An Artist at War

When Gordon Couling went to Vancouver to serve with the Royal Canadian Engineers, he likely thought he would not be doing his beloved artwork for quite some time. His friend J.G. Hanley, from the Church of Saint Peter in Chains in Toronto and later The Canadian Register in Kingston, wrote him a letter which concurrs with this fear:

It was really not surprising to hear that you were in His Majesty's Service, though I had not heard it before. It is true that your work will be vastly different; you will not have many churches to decorate, or many other buildings either for that matter. But this war will not last indefinately; there will still be much work to be done of the kind you like to do."

-J.G. Hanley, December 29, 1942.

However, Gordon Couling found himself in the position of staff artist, doing topographic and architectural drafting, which he had a flair for. The Department of National Defence was very impressed with his work and wrote an official letter to say so:

I would like to draw your attention to the excellent work done by Sargeant G. R. Couling, R.C.E. in preparation of drawings of Vancouver and Prince Rupert Harbour Fronts. These drawings were included in Intelligence Coast Reports covering these two cities. The work of Sargeant Couling is greatly appreciated by this department and I would be grateful if this letter were brought to his attention.

-Department of National Defence, Staff Officer R. Roberts (Intelligence), Pacific Coast Naval Headquarters, Jericho Beach, Vancouver, B.C.

During training, Gordon Couling sustained a back injury, a compression fracture of the first lumbar vertebra and was thus unable to serve overseas. He went to the Canadian Legion War Services Hut, No. 1 Conditioning Centre, Gordon Head, B.C. to recover. During his time at Gordon Head, he managed to fill his time with artistic work and become quite the local celebrity, being known as the "Soldier Artist". He and two other soldiers painted murals (Gordon Couling's mural can be seen alongside him in the picture above), as well as put on displays of artwork at their hut. One writer for the local paper was particularly enchanted:

He was standing before an improvised easel, putting the finishing touches to an amazingly good picture of a scene in the hut itself. Chatting with him, I found he wore a cast for spinal injury.. ...The excellence of his work made me ask if he'd done any before. And I was interested to learn that he had been an interior decorator before the war, doing many church interiors... ...He was amazingly cheery and evidently welcomed the opportunity given him at the centre to follow his artistic inclinations

-Nancy Hodges, from "One Woman's Day", Victoria Daily Times, December 7th, 1944

The soldier-artists contributed their art to an exhibition held at the Victoria Provincial Museum, to wide acclaim. It seems the public was delighted with the prospect of Canada's young servicemen participating in local culture. Critics enjoyed the display, and in particular two groups of work; one by a friend of Gordon Couling and one by Gordon Couling himself!

Two groups were outstanding.. [one of these was] a group of oils and pen and ink sketches by Staff-Sgt. Gordon R. Couling of Guelph, which have depth of colour and richness. Staff-Sgt. Couling, his body still in a cast, is keenly interested in his work and has sketched many familiar scenes in Victoria, including Christ Church cathedral. His knowledge of architecture and especially of churches is apparant in the sketches.

-From Victoria Daily Colonist, December 7, 1944

Although a soldier would not be expected to continue his artistic career while stationed at a camp, Gordon Couling managed to make the most of his situation and still hold onto his artistic dreams during wartime. It is testimony to this man's dedication to the arts that, as a soldier and during a time when art was still not fully a "man's hobby" that he managed to uphold his artistic career during World War Two.

Letters and articles quoted herein were found in the Gordon Couling Collection, Archive Centre, University of Guelph library, Guelph, Ontario.

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