Walter Joseph (W.J.) Phillips

Walter Joseph (W.J.) Phillips

1884 - 1963

Walter Phillips came to Canada from England in 1913, settling in Winnipeg where he taught at St. John’s Technical School. He began etching in 1915, learning the technique from Cyril Barraud and quickly mastering it. In 1916, the National Gallery of Canada purchased two etchings, but Phillips was not satisfied with the colour limitations of this medium and turned to the woodcut, learning the technique himself. In 1917 he produced Winter, a remarkable accomplishment in a new and difficult medium. Within two years Phillips’s woodcuts were reproduced in The Studio, and his virtuosity was fully apparent. He would return to England in September of 1924, where he met Yoshijiro Urushibara, a master printmaker visiting from Japan, who taught Phillips the importance of sizing, a gelatinous mixture applied to the printing paper. Critical to Phillips’s work, sizing gave his woodcuts the perfection of tone and surface, the fine layering of crisply transferred colour, and delicate silken surface that characterizes them.

In 1925 Phillips returned to Canada. He produced prints and watercolours regularly and wrote the book The Technique of the Colour Woodcut in 1926. He began a series of print portfolios, producing Ten Canadian Colour Prints in 1927, and The Canadian Scene in 1928. The majority of his woodcut work was done in the 1930s, and he published a portfolio of wood engravings, An Essay in Woodcuts in 1930. In 1931 he completed the portfolio Ten Woodcuts, as well as 21 wood engravings for Dreams of Fort Garry. The portfolio Winter Woodcuts was published in 1936. He did the illustrations for Frederick Niven’s 1937 book Colour in the Canadian Rockies.

Phillips’s lyrical style was based directly on the tenets of Art Nouveau presented with the technical perfection of the Japanese prints that he so admired. The iconic York Boats on Lake Winnipeg, 1930, used decorative line and flowing, organic movement - all presented in a soft blend of colours - with the areas of grain from his carefully chosen wood showing clearly in the work. In 1929, he produced Karlukwees, BC, one his most beloved and beautiful images.

Phillips exhibited regularly across North America and was active in print societies internationally. Six of his prints were included in the Detroit Art Institute’s 1919 Wood Block Prints in Colour by American Artists. He was represented by Brownhead Coutts in London and Brown-Robertson in New York, and showed 93 works in the graphic art section of the Canadian National Exhibition in 1930. A member of the RCA from 1921, he became an academician in 1933.

In 1940 Phillips was invited to teach in Alberta, and in 1942 moved to Calgary to manage positions there and in Banff. Moving to Banff in 1948, he taught 20 summer sessions, painting watercolours of the surrounding peaks and built a circle of artist friends that included Belmore Browne, Carl Rungius, and Peter and Catharine Whyte.

In 1953, his eyesight failing, Phillips had an unsuccessful operation for glaucoma. In 1954 he was asked to paint the Strathcona Park Car for the Canadian Pacific Railway’s The Canadian. After retiring from teaching in 1959, Phillips was given an honorary Doctorate by the University of Alberta in 1960 and moved to Victoria that year. He would be completely blind by 1961, and died in Victoria in 1963.

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