North Atlantic Convoy

Beginning on May 26 of 1950 and continuing until October of 1952, an exhibition of 34 naval paintings by Eric Riordon toured Canada from coast to coast.  The exhibition was entitled “North Atlantic Convoy” and told the story of a typical WW II convoy journey eastbound from St. John’s in Newfoundland to Great Britain. 

The focus of the exhibition was on the warships that escorted the freighters, tankers and troopships whose cargos were Great Britain’s lifeline in the war against Nazi Germany. These warships ranged from motor launches and minesweepers, corvettes and frigates, destroyers and battleships that protected convoys from North American east coast ports and across the North Atlantic.
Eric Riordon had direct personal experience of convoy service in the minesweepers HMCS Fundy and HMCS Kenora.  He served through the winters of 1941-42 and 1942-43, experiencing the miseries of the freezing cold and damp, long days on watch and sleepless storm-tossed nights. Days and nights where constant vigilance, the endless tension and exhaustion frayed the nerves.

As a professional artist of the land and seascapes of Europe and Canada and well accustomed to depicting his surroundings, he became keenly interested in showing what life was like for the people and ships of the Canadian navy and its allies. We don’t know exactly when the convoy series was painted but it seems likely it was executed towards the end of the war and after.

The notion of making wartime navy pictures probably had it’s genesis in 1940, even before Riordon enlisted. He had been approached in the spring by one Ralph Pickard Bell, a friend and colleague of Eric’s father Carl, with a proposal that Eric paint the scenes of naval activity in and around Halifax, not necessarily as an official war artist but on his own initiative.  Bell had recently commissioned a marine painting from the artist and admired his work. Riordon was keen and Bell (a few weeks later he was appointed Director General of Aircraft Production by C.D. Howe) enlisted his friend J.L. Ralston, then Minister of Finance in Mackenzie King’s Liberal government (and soon to be Canada’s Minister of Defense) to approach H.O. McCurry, director of the National Art Gallery in Ottawa, with his idea. McCurry, who was familiar with Riordon’s art, would only agree if Riordon could be enrolled in an official war artist program, such as had been in place in WW I. This was not in the offing (the official WWII war art program did not begin until January of 1943) and the matter was dropped.  McCurry told Ralston he would see that Riordon’s name be put forward when plans for the war artist program were progressing.  We don’t know if McCurry kept his promise but in the event Riordon was not chosen.‍   This may have been a blessing as his absence from the program meant he could paint what he wanted, when he wanted and in any format that suited him.   

Michael Forster, who was chosen as one of eight official war artists assigned to the RCN, envied Riordon this freedom.  In a June, 1950 review of the Montreal exhibition published in the Montreal Standard Forster writes ”..he was lucky in the sense that he was painting only to please himself.”  He mentions that the official artists were issued “…a remarkable little list of rules and regulations.” and adds that “…Eric was fortunate to have missed these unnecessary stresses…”

Riordon enlisted in the RCN in June of 1940 and painted a few naval scenes around this time while still in Montreal.  There are naval works dated 1940 and 1941.  He also painted three convoy themed works for reproduction on calendars. 

It is difficult to believe that he would have had much time, or facility, to paint during his shipboard duties.
Certainly his service on HMCS Kenora in particular, would have made painting nearly impossible. They were seldom in port for any length of time and then only for brief stopovers to refuel and refit. Sketching would have been the only artistic function possible.‍ 

This vivid description by official war artist Rowley Murphy who spent many months on the mid-ocean escort destroyer, HMCS Saguenay, brings these difficulties to life. 

Quoted by Pat Jessup in her fine article on WW II naval art on the canada.ca website:
“Painting at sea presented a new range of challenges even to artists used to working in plein air. Official war artist Rowley Murphy seemed particularly exasperated when he described the typically trying conditions that made painting at sea a frustrating experience: “as the vessel slices through swells or rough water, which spreads watercolour washes most unexpectedly; and the vibration from her powerful engines and propellers is frequently so great that putting a line down on paper or canvas is often an exciting gamble as to its ultimate position or character. Add to this that the ship is rolling all the time, and is zigzagging with a convoy… ”

On February 15 of 1943, having come into St. John’s, Newfoundland, from convoy escort duty the day before, Riordon filled out an artist information questionnaire from the National Gallery of Canada and stated therein: “Am acquiring notes and sketches, black and white, with the intention of making war records paintings after (or during) the war”.  This is a clear indication that he had already considered the idea of a convoy themed series of pictures and may also have envisaged staging an exhibition of same.  It may also demonstrate his feelings about his exclusion from the official War artist program which required detailed and accurate records of the war be made in paint or watercolour.  ‍ 

In late March of 1943, and until May of 1944, Riordon was posted to Naval Service Headquarters at Cartier Square in Ottawa. There he would have far more opportunity to paint and had accumulated a wealth of subjects and events to depict from his shipboard service.  
It was during his time in Ottawa that he received and executed a commission to supply illustrations for an important new book then in preparation, Canada’s War At Sea.  One of the paintings for that book is dated February of 1944.  A full description of his work for the book and images of each of the paintings can be seen under the “Canada’s War At Sea” tab.

Riordon’s last two postings, in Hamilton with HMCS Pathfinder and at HMCS Avalon in St. John’s also left him time to paint. His wife Mollie later mentioned that he was able to get some of his painting done in off duty hours.

At some point, likely towards the end of or after the war, he worked out a sequence of subjects and events he wanted to depict.  There now appears to be little doubt he did so with the specific intent to stage a public exhibition of the convoy pictures.  After the war he wrote a detailed and sequenced narrative for each of the 34 paintings.  This narrative was eventually followed by his widow Mollie for the posthumous 1950 exhibition. It also became the basis for the research performed for this website. It can be seen under the  Additional Documents tab and the descriptions therein are appended to each of the images under The Paintings tab.

Riordon died on December 23, 1948 of throat cancer after a brief illness.

Soon after his death Mollie obtained a position with the Jas A Ogilvy department store in downtown Montreal. By 1950 she was assistant picture manager for the fine art gallery and used her position to good advantage.  It must have been her idea and initiative to stage the North Atlantic Convoy exhibition at Ogilvy’s in the manner her late husband intended.  She and her manager, Mme L.A. Vincent, organised and staged the exhibition. Mr Laflamme, then very well known for his store windows in Montreal, designed and built the display.

The convoy exhibition was set up in a U shape, the pictures in sequence from left to right. They were not framed but matted and mounted on large panels, two or three to a panel, with the title displayed in a window beneath each picture.

A large naval crown was mounted, possibly that of Montreal Division, above the centre panel and flanked by RCN flags. The blue ensign was draped left and the white ensign right of the naval crown. These are the two flags displayed on RCN ships in port and at sea.

Commodore Paul Earl, CBE, performed the introductions at the opening on May 26, quoting liberally from Riordon’s narrative.  Earl had been the Commander of Montreal Division in 1941 when Riordon was executive officer and second in command. Many of Eric’s naval colleagues and senior officers from all the services were also in attendance.‍

The exhibition was covered extensively in the Montreal press, both French and English. The reviewers remarked on the strong effects and emotions produced by such small paintings, each of them only 6” x 8”. Of course memories and associations were still strong only five years after the end of the war, virtually all Canadians had either served or were relatives of those who had.

Attendance started out very strong and continued so during the initial two week run, eventually proving so popular with the public that the exhibition was extended twice, eventually continuing all through the summer until the end of August. 

The success of North Atlantic Convoy in Montreal was so pleasing to Mollie and colleagues it was felt that as many Canadians as possible should have the opportunity to see it. As a result a second venue was soon booked for September at the College Street Eaton store in Toronto and plans were formulated to secure additional venues across Canada.

The final location selected in 1950 was the Eaton’s store on Portage Avenue in Winnipeg.  As in Montreal and Toronto the opening was much publicized and well attended by officers of the local naval division and senior members of the other services.

1951 saw the exhibition travel to Vancouver’s downtown Eaton store in March and then all the way across the country to Bowring Brothers department store at St. John’s, Newfoundland, in June.  St. John’s had been a familiar spot for Riordon from his time at sea on HMCS Kenora and his shore duty at HMCS Avalon. St. John’s harbour and its approaches were also subjects of paintings in the exhibition.

In January of 1952 the Wood Brothers store on Granville Street in Halifax was the venue, marking a return to Riordon’s home base during his training, patrol and convoy escort service. 

The final venue for which we have a record was in October at the Rideau Street Charles Ogilvy store in Ottawa, the city where Riordon had served for over a year at naval headquarters. Vice-admiral E.R. Mainguy, soon to be named Chief of the Naval Staff, presided at the opening of the exhibition. “He knew” the vice-admiral emphasized, “what it was to be cold and tired and wet, to stand on the bridge of his ship, peering into the unknown darkness, or welcoming the sunrise which only sailors see”.   

A prominent feature of this exhibition was a 40 foot scale model of the Tribal Class destroyer HMCS Iroquois which had recently appeared in Toronto at the Canadian National Exhibition.  Iroquois was then on active service in Korea and Mrs Landymore, the wife of her commander, was also in attendance.

Riordon made many paintings of the Tribals, four of which served in the RCN during the war. They were one of his most frequently depicted naval subjects. 

This 40 foot model of HMCS Iroquois is shown here at the 1952 Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto.  Soon after the CNE closed it was trucked to Ottawa and installed inside the new Charles Ogilvy store in downtown Ottawa alongside Riordon's North Atlantic Convoy exhibition.  It was a fitting complement as Riordon had depicted this class of ship so often in his work.  In 1954 the model would accompany a Navy recruiting tour of the Ontario small town fair circuit.  Photo courtesy of Library and Archives Canada.

To date the seven above mentioned exhibition venues have been identified, there may very well have been more.
The set of thirty-four pictures in North Atlantic Convoy was broken up and sold or otherwise dispersed at some point not long after the exhibition closed.  There exists a 1959 record of five Convoy pictures sold by a Montreal art dealer to a private collector for sixty dollars apiece.  It appears some of the paintings changed hands a number of times.

One work was donated to the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic in 1952.  Twelve eventually found their way to a Service Club in Montreal and thence to the Canadian War Museum. The War Museum acquired two more from the estate of a retired Montreal naval officer and four paintings from a private collection were donated to the Vancouver Maritime Museum. Half a dozen others have turned up from time to time in auctions and at galleries, most recently in 2020. Two of these are in a private collection in Toronto and one in a Halifax private collection. 

The 27 images presented here are as near as we can now come to a recreation of the original North Atlantic Convoy exhibition. It would be a fitting tribute to its creator Eric Riordon and his wife Mollie if the missing works could be found and reunited some 74 years later. 

If a reader of this website owns or has knowledge of the whereabouts of any of the missing works detailed here, or any other Riordon naval paintings, please contact the website through the contact tab.

Montreal Gazette, May 27, 1950

Montreal Standard, June 10, 1950

The Montrealer, August 1950

Toronto Telegram, September 20, 1950

Ottawa Journal, October 8, 1952

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