Charles Jones Way, RCA: The Life of a Pioneer Artist of Canada
…so great a love of drawing…
As a child, Charles Jones Way displayed such talent for drawing that his father sent him to the Central Training School at
Somerset House in London for instruction. While Way was a student, the Central School transferred to Marlborough House,
then to South Kensington. Advanced training was inevitable—drawing was in the DNA of the Way family. Born
July 25, 1834 at water’s edge, in Dartmouth, England, CJ Way was the first child of William Hopkins Way, a marine painter and
owner of the Artist’s Repository in Spithead. His uncle Charles Way, cousin William Cosens Way and niece Frances Way Thacker
were also talented artists.
At South Kensington in the mid 1850s, CJ Way found a vocation. His studies were guided by Richard Redgrave, RA,
who had been Master at Somerset House and promoted to Art Superintendent. Way's regimented course of study consisted of
twenty-three stages, each stage demanding endless sketches of architectural designs, ornamental arrangements or botanical examples.
For study of great British painters, he had access to the Sheepshanks collection that included works by JMW Turner, Constable, and
Landseer and on more than one occasion while a student, he copied Turner. Toward the end of his training, Way was reading the first
volumes of John Ruskin’s modern painters series and ‘going to nature’ to paint, somewhat at odds with Redgrave's dogmatic drawing
and design principles. His final and most rigorous work was in the special training class for Masters of Schools of Art, where he
completed two certificates of the third grade—the highest level possible. With these credentials in hand, CJ Way was appointed to
Montréal to extend the South Kensington system of art education to British North America.
…came early to Canada…
When Montréal's new Art Master arrived in 1858, he took a studio in the Bonaventure Building on Commissioners Square,
down the hall from the French-Canadian artist Napoleon Bourassa, and he advertised for students. Within a year of his arrival,
CJ was dividing his time tutoring and painting around Montréal. One of his students, the daughter of merchant Thomas McLerie
Thomson, would later become his wife.
In January 1860, artisans were busy composing anthems, designing medals, and constructing displays for a Provincial Exhibition
to commemorate the first visit by the British monarchy to Canada. Queen Victoria was unable to make the trip but her son, Albert
Edward, Prince of Wales was her designee. As a graduate of South Kensington, CJ knew that the fine arts needed to be highlighted—the
Prince's father Albert had fought hard to make the national art school a success. The Prince's visit was an opportune time for Lower
Canada to establish a new arts organization and CJ, the only artist on an eleven-member planning committee, played a crucial role in
creating the Art Association of Montréal. By summer, CJ was busy organizing the first exhibition of paintings at the new Crystal Palace.
CJ did not wait for the Prince to get to Montréal; instead he traveled to Gaspé to paint the arrival of the Royal Squadron. On August 25,
when the Prince of Wales toured the fine arts exhibition at the Crystal Palace, he chose CJ Way’s painting of the three royal ships at anchor
in Gaspé Bay as a gift from the Association. When the exhibition concluded, the Board of Arts and Manufactures for Lower Canada
awarded the highest medal for watercolours to CJ Way.
The following year, CJ painted along the rivers of Quebec and Ontario—the St Lawrence, the Ottawa, the Saguenay, the Malbaie and the Niagara. For CJ the attractions were not only shining waters, rugged hills and glimpses of farms but Algonquin Indians paddling the rapids in birchbark canoes and spearing fish near the river’s edge. Despite his popularity, CJ's initial work in Canada was not without criticism.
In the AAM exhibition catalogue of 1865, a critic noted that CJ painted the grandest scenery on the continent but his work was “portraits
of nature rather than nature herself.” It would not take long for CJ to grow beyond his British training.
…Mr. Way traveled much, finding everywhere the subjects that he loved…
During the 1860s, CJ worked on commission with William Notman, the leading photographer in Montréal. Notman had begun using chromolithography to turn paintings into color photographs and CJ recognized the advantages of this technique, having learned about
the work of Owen Jones at South Kensington. CJ’s commissions enabled him to travel much—his sepias and watercolors of Canada,
Wales, Scotland and England appeared in three of Notman’s photograph books. The sepias done in the 1860s have mildly interesting
focal points but his depth perception is confusing and his composition static. Their value lay in the novelty of being photographed for
picture books. For the first time, Montréal’s wealthy immigrants could purchase photographs of paintings of their newly adopted country
and their old country in book form.
After this commercial success, the ambitious young painter left Canada to paint in Italy. Perhaps he was influenced by Ruskin or
John Charles Robinson, curator of Italian ornamental art at South Kensington, or Bourassa, recently returned from a trip to Florence
and Rome. Unlike Bourassa, who came home with new enthusiasm for religious murals and portraits, Way continued to favor landscapes.
In the medieval cities of Venice and Florence and the villages of the northern lakes district, Way perfected his technique. Painting was not
the only thing that occupied him. Mary Thomson, one of his former Montréal students, was touring Italy with her sisters, on holiday from
school at Tudor Hall, London. CJ and Mary's courtship began in Florence and after their return to Canada six months later, Charles Jones Way and Mary Ker Thomson were married in The Baptist Church of Montréal in 1869.
CJ arrived back in the city to great acclaim—he was asked to serve as a Councillor of the Art Association of Montréal and his painting
of Monte Rotondo was purchased by the AAM, the first painting of their new collection. The officers of the AAM also arranged for
CJ’s painting to be chromolithographed for presentation to members.
As much as he enjoyed the respect of the AAM, CJ understood that it was important for artists to establish themselves as professionals.
The AAM had been created by and for patrons and while artists could subscribe, very few held office. It took courage and sensitivity
for the artists of Montréal to announce to their patrons they were establishing a new type of association—this one created by and for artists.
Their livelihood depended on an A-list that ran the gamut of immigrant entrepreneurs—Allan, Blackwell, Frothingham, Gilmour, Murray,
Ogilvie, Reford, Rimmer—and they could not afford to alienate those wealthy clients. But the artists were successful. The Society of
Canadian Artists was formed in 1867 and two years later, CJ became President. During the formation of this new association by the
prominent artists of Montréal, none of them lost favor with their patrons—a tribute to their diplomacy.
The year 1870 was the apex of CJ’s leadership in the art community of Montréal. He held positions as President of the Society of
Canadian Artists, Councillor of the Art Association of Montréal and liaison to the Board of Arts and Manufacturers of Montréal.
It was also the year he became a father. Anne Florence Way was born in June. Notman, who had photographed CJ Way and
Mary Thomson a decade earlier, now photographed their child.
…the old world ever called to him and he returned to Europe…
What motivated CJ to return to Europe was not just a simple desire to paint the old world. In the 1870s Montréal began to slide into
recession. Diseases like smallpox and typhoid were widespread and the infant mortality rate was highest in North America. The notable
art collectors of Montréal suspended meetings of the AAM and curtailed purchases for their own collections. Coupled with serious health
concerns was the effect of industrialization, making it difficult for a Romantic to remain in the city. After a painting trip along the Saguenay
and a holiday in Malbaie, CJ and Mary attended the wedding of her sister Marion Charlotte Thomson to Rev. Thomas Miller Reikie of
Glasgow and packed up to move to Europe.
The Ways unpacked in London at the Lloyd Square home of CJ’s brother, William Dwyer Way, a house builder and painter.
Then CJ went home to Devon.
…the sea, which every Devonshire man so dearly loves…
There is a notion that every painting is in essence a self-portrait. CJ’s body of work done in Devon in the mid-1870s reflects how much
he was at one with the sea, even when weather was treacherous. Since childhood, he had painted waves and sailboats, but now the seas
were stormy, the rocks foreboding and the sails ripped from their masts. Was Devonshire weather unusually rough in the 1870s or was CJ
reflecting the turmoil he felt?
Compare the drama of his work in Devon with another ensemble of seascapes painted decades later of Rye Harbour, Sussex.
Some of the Rye paintings are dated 1909 when CJ was 75 years old. The overall effect of this work is peaceful yet it is curiously
unsentimental. This time the boats are tethered and some are beached. Sails are limp and hulls are weathered and worn, but the skies are
blue and seas calm. This set includes a painting by one of CJ’s daughter’s, not the first time father and daughter echoed each other’s work.
Despite his love of the sea, in 1873 CJ, Mary and Florence sailed from England to Switzerland, settling near the shore of Lac Léman.
For forty years, except for two years in Ospedaletti, Italy, three years back in Canada, and holidays in Sierre, the Ways lived on Avenue
de Rumine in Lausanne. Two of CJ’s daughters, Aimée Mary Maria Way and Catherine Thomson Way, were born there and attended
Ecole Vinet with their older sister Florence. Through those years, CJ took advantage of his location to paint snow capped mountains and
lush valleys, occasionally painting the same scenes repeatedly, identical to the last detail. In these pictures, it seemed he put his brushes
and palette on automatic (perhaps attesting to the repetitive technical training of South Kensington). Other paintings were unique and
personal and never duplicated. With experience, his best work evoked a mood and created intrigue. He mastered contrasts—dark and
light, near and far, serenity and tension—capturing attention. Instead of glancing quickly, viewers could linger in his paintings.
In Way’s painting, Col di Rodi, high above Bordighera among the twisted olive trees, two people meet. One is a young girl who stands
in the path, a stack of branches on her head and a drab shawl tight around her chest. She has stopped to talk to a well-dressed woman
sitting in the shade of a large olive tree. The woman had been reading a book, but she has set it in her lap and looks up at the girl.
This is a typical focal point for Way, but he has heightened the intrigue by framing the conversation from a distance, letting viewers see
that the women are on a windblown precipice far away from town. As with many of Way’s paintings, it is the juxtaposition of an everyday
event in an extreme location that compels viewers to linger. This is the same grove of olive trees Claude Monet painted close up but his
dense foliage hides the precipice. Way and Monet painted Bordighera around the same time. Did they exchange pleasantries or critique
each other's work on that windy hill?
Although Way was first and foremost a professional painter, he was also a credentialled art master. When he lived in Canada and
Switzerland, his studio was available to students. In the 1860’s Way had taught Alan Edson and Henry Sandham. During the 1880’s
Way once again took students, most of whom were residents of Lausanne. One young student, Carl Alexander von Winkler, came
from Estonia to study with Way. Von Winkler later became a drawing master and professional artist, working in Russia, Germany and
Switzerland. Another student was his niece, Fanny Way who stayed with the Ways in Lausanne and Sierre.
…a monument to his genius and the glory of Canadian art …
In 1898, the Ways returned to Canada. What drew them back was the opportunity of a lifetime for father and daughter. At the turn
of the century, CJ and Aimée showed paintings at exhibitions of the Art Association of Montréal and Royal Canadian Academy.
CJ joined the Montréal Pen and Pencil Club, a reunion of sorts with old friends who met at the studio of Edmond Dyonnet.
There he could take sketches, pastels, and photographs for critique and enjoy a fine dinner. Mary Way and her daughters visited
relatives in Toronto and attended a Christmas gala in honor of the new Governor General, Lord Minto, as guests of Mary’s nephew
Norman Rielle. A highlight for AM Way was a visit at the home of her great uncle Rev. Matthew Ker, who had retired in
Niagara-on-the-Lake. At his house on Prideaux Street, AM discovered the Ker crest hanging in the foyer, a rather crudely
painted rendition. It intrigued her for the rest of her life.
Another opportunity for CJ had come from William Van Horne, President of the Canadian Pacific Railway. Van Horne invited CJ
to travel across the country, stay at hotels along the way, and paint whatever he wished. Starting at the Atlantic, CJ painted the plains,
the Rockies, the Selkirks then the Fraser River. With the exception of a few paintings in museums and those owned by family
members, this collection—a monument to his genius and the glory of Canadian art—has been lost from public view.
…one of the most loveable of men with a deep and unaffected piety…
“We need examples of people who, leaving Heaven to decide whether they are to rise in the world, decide for themselves
that they will be happy in it, and have resolved to seek, not greater wealth, but simpler pleasures; not higher fortune,
but deeper felicity; making the first of possessions self-possession, and honouring themselves in the harmless pride and
calm pursuits of peace.”
Ruskin, Unto This Last, Essay IV, Ad Valorem 1860
For over sixty years, CJ Way sought simple pleasures and deep felicity by painting for a living. In the 1860s and again in the
1890s he painted a young country that intrigued him by its vastness, its diverse people and industrious spirit. In between he painted
the old country with its classic vistas and quaint traditions. The Ways were a religious family, faithful members of Trinity Presbyterian
Church in Lausanne, yet none of CJ’s work is explicitly religious or allegorical. Of 1500 paintings identified thus far, only a dozen
are of churches. Still, there is a certain unaffected piety in his treatment of nature, whether water, sky, rock, tree, human, animal.
Way was motivated by the drama found in nature itself—clouds hugging the Matterhorn, waves lapping the shore of Lac Leman,
fir trees dragging their limbs in translucent water near Malbaie, mountains reflecting in the icy stillness of Montana Lake. He was the
first professional artist to capture the wispy pine trees and crystal lakes around Sierre, a sunny town in the Rhone valley. These are the
subjects of the largest works Way ever painted. They were commissioned by hotel owner Michel Zufferey in the late 1890s for the
grand salon of the Hotel Bellevue. The City Hall of Sierre now occupies the hotel and the paintings, though aged, still grace the walls
of the salon. On the first floor of the building is a portrait of CJ Way, painted by his daughter Aimée around 1910 when he was
close to eighty.
Very few portraits by Way have come to light. CJ painted several individuals, including his daughters and his wife. Only one is dated
and none has been confirmed as a self portrait. Perhaps he did not find enough drama in facial features, though judging from his work
for anatomy classes at South Kensington, he was skillful in portraiture.
Humor is in Way’s work—his name, CJ Way, boldly inscribed on the stern of a boat in Montréal harbor, the U.S. flag’s stars and
stripes draped around the shoulders of two ladies looking out to sea at Portland, Maine, small boys hanging over the side of a fishing
boat on shore at Lac Léman, clueless that they’re about to drift away.
It is Way’s remarkable sense of composition, skilled brushwork and rendering of light that make his paintings recognizable. In an era
when the work of impresionists became more popular than the romantics, Way bridged the gap by painting outdoors to capture
the movement of light in relaxed settings yet in precise detail, thereby creating a signature style. He was a professional painter who
maintained a Ruskinian devotion to painting the “truth” of nature’s elements throughout his life.
On a February afternoon in 1919 at his home in Lausanne, Charles Jones Way took a break from painting, lay down on the sofa
and breathed his last. The year he died, CJ painted a portrait inscribed, The Bearded Fisherman. This work has vanished from
public view—it could be a self-portrait.
© WayPainter 2009
Phrases are taken from “Memoir” in The Estate of the Late C.J. Way, R.C.A.: Unreserved Auction Sale of 176 Valuable Water Colors and
Oil Paintings, by Ward Price, Limited, Toronto, nd.
An annotated version of Charles Jones Way, RCA: The Life of a Pioneer Artist of Canada is available on request.