Arrival of the Circus
circa 1919, Peter Clapham Sheppard, oil on canvas, 101.6 cm x 147.3 cm
At a time when his fellow painters drew inspiration and a sense of purpose from the Canadian landscape, Peter Clapham Sheppard applied his brush and the newly developed modernist techniques to the life and tumult of cities.
Sheppard worked and exhibited alongside painters such as Lawren Harris, and he represented Canada at international exhibitions. Yet his contributions to Canadian art were largely forgotten — perhaps due to the prominence of the Group of Seven and of the narrative linking Canadian art to the country’s landscape.
While Sheppard’s hometown of Toronto was the setting for many of his works, he also painted in Montreal and New York. His subjects included shipyards and rail yards, bridges and harbours, beaches and street scenes. The Bridge Builders, Construction, Bloor Street Viaduct, painted in 1915, shows labourers at a massive engineering project, while 1919’s The Engine Home plays with colour and form.
In the new book Peter Clapham Sheppard: His Life and Work, Tom Smart writes, “Sheppard preferred to concentrate more on expressing the abstract potentialities rather than the purely picturesque qualities of a scene.” Somehow, in doing this, he also managed to bring to the fore the dynamism of city life.
Arrival of the Circus, a tableau portraying performers and elephants at the Canadian National Exhibition, shows his versatility. As in Sheppard’s other paintings of the time, figures are as loosely represented as the ever-billowing smoke that spills into the urban sky.
— Phil Koch