest. We have a magnificent heritage of lovely things and lovely thoughts, and if we now, here, do not cherish that birthright and do not develop it ourselves, well then, why bother to fight for it. In the second place, if we do destroy this cultural side of ourselves we are destroying an integral part of ourselves and, naturally, an important part of our personality, and it would be suicide to try to do it. It was Fletcher who said of the poet that it was his business not to save men's souls but to make them worth saving; and it is up to us to help out the poet. Thinking of that young Nazi, what a miserable mite he will set up on his sacrificial platter to Hitler, because he has cut himself off from all those riches of life. And in the third place, and this is very intimately connected with the war, everybody has got to have relaxation, when possible, from this immediate war effort. We are living at a great pitch, at a great intensiveness and whenever possible we must try and relax so we can return to our posts and exert even greater effort. And attention to cultural things helps us to relax. A group of American experts-musicians and artists-went over to Britain and I noted that they were particularly insistent on that point: that cultural activities should be maintained in order to give people something else to turn their attention to in order to keep up our morale. It does make a tremendous difference to have some other interest on which you can relax your mind so that you can go back to your war effort with renewed energies.

It is not always possible in wartime to pay attention to these things. When we are fighting and giving our immediate attention to self-preservation, there isn't time. Nor is there much time if you have a big war job, working long hours. So it seems to me that we who are not in a position of quite such high tension as other people are in this great war, we have rather a special responsibility to keep alive and keep strong those cultural activities. But I must say there is not very much sign of them dying in Canada. Take the Gagnon Exhibitions and the enormous number of people flocking to see them. The Canadian soldiers in Britain, as well as in Canada, have very fine educational activities; and your artists are making plans to help in the war effort.

But what is happening in Britain? Is culture one of our wartime casualties? What are people's reactions to culture when they are in the high pitch of the war? I find it extremely difficult to get a picture in perspective of what is happening in Britain. I went over there and one day I came across a group of dramatists who were working in special war jobs and in their spare time were discussing the theatre. The next day I went to see some friends of mine who were very young girls and they were spending all their leisure time in purely pleasures of the moment, and I got a little depressed.

On the whole I think there is increased interest in these cultural things, in Britain. Take for an illustration what is happening in the National Gallery. In the first place, of course, they have a canteen there; but I will ignore that material activity. The Gallery also runs lunch-time concerts, as you know. Most of its pictures are buried in the caves and vaults, but it does unearth one picture every week to show as a special exhibit and people of all kinds flock in to see this picture and listen to the concerts-people who would never have thought of doing that sort of thing before, but the war has made them more interested in the whole process of living and they feel drawn to that sort of activity.

In the world of ideas-of course, we all know that people are thinking more than ever they did. Everywhere you have increased interest in discussion groups; you have more reading, and I think it is quite interesting to note that in Birtain our library circulation has doubled since the war and not only because people want more works of fiction. Books on religion, for instance, are very much more in demand than they used to be; books on sociological and scientific studies, too. So we see the reading is not necessarily of a light nature.

Then take our radio programmes. There is our Brains Trust Programme which comes under the excellent scheme of swapping programmes across the Atlantic so we get the Canadian and United States programmes and you get some of ours. Well, that Brains Trust Programme is a most popular one. These programmes are extraordinarily fascinating to listen to. I think probably that all of them were completely floored once by a very difficult problem. The question was: when a fly alights on the ceiling does it approach in smooth upside down fashion, or does it close in the right side up and then suddenly make a half-somersault? I don't know the answer. The programmes aren't all, of course, full of high intellectual stuff like that. We also until very recently had an equally popular programme which was full of the most extraordinarily sloppy sentiment. In fact, it got so serious that the BBC has had to ban, what they call, the broadcast of excessively sentimental music. I must say I pity the director who must pass judgment as to what is excessively sentimental, and what is not.

Between this general interest in and appreciation of these subjects, oddly enough in wartime, there is an increase in actually creative work itself. I think there is not a long step from the appreciation of a picture to trying to paint a picture. Of course, a great many people have not the time to devote to these things. But people in the services often have time on their hands, while they are waiting on duty, particularly in civil defence. And so from the Air Force you find there has been a crop of plays by boys who have been inspired to write, stirred by fresh experiences and new contacts with fellow men. Then you get painting. We have a mass of exhibitions done by civil defence artists. Not all the pictures are about the war; you find, in fact, there is quite a reaction against painting war subjects. Also, not all the pictures are well done. You do not necessarily applaud a picture just because it is done in wartime; some of them are sadly unattractive. But I went to one of the London Civil Defence Exhibitions and there was one very interesting picture that was chosen by the judges, and they found that it had been the very first picture that artist had painted. The artist came up to see his picture proudly hanging on the wall, and what is more, the picture was sold. Now that man was not well-to-do at all and I imagine he would have had all kinds of expenses that that money could have gone to. I imagine his wife would have had ideas about spending that money. But that man went around and then spent all the money he had received in buying a picture that pleased him the best. That was really a remarkable man, and it is so thrilling that those abilities are coming up to the surface.

Next month in Ottawa, for instance, we are having a concert by some of the refugees. It is grand that these people have a chance to reassert their qualities and exercise their talents; but how can we avoid wasting abilities of this kind? Naturally, we turn to our government, and the government in Britain has taken upon itself to take culture under its wing, as it is taking so many other things under its wing. It is not only directing mechanics to make aeroplanes; it is also directing musicians to make music. It is not only spending large sums of money on armaments and all the other things needed to wage war; but it is also spending a tiny fraction of the national money on cultural things. Some people think that that's a revolution. I would not say that, but it is certainly a great innovation. I think it is just a part of the whole process. After all, the government has taken over the care of people's bodies; it provides for them in hospitals; it provides convalescent homes for them. Talking about that, the Gleneagles Golf Club has now been taken over to be used as a convalescent home for Scottish miners. Not only have they done that, but the government have taken over the education of children. The next step, it seems to me, is very logical--to take over the education of adults.

I would like to tell you a little bit about what CEMA--the Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts. CEMA is a great organization. One of its latest activities was to buy a representative collection of contemporary British paintings. These are going to be sent around to factory recreation rooms and to mining villages and they will be displayed in British restaurants. In the catalogue is a sentence which is very descriptive of what that organization has in mind. It says "the very modesty of the exhibits is a proof that painting is not solely a thing for public galleries any more than flowers are things solely for public gardens". It wants to take these pictures to a much smaller unit than the great exhibitions, make them come much more close to the people than hitherto.

This entry of the government into these planes, of Course, might be very serious. You have got your people perforce collected in big groups-your shelters, factories, your services-and if a sinister government came along and put across all kinds of propaganda material, well then, you have all these people at their mercy. I would like here to drag in a little story, which perhaps is not quite to the point but which does show how serious it might be when this intensive government campaigning to put across a certain subject overrides the true scientific attitude. The story is about Milton and Rose-Mary. Milton is six and Rose-Mary is four. Rose-Mary was in an inquisitive state of mind one day and she asked Milton who made her. Milton said: "Why, God, of course; Mummy always tells us that." Rose-Mary was not quite convinced. "But does God make our skin; does he make our hair?" "Of course," said Milton. "Does he make our bones?" Milton thought for a moment, then he said, "I don't think God makes our bones. I think he gets them from Salvage." (Laughter.)

Another activity that the government is now engaging in to bring these ideas and these cultural activities to the people, is factory concerts. I went to one of those factory concerts when I was in London. Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, I went to one that was not a great success. I think it was not a success for two reasons. In the first place you must have the active approval of your managerial side of the factory in things like that. In this case the management was not at all interested and it lacked their support. In the second place this concert was held in the canteen in the lunch-hour, and owing to some delay the main service was not finished by the time the concert began. So the three magnificent musicians had to perform their very lovely trio to the percussion of the knives and forks and cups and saucers. But what interested me and made me perhaps a little sad was that, looking around the audience, I saw that whilst the older people were intensely interested, the younger people were chattering and shuffling and paid very little attention. We shall have to attack our younger people a little more in that way, I think. There is a great deal of work going on, but a great deal more is needed to get them interested so they will appreciate those sort of things.

It's very fortunate, I think, that we all have this increasing interest in these pursuits, and that there are people who are creating these things, and that we have a big organization like the government who are interested in supporting them because, of course, there is so much to be done. There are so many ugly and drab, unattractive things in our existences still. For instance, when I was in Britain I spent quite a lot of time travelling, and interested me to look around at the advertisements. Now some of the advertisements are very good, particularly the ones sponsored by the various government departments-for instance, something like your Wartime Prices and Trade Board advertisements-and I think there is a great consciousness that advertisements should be attractive. I remember one advertisement in particular which obviously showed that the person who laid out that advertisement realized that an appeal to the charm of the poetical sense would be highly desirable, and so the wares 'were advertised with the following couplet:

"I can't read this letter, you have often heard it said.

I do wish he'd use a typewriter instead."

Well, that is something on the right side, but it could be improved. People are beginning to criticize things like that and I think we will have an improved standard in our advertisements.

Then there's our schools. A lot of the new schools are lovely; a lot of the old one are very drab, and we have no business to be bringing up children in those unattractive surroundings.

We have a wonderful opportunity coming, once we have started on the reconstruction of our homes and replacing our furniture and our clothes and all the other things that we have to neglect somewhat in the war; and think this appreciation of cultural things is getting height through to everybody, and so we will find that this reconstruction will be undertaken with the proper appreciation of the nice side of things, of cultural things and attractiveness. We will have to be like the man whom I happened to come across in my prison work, the man who was applying for the job of executioner in one of our London prisons. He wrote a letter putting forward his qualifications and his experience, and then, as an after-thought, he put a P.S.--"I think I should add that I also hold the Gold Medal of the Royal Humane Society for life saving."

Well now, I do hope, Mr. Chairman, that we in this horrible destruction of war will be able to save what is attractive and what is of value in our life. (Much applause.)

Miss MacDonald was presented with a bouquet of red roses by Mrs. John C. M. MacBeth, the wife of the President.

MR. W. E. HUMPHREYS: Ladies and Gentlemen: I am going to ask the gentleman at the end of the table to thank Miss MacDonald. He is a Scot, but I don't want to tell you his name.

MR. J. MORGAN: Mr. Chairman, Ladies and Gentlemen: I would like to explain that you may be very disappointed in the way I express the thanks, but the only reason I have been chosen is because I have a broad Scottish accent. I have a daughter 16 years of age and I hope the day will never come when I cannot detect the Scottish accent. Therefore, I feel just a little bit disappointed in Miss MacDonald to think that her father, Mr. Ramsay MacDonald, would have brought her up in such a way that you could not hear the Scottish burr. I think it's a shame. I think they used to say the same thing about Lord Tweedsmuir. Of course, it's different with me; I have not been here very long. I have only been away from Scotland 32 years-(laughter)-so I have not lost my Scottish accent.

But I like one story about Ramsay MacDonald which used to be told by Mr. R. E. Knowles, who one day went to get some local colour. He got hold of an old man who showed him around. The old man took him first to the house where Mr. MacDonald was born, he took him to the school he went to, and then to the farm where, he was told, Mr. MacDonald had picked potatoes or a shilling a day as a young lad. Then they wandered back to the town and Mr. Knowles said he thought he :had been to all the places that he would care to see. Then the old man said wistfully, "Wud ye no' like to see where I was born mesel?" (Laughter.)

Just one other thing. They chose me very badly because we are told that the Scot has nothing to do with "culture and it is an impertinence for him to deal with it.

I don't think you need to have any fear about the loss of culture in the British people. Culture comes from within and not from things without, and even among the lowly people of Scotland you still have culture in abundance-and England is just the same.

Miss MacDonald, I wish you had spoken with a Scotch accent. We have enjoyed every word of it, if you can come back, even though you have to learn it again, we would be very glad to hear you. (Applause.)

Mr. W. E. HUMPHREYS: Thank you Mr. Jerry Morgan.

The meeting is adjourned.

Powered by / Alimenté par VITA Toolkit

My favourites lets you save items you like, tag them and group them into collections for your own personal use. Viewing "My favourites" will open in a new tab. Login here or start a My favourites account.


Why Paint in Wartime?

An "open meeting" which included women. Cultural activities in war. Understanding what culture means. Misunderstandings about culture. A definition of culture. How paying attention to culture is part of our war effort. Maintaining our tradition and heritage through culture. How culture is important to us and our society. Our responsibility to keep alive and keep strong cultural activities. What is happening in Britain with regard to their culture, with instances and anecdotes. A look at art, the world of ideas, radio programmes, etc. An increase in the actual creative work itself during wartime: how and why that is so. Activities of the Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts (CEMA). Saving what is attractive and what is of value in our life.