HBC’s Canadian Committee, based at Hudson’s Bay House in Winnipeg, oversaw the commissioning of the calendar paintings. The Canadian Committee, originally known as the Canadian Advisory Committee, was established in 1912 to advise London on issues concerning day to day operations in Canada. In 1930, this role was formalized when the Committee acquired the legal authority to run the day-to-day business operations. In 1957, all Canadian Committee members became full directors of HBC. In the early years of the calendar, the Committee created a list of up to twenty potential subjects for the calendar, selecting preferred topics for two years at a time and determining which artists would be commissioned for each work. They ensured that extensive research was done on the subject in question and oversaw the execution of the painting.
In the early 1950s responsibility for overseeing the calendar commissions was assumed by Clifford Wilson, editor of HBC’s magazine The Beaver, from 1939 to 1957. The final paintings still needed to be approved by the Canadian Committee. The magazine, established in 1920, was the main cultural organ of the Company, and had an extensive library and close ties with the Hudson’s Bay Company Archives, then located in London. In 1958, a memorandum on calendar policies was issued which clearly stated that “the Canadian Committee must always approve a calendar subject, and that at least two suitable calendar subjects – preferably three – must be submitted to the Canadian Committee not later than January 7thof each year.” Wilson took care of the details involved in shepherding the calendar paintings, from idea through initial sketch to completed painting. He was incredibly exacting and researched every aspect of each painting. As a result the commissioned artists were given a wealth of detail that enabled them to paint a picture that was as historically accurate as possible. Every element of the paintings was researched for historical, geographical, and cultural information, from the style of clothing that was worn, to the surrounding vegetation of the area.
Wilson’s attention to detail may at times have seemed excessive, and could certainly be challenging for the artists involved. Franklin Arbuckle’s Samuel Hearne Builds Cumberland House, 1774-1775, painted for the 1952 calendar, provides a good example.
Hearne Builds Cumberland House, 1774-1775 by George Franklin Arbuckle, 1951, Hudson's Bay Company Corporate Collection (ART_00037)
Despite several additions and revisions to the sketch, Clifford Wilson made numerous criticisms about the final painting, eventually forcing Arbuckle to re-do certain elements of the final work. For instance, Wilson criticized the colour of Hearne’s toque. Arbuckle had initially painted Hearne’s toque a brilliant yellow hue. Wilson found the effect “jarring”. In a letter to Arbuckle (August 14, 1950) he spends an entire paragraph explaining why yellow is an inappropriate colour for Hearne’s hat, citing the exaggerated attention the colour brings to the centre of the picture, as well as the impracticality of wearing a yellow toque in the bush. He goes on to suggest the colour blue for the toque instead, though in a very indirect way: “I am not asking you to change it, but would like to know your own feeling about it. I notice, for instance, that in the coloured sketch you gave Hearne a blue toque”, while deferring, on the face of it at least, to Arbuckle’s control over the creative aspect of the work, he adds: “but we shouldn’t let this consideration interfere with the artistic side of the picture.”
Arbuckle sent a letter back (August 27, 1950), thanking him for his criticism: “I’m only too happy to make any technical changes which you care to suggest, because after all, you are the expert. As to aesthetic matters, my conscience must be my guide and I’m certain that you will back me there.” As far as the toque is concerned, he writes, “I will try a blue version and see how it looks.” In the final painting, Hearne’s toque is blue, in keeping with Wilson’s preference.
Wilson’s management of the calendar painting commissions ended in 1957 when he left HBC to take an executive position with the Glenbow Institute in Calgary. Between 1960 and 1964, the Company opted for photographs instead of paintings. However, for the 1965 calendar, it was decided to return to historical paintings, this time using three images instead of one. Rolph Huband, then Secretary of the Canadian Committee, was a key figure in the commissioning process during the 1960s. He would initiate contact with potential artists for the calendar and after this initial contact, Shirlee Anne Smith, librarian of Hudson’s Bay House, would take over the process and conduct the research for the painting. Their combined approach offered more artistic freedom to the artist.
For the 1965 calendar painting, Huband simply asked William Winter if he was “interested in taking on a painting” for HBC. He didn’t specify what the subject would be: “We are looking for something essentially representational, though not photographic in style. If you are interested in this project we would appreciate hearing from you.” Winter wrote back saying that yes, indeed he was interested and “would like to be asked to do something of a domestic nature … I’m sure the files of the company could provide many such subjects – balls and country dances, weddings in the early fur trade.” Winter proposed his own preferences and subject matter – very different form the earlier, more tightly controlled process. Accordingly, Shirlee Anne Smith proposed two domestic themes for Winter to choose from: Christmas Dinner at York Factory or The Ball at Upper Fort Garry. In the end, Winter chose the latter.
Ball at Upper fort Garry, 1862 by William Arthur Winter, ca 1964, Hudson's Bay Company Corporate Collection (ART_00028).
Once Winter had selected the subject, Smith carried on the Company’s tradition of insisting on historical accuracy in the calendar paintings. She took great pains to research the architecture, style and dress of the period, in order to enable Winter to depict the Ball as it would have been in 1862. When Winter sent his sketch in to Smith for approval, she was no less exacting than Clifford Wilson had been. She asked him to change some facial expressions of the figures in the composition, to shorten the women’s white gloves, and to change the colour of the brown frock to something lighter.
The final rendering of The Ball at Upper Fort Garry met with Huband’s approval. In 1964 he wrote to Winter: “Your very charming painting arrived yesterday and we are all very pleased with it.” It was published along with two other paintings in the 1965 calendar. Huband continued to direct the commissioning of calendar paintings until 1970 when the calendar was discontinued.
The HBC calendar was very popular with the public. Company surveys over the years consistently provided a consensus that the production of the calendars should continue. Over the 58 years it was produced, HBC distributed more than 5 million calendars, sending out an average of 110,000 annually. Calendars were sent to Retail Stores, Fur Trade and Northern Stores, Wholesale and Buying Departments. Beginning in 1929, the calendars were also sent to every school in Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta and British Columbia. Customers also requested individual copies of them through letters, telephone calls, and in person visits to retail stores. The HBC calendar was a national icon, adorning the walls of stores, offices, schools and homes – of all types – across the country.
Ada Nalikak, Jack Alonak’s mother, in her caribou skin tent [Woman in the background not identified]. [194-]. Photographer: J.H. Webster. Hudson’s Bay Company Archives (HBCA 1987/363-E-140/29)
Over time the calendars became collectors' items, especially in Canada and the United States. Even today, more than 40 years after production ceased, the HBC calendars command interest in the vintage memorabilia marketplace.
Click here for a complete list of the Calendar Paintings.
For more on the HBC calendars, see Picture This: Hudson’s Bay Company Calendar Images and Their Documentary Legacy, 1913-1970 by Andrea M. Paci.