Montreal, June 11, 2021
Over the last year, we found ways to reinvent ourselves and move in unity towards redefining our mission with every action we pose. Every decision made us question what the organization was all about and how we wanted to pursue its prosperity. Looking towards the future also made us question our past, so much happened here, but not a lot is available to the public. Browsing the vast archives available at La Guilde, we thought we ought to share a little more about who we are and how we came to be. Did you know that La Guilde has archives dating back to before its inception?
The series Did you know... is meant to bring forward people, places, and events that define our contemporary actions. This new series of short essays is a place for La Guilde to share its archives, talk about things that impress us, and highlight the work of all the amazing characters that influenced us over the last century. We want to take you on this journey through our archives with us. This series is a way for all of us to get to know La Guilde a little better.
A Love Letter To Our Founders: The Beginning
“When the arts and crafts of a country gain recognition that country takes a new position in the respect of the world. No nation began with fine buildings, great sculptures, noble paintings. They all began with the lowly crafts” (Peck 1934, 1).
At the turn of the 20th century, with the rise of industrialization, machine-made items were considered to be better, more valuable, and desirable than handmade articles. However, this way of thinking wasn’t true for everyone, especially for the visionary women who began conserving the Minor Arts in the hope of reviving them.
The Women's Art Association (W.A.A.M)
A few women founded the Montreal Branch of the Women's Art Association (W.A.A.M) in 1894, with Mrs. James Peck as the first president. They believed that the tradition of crafts was worth collecting, promoting, and encouraging. As stated in the Inaugural Meeting (Address, 1894, W.A.A.M) held at the Y.M.C.A. Hall on June 6th, 1894, the goal of the association was clear: they didn’t want to come into rivalry with existing unions, but rather supplement their efforts. It was to offer women—making a profession in art—opportunities to meet each other and take counsel over their work. It was a space to take their art more seriously and pursue their aim at a higher standard. It was meant to encourage aspirants in an art career by bringing them into contact with those who had already achieved something. They also included the public in their mission as they aimed for them to see crafts more intelligently rather than as an “elegant pastime”. The W.A.A.M offered a wide range of activities: drawing class, lectures, workshops, and guided tours of exhibitions tailored to women with like-minded views. We are stunned by the vision of these women and the tenacity they forge to make La Guilde what it is today.
The First Exhibitions
“It was September, 1900, and Morgan’s was finishing its new art gallery. One morning a member of the Women’s Art Society Committee was shopping in Morgan’s and James Morgan asked her if she would like to see the new art galleries nearing completion” (Hill 1953, page 12). In an annual report, Mrs Peck adds: “As she viewed the fine empty space an inspiration came to her and she asked if Messrs. Morgan would be willing to lend the Galleries to her Committee if they could hold a large exhibition [Fig. 1] of handicrafts to launch the Movement” (Peck 1929, 1). Not only did he accept, but he also made sure that the only expense would be that of the displays necessary to present the work. In an article from The Gazette in 1953, the stories [ told by Mrs. Peck ] goes on to say that they made it possible even though they only had eight dollars [about $256 today] in their bank balance. She says, “[…] we took our courage in both hands and exactly six weeks later Lord Strathcona opened the best exhibition of crafts that ever has been shown in Montreal” (Hill 1953, page 12). It is the numbers surrounding the exhibitions that are truly remarkable. They had 8000 visitors, sent back $900 [$28 842] to their craftsman, and after paying all expenses, they made a profit of $777 [$24 900]. It is this kind of action, showing the courage and determination of these women, that keeps us going today.
A few smaller exhibitions were held after that, including one in Cacouna [Fig. 3]. In 1902, another notable exhibition was held in Montreal presenting only Canadian handicrafts [Fig. 5-7]. The first of its kind, but not the last. The W.A.A.M promoted not only work from Montreal, but what was available across Canada, then also referred to as the Dominion of Canada. “The public has not realised that Canada could compete [with its] Minor Arts with older land” (Peck 1929, 3). This was a revelation for the women who believed in the work produced by Canadian craftsmen and women. The work they presented showed that Canada was destined to take a leading part in the conversation around the crafts. This exhibition launched the prizes and awards system that was used for many years. According to Mrs. Peck’s notes, the ribbons [Fig. 4] were displayed with pride in every corner of the Dominion.
OUR HANDICRAFTS SHOP
These two exhibitions laid the foundation for the Craft Movement in Canada, which is at the heart of La Guilde’s mission (then and now). From there, things moved rapidly. “[Mrs. Peck] saw […] that many of the Minor Arts perished for lack of protection and encouragement. The answer was […] a little Shop [Fig. 9] on 4 Phillips Square […]. From this came one of our most useful organizations” (Hill 1953, page 12). As soon as 1902, they opened “OUR HANDICRAFTS SHOP” to provide a market for handwork. The idea was to “justify this effort, by opening the market to these workers, [...] and eventually by proving that remunerative work may be done in Canadian homes” (Peck 1900). In The Canadian Handicrafts Guild: What It Has Done, they described the underlying idea behind the little shop as a way “to place as much money as possible in the hands of the workers” (Report 1917, CHG). From its creation up to 1917, the Shop paid the workers no less than $103,654.25 [an estimated value of 2 million dollars today].
Many exhibitions and initiatives are worth mentioning to show the scope of the work done to create the organization we now cherish, but we will only mention a few that are foremost impressive to us. In 1904, the Government invited and sponsored the Women’s Art Association of Canada to send an exhibition of Canadian Handicrafts to the St. Louis World’s Fair [Fig. 10]. Can you imagine! Mrs. Peck describes in Sketch of the Activities of the Handicrafts (1929, 5) that the responsibility fell to the women of the Montreal Branch. They sent Miss Robertson, a member of the Committee, to spend six months at the Fair to make Canadian handwork known and appreciated in the United States. In the meantime, the W.A.A.M also held a textile exhibition at the Montreal Art Association Gallery on Phillips Square [today known as the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts], as shown in figures 11-12 where we can see the paintings from the Association hanging in the background. Every opportunity was good to show the greatness of the handicrafts and the work of the craftsmen and women. It is also worth noting that most of those exhibitions included work from Indigenous communities (clothings, basketries, beadings, etc., from coast to coast) alongside craft items. All of those works were shown together as part of the larger narrative of each exhibition, an aspect that is still very important to us in the way we present the wonderful work in the gallery.
Aiming Higher: Our Founders Taking the Lead
However, the Committee of the W.A.A.M soon felt that the passive activities of the association—which mimicked the action of the Toronto Branch—and their Charter didn’t offer enough opportunities for craftsmen and women to share their creations and make the work they produced available. “By 1904 the committee was convinced that the Craft Movement had to expand into all of Canada and that agencies could be developed to sell Canadian Crafts, not only in this country, but also in the United States, Britain and Bermuda” (Watt 1992, 32-33). Mrs. Peck and the Committee requested that the goods and management of the Shop be transferred to a group of assigned people. This, to them, was crucial to the growth of handicrafts and their promotion. Their mission evolved and they needed more room to grow. “It was of vital importance to arouse the interest of the public, to secure that interest in this endeavour, and at the same moment to inform the public as to the immense value of the Minor Arts not only to the development, mental and physical, of the craftsmen and women scattered throughout our vast land, but also as an asset to the Dominion itself; this was the primary object and the most difficult problem to be solved” (Pamphlet 1911, CHG). This is how the Montreal Branch of the Women's Art Association of Canada broke away from its parent association to become an autonomous Society, taking on the name of The Canadian Handicrafts Guild, today known as La Guilde.
The non-for-profits charter [Fig. 13] of The Canadian Handicrafts Guild was officially signed 115 years ago by its Excellency, Governor-General Albert Grey, 4th Earl Grey and Countess Grey in 1906. The Charter wasn’t easily obtained as women, at the time, weren’t allowed to be the head of an organization, even though it was an organization promoting the work of women. In First National Crafts Organization in Canada (1992, 34), Virginia J. Watt states that on the “second reading the Bill was withdrawn because ‘ladies' names were included as incorporators of the society’. [...] However, on May 24 , the Commons Committee ordered that the bill to incorporate The Canadian Handicrafts Guild be reported [with] the proposed incorporators [...] Lord Strathcona, Sir Melbourne Tait, Hon. Justice Sicotte, Sir George Drummond and Sir William Hingston along with other distinguished gentlemen. The ladies' names were mentioned as officers of the Board of Directors of the new Society.” We are thankful today for the effort of Lord Strathcona in supporting the vision of those “ladies”.
In a promotional pamphlet from 1911 (Pamphlet 1911, CHG), they define the organization as “a national organization – of no part, no creed, and no caste – its policy is one of development, its hope to see the fame of Canadian Craftsmen spread abroad.” I don’t think we could have said it better. The more we read through the early literature, the prouder we are to share our history… As an outcome of exhibitions being sent to various parts of Canada, Branches and Affiliated Societies in every Province were formed to show the variety of work available throughout the country. These local branches served as means of discovering, gathering, connecting, inspiring, and representing craftsmen and women located in the most isolated areas. They opened branches as far as Florida to promote Canadian Crafts. We will make a separate entry on the different Branches of The Canadian Handicrafts Guild and what happened to them. Hint: a few are ancestors of well-known organisations. “The Canadian Handicrafts Guild National does not exist today but there isn’t a craft association in Canada which doesn’t owe a debt of gratitude to the women who with vision and determination showed us the way” (Watt 1992, 34).
Mrs. Alice J. Peck and Miss Martha May Phillips, the two founders of The Canadian Handicrafts Guild, took many trips to different parts of Canada and abroad to find new works. One thing was at the forefront of all their actions: the interest of the craftworkers. The new organization also pursued activities that were important to the W.A.A.M such as lectures and classes open to all. In a tribute to Mrs. Peck in the Annual Meeting of 1943 (Tribute 1943, CHG), Mrs. W. D. Lighthall mentioned the work they did with children both native and foreign, with war returnees, and classes designed for immigrants. They tailored every action to the desired public. "[These lectures] were planned to inform the public with regard to the arts and crafts of the countries from which Canada is receiving immigrants, so that we might be prepared to conserve their knowledge and skill for Canada" (Peck 1929, 11-12).
Finally, two important events are worth mentioning to lay the foundation of La Guilde. In 1909, they started two initiatives that are part of why we can launch the series Did you know... First, a Library of valuable books pertaining to Art and Crafts, and secondly, the nucleus of a Museum. Without these two majour events, we wouldn’t have anything to share. Fun fact: Because of a lack of space, all the artworks, books, and publications were given to the Montreal Art Association until, a few years later, The Canadian Handicrafts Guild resumed the Library and Museum. Even though our collection only started in 1909, a few pieces from the 1902 exhibition [Fig. 15] at the Women’s Art Association are still today part of our collection, including the incredible pieces rephotographed in figure 16.
The list of activities done by The Canadian Handicrafts Guild is quite long: short-term exhibitions at various locations, lectures, classes, guided tour, traveling exhibitions, loan and sale exhibitions, prizes, awards, etc. To borrow from Alice Lighthall’s 1943 announcement, “from the small shop of Phillips Square” to its present home on Sherbrooke St., La Guilde “will continue to lead the way to even greater aspirations.” But the work of La Guilde must not standstill. It must extend in many directions if it is to achieve the aims with which it set out.
Programming and Communications Manager
- Carus-Wilson, Ashley. Address of the Inaugural Meeting of the Montreal Branch of the Woman’s Art Association of Canada, 1894. C11 D1 007 1894. La Guilde Archives, Montreal, Canada.
- Hill, Harriet. “Facts and Fancies.” The Gazette, Thursday, November 5 (1953:12).
- Lighthall, W. D. A Tribute to the Late Mrs. James A. Peck: A Founder of The Canadian Handicraft Guild of the Annual Meeting, 1943. C17 D3 012. La Guilde Archives, Montreal, Canada.
- Pamphlet, The Canadian Handicrafts Guild: Aim of The Guild, 1911. C11 D1 059 1911. La Guilde Archives, Montreal, Canada.
- Peck, Alice J.. Handicrafts From Coast to Coast. Montreal: The Canadian Geographical Society, 1934. Reprinted by The Canadian Handicrafts Guild.
- Peck, Alice J.. Projet pour le développement des arts et industries du pays. Montréal: Société Artistique des Femmes du Canada, Branche de Montréal, 1900.
- Peck, Alice J.. Scheme for the Promotion of Home Arts and Handicrafts. Montreal: Woman’s Art Association of Canada Montreal Branch, 1900.
- Report from The Canadian Handicrafts Guild: What It Has Done, 1917. C11 D1 073 1917. La Guilde Archives, Montreal, Canada.
- Watt, Virginia G.. “First National Crafts Organization in Canada.” In A Treasury of Canadian Craft, edited by Sam Carter, 33-38. Vancouver, BC: The Canadian Craft Museum, 1992.
(1) Photograph of Newspaper Article and Exhibition Details, 1900, C11 D1 014 1900.
(2)Photograph of One of the First Exhibition Poster (Arts & Handicrafts Exhibition), 1900, C11 D1 013 1900.
(3)Photograph of the Cacouna Exhibition Poster, 1905, C11 D1 029 1905.
(4) Photograph of Prizes Cards and Ribbon from 1905-1943.
(5-7) Photographs of The Canadian Handicrafts Exhibition, 1902, C4 D1 001 1902.
(8) Pamphlet of Women’s Art Association of Canada, 1904, C11 D1 022 1904.
(9) Photograph of Our Handicrafts Shop, 1902, C4 D1 001 1902.
(10) Photograph of the St. Louis World Fair, 1904, C11 D1 020 1903.
(11-12) Photographs of the W.A.A.M Textile Exhibition, 1905, C11 D1 024 1905.
(13) Act of Incorporation of The Canadian Handicrafts Guild, 1906.
(14) Photograph of Trade Marks, 1905.
(15) Photograph of Pieces from the 1902 Exhibition, 1902, C4 D1 001 1902.
(16) Reproduction of a Photograph of Pieces from the 1902 Exhibition, 2021.
© La Guilde, Les archives de La Guilde, Montréal, Canada.