Artwork by James Williamson Galloway Macdonald,  Drying Herring Roe

Jock Macdonald
Drying Herring Roe

oil on canvas
signed and dated 1938 lower right; signed and titled on the stretcher bar on the reverse
28.25 x 32 ins ( 71.8 x 81.3 cms )

Auction Estimate: $70,000.00$50,000.00 - $70,000.00

Price Realized $408,000.00
Sale date: December 1st 2022

The Artist
International Machines Corporation, circa 1940
Paul Duval, Toronto
R.G. Cole, Hamilton
Christie’s, auction, Montreal, 23 October 1975, lot 100
McCready Gallery, Toronto
Acquired by the present Private Collection, November 1975
“A Century of Canadian Art”, Tate Gallery, London, 14 October–31 December 1938, no. 148
“Jock Macdonald: The Inner Landscape, A Retrospective Exhibition”, Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto; travelling to the Art Gallery of Windsor; The Edmonton Art Gallery; The Winnipeg Art Gallery; Vancouver Art Gallery, 4 April 1981–March 1982, no. 18
“Collector’s Canada: Selections from a Toronto Private Collection”, Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto; travelling to Musée du Québec, Quebec City; Vancouver Art Gallery; Mendel Art Gallery, Saskatoon, 14 May 1988‒7 May 1989, no. 92
“The Informing Spirit: Art of the American Southwest and West Coast Canada, 1925–1945”, McMichael Canadian Art Collection, Kleinburg; travelling to Vancouver Art Gallery; Colorado Springs Fine Art Center; Gibbes Museum of Art, Charleston, South Carolina, 30 January 1994–26 March 1995, no. 72
“Jock Macdonald and F.H. Varley, Friends”, 1 April–27 June 2004
“Jock Macdonald: Evolving Form”, Vancouver Art Gallery; travelling to The Robert McLaughlin Gallery, Oshawa; Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, 18 October 2014–7 September 2015
“Embracing Canada: Landscapes from Krieghoff to the Group of Seven”, Vancouver Art Gallery; travelling to Glenbow Museum, Calgary; Art Gallery of Hamilton, 30 October 2015–25 September 2016
“A Century of Canadian Art”, Tate Gallery, London, 14 October–31 December, 1938, no. 148, unpaginated, reproduced
Christie's, auction, Montreal, 23 October 1975, lot 100, reproduced page 48 as “Drying the Herrings in Indian Village”
Joyce Zemans, “Jock Macdonald: The Inner Landscape, A Retrospective Exhibition”, Toronto, 1981, reproduced page 79
Joyce Zemans, “Jock Macdonald”, Ottawa, 1985, plate 15, page 45 Collector’s Canada: Selections from a Toronto Private Collection, Toronto, 1988, no. 92, reproduced page 83
Megan Bice and Sharyn Udall, “The Informing Spirit: Art of the American Southwest and West Coast Canada, 1925–1945”, Kleinburg/Colorado Springs, 1994, listed page 175, reproduced page 157, no. 72
Ian Thom, ‘The Early Work: An Artist Emerges’ in “Jock Macdonald: Evolving Form”, Vancouver/London, 2014, reproduced page 27
Ian Thom, et al., “Embracing Canada: Landscapes from Krieghoff to the Group of Seven”, Vancouver/London, 2015, reproduced page 195
A leading pioneer of abstract painting in Canada, Jock Macdonald was committed to the belief that contemporary art had to be based on “20th‒century concepts about nature, space, time and motion.” He was a founding member of the Canadian Group of Painters and Painters Eleven, and he established the Calgary Group. A dedicated teacher, he was a role model and mentor to several generations of artists in British Columbia, Alberta, and Ontario. As an artist, teacher, and activist, he had a profound influence on Canadian art.

A designer by training, Macdonald immigrated to Canada in 1926 to assume the role of head of design at the newly formed Vancouver School of Decorative and Applied Arts. It was there that he met Group of Seven member Fred Varley who introduced him to the magnificent B.C. landscape and with whom he shared a studio. Together they would hike into the mountains on sketching trips.

In 1933, Varley and Macdonald left the VSDAA to create the B.C. College of Art. Steeped in contemporary theory and the spiritual nature of art, the school introduced a new modern and interdisciplinary approach to the arts. But, in 1935, in the face of the Depression, the school closed its doors. Macdonald, with his wife and young daughter, along with a BC College of Art colleague, Harry Tauber, and his partner, left Vancouver for the west coast of Vancouver Island, with the hope of eventually creating an artists’ colony there.

Though he lived outside of the village of Yuquot (Nootka), Macdonald was fascinated by the local life and would draw and sketch scenes of village life and customs. Though Macdonald returned to Vancouver in 1936, when he injured his back, the Nootka retreat would be pivotal in the evolution of his work.

The brilliant “Drying Herring Roe”, 1938, offers a powerful representation of the First Nations (Mowachaht) village at Nootka. In it, Macdonald, captures the spirit and the experience of village life.

Writing to the director of the National Gallery of Canada, Macdonald described the work as “typically West Coast ... much purer in colour and [direct] in composition.” Painted in Vancouver in May 1938, after the artist’s return to Vancouver, Macdonald considered it the best painting he had ever made.

Worried that the unfamiliar imagery would not be understood because of the unusual subject matter and the colour of the bleached herring, he explained, in some detail, the Nuu‒chah‒nulth custom of taking twenty‒foot branches from spruce and cedar trees out in canoes and submerging them in deep water close to the headlands. “In two weeks the branches are raised up, plastered with herring eggs. They are taken to the village and hung up on wires, ropes, etc. to dry out and cure in the sun. The village is festooned with masses of mimosa coloured (yellowish) hanging foliage ... branches are taken down, the eggs shaken off and packed for winter food. Eggs are boiled before eating.”

The painting is striking in its organization, displaying a designer’s delight in carefully balanced areas of colour and pattern. Traditional life is central. Foregrounded is the powerful totem pole, symbol of spiritual power. (In the middle ground among the homes and reduced in size is the village church.) Colour values are even stronger than in earlier landscapes.

In “Drying Herring Roe”, Macdonald creates a decorative surface pattern with the roe, integrating the foreground and the middle ground and linking the diverse compositional elements. Loosely based on sketches made on site in Nootka, this dramatic work, with its brilliant composition and colour, was conceived in the artist’s studio after his return to Vancouver, its expressive features dramatically evoking the continuing presence of the power of the old ways.

The painting received immediate praise nationally and internationally. It was selected by the National Gallery of Canada for the “Century of Canadian Art” exhibition that the Gallery was organizing for London’s Tate Gallery that same year.

Though Macdonald would return to themes from Nootka in later works, “Drying Herring Roe”, 1938, was the last representational canvas he painted of life in Nootka.

We extend our thanks to Joyce Zemans, art historian, curator, professor at York University, former director of the MBA Program in Arts, Media & Entertainment Management at the Schulich School of Business, and curator of the exhibition: “Jock Macdonald: The Inner Landscape” (AGO, 1981) and author of several publications on J.W.G. Macdonald, for contributing the preceding essay.
Jock Macdonald’s “Drying Herring Roe” sold for $408,000, nearly five times the previous record of $88,750 in the Live Auction of An Important Private Collection of Canadian Art on December 1st, 2022.

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James Williamson Galloway Macdonald
(1897 - 1960) Painters Eleven, Canadian Group of Painters,

Jock Macdonald was born on May 31, 1897 in Thurso, Scotland. A graduate of the Edinburgh College of Art, Macdonald emigrated to Canada in 1927 to become head of design and instructor in commercial advertising at the newly established Vancouver School of Decorative and Applied Arts (now the Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design). Inspired by the natural environment, Macdonald and his colleague Frederick Varley, head of drawing, painting, and composition, spent much of their free time on weekends and summer vacations on sketching and camping trips in the Garibaldi Mountains. When the Depression forced severe salary cuts in the art school budget, Macdonald and Varley decided to found the B.C. College of Art. It quickly established a reputation as a centre of new and stimulating ideas in a variety of art forms including music, dance and photography as well as the visual arts. The school operated for two years before declaring bankruptcy, but its influence on the local cultural community of the period is now legendary. Macdonald himself was infected by the exciting ideas fostered at the College and he began experiments in abstraction. He soon found landscape painting in the tradition of his Group of Seven contemporaries too confining whereas abstraction opened up new vistas of expressive freedom. During his twenty years in B.C., Macdonald was active as artist, teacher, exhibitor, and arts organizer. He was a member of the B.C. Society of Artists, with whom he exhibited regularly; a charter member of the Federation of Canadian Artists; and a member of the Vancouver Art Gallery Council for eleven years, serving on its judging, exhibitions and hanging committees, and implementing its popular Saturday morning classes. The Vancouver Art Gallery accorded Macdonald his first one man show in May 1941 and five years later mounted a solo exhibition, of his "automatic" watercolours. Macdonald moved to Toronto in 1947 and became instructor of painting at the Ontario College of Art. In 1953 he was instrumental in the founding of Painters Eleven, a group dedicated to the promotion of abstract art. He wrote later: "In training young students I believe it absolutely necessary that the student be provided a program of study which forces him to observe nature very closely in many diverse directions. After some two years of such study I encourage the student to expand his inner self and begin to expand his personality. I am quite aware that the young student is often intuitively aware of his consciousness of the twentieth century and could create in modern ways but I believe that every student should, first of all, increase his vocabulary of form and colours by observing nature forms and be initiated into the laws of balance and dynamic equilibrium." Jock Macdonald died at the age of 63 on December 3, 1960.