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Calendar Paintings - History

 

Hbc Calendar, 1913, depicting Old Time and New Time Trading, Unknown, n.d.

HBC Calendar, 1913, depicting Old Time and New Time Trading, Unknown, n.d.

Distributed to customers at its stores and posts, HBC's annual calendar was a marketing device used to promote and publicize retail activities. Launched in 1913, a historical theme was chosen for the original illustration. So it was that a Canadian tradition was born. For the next 57 years the Company used the annual calendar as an opportunity to promote significant events and people from its rich and dynamic past. View a complete list of HBC calendar images.

 

The original format of the calendar was a single page with a reproduction of the painting on top and a calendar pad stapled at the bottom. Several factors made HBC's calendar distinct: not only did its images celebrate HBC's history but they were also created by some of the best talent in Canadian art. In a very short time the calendar proved to be so successful that soon it was the artists themselves who were contacting the Company for a chance to paint HBC's history.

 

Until the late 1920s the HBC calendar, regarded by many customers as a prestige item, had little competition. Then other businesses began to produce calendars. Historical or patriotic subjects, landscapes and seascapes were considered fitting subjects for the home. Calendars offered a chance to promote a company's image in a colourful way, using a practical format. Companies such as the Confederation Life Association realized the marketing potential of an item that people could hang up and see every day. In 1927 they began a series of calendar paintings depicting moments in Canadian history. Like HBC, they recognized the advantage in adopting a historical series which would give continuity to their advertising year after year.

 

Cover of The Beaver, December 1930. Features the Last Dog Train Leaving Fort Garry, 1909, 1931 calendar image.

Cover of The Beaver, December 1930. Features the Last Dog Train Leaving Fort Garry, 1909, 1931 calendar image.

From the 1930s onwards HBC's calendar was widely distributed to schools, customers, tourists, businesses, and employees throughout all regions of Canada as well as in London. The calendar paintings created from the 1920s - 1950s were commissioned from renowned Canadian artists, including Charles Comfort, W.J. Phillips, Franklin Arbuckle and Adam Sherriff Scott. The paintings were also often used on the cover of The Beaver magazine (originally HBC's in-house magazine) to bring them to a wider audience. Some particularly notable works in the series are: York Boats at Norway House by W.J. Phillips, Last Dog Train Leaving Fort Garry by Charles Comfort, 17th Century Eskimos Trading with Hbc Ship by Franklin Arbuckle and Chief Trader Archibald McDonald Descending the Fraser by Adam Sherriff Scott.

 

Chief Trader Archibald McDonald Descending the Fraser, 1828 by Adam Sherriff Scott, ca. 1942

Chief Trader Archibald McDonald Descending the Fraser, 1828 by Adam Sherriff Scott, ca. 1942

By the early 1960s the debate whether to continue the calendar had begun. Not only was public interest in HBC's calendar waning but the proliferation of other company calendars meant that HBC's no longer had the same prestige. Grocery stores, service stations, dry cleaners, trust companies, banks and similar organizations all offered calendars. In 1961, in an effort to revitalize the calendar, it was decided to focus on images from across Canada "to help stress the Company's nation-wide character". At the same time the historical series of paintings was discontinued, in part because commissioning a painting of quality had become an expensive proposition. Instead photographs of sites connected with the Company's history were introduced. The format of the calendar was also changed. The new design featured three pages, each with a different full colour image which would be used for four months. Using three images ensured that none would "grow stale to the viewer before a year is out." The photographs used for the 1962 Calendar were shots of Lachine, Quebec, Fort Prince of Wales, Manitoba and Fort Langley, B.C. However, by 1965 the Company decided to return to the historical painting series: "We prefer a return to historical paintings ... we do feel that it is important to use subject matter not available to other companies", said the Calgary Manager.

 

But the revival of the historical series did not last long. In 1970 HBC celebrated the 300th anniversary of its founding and decided to end production of the calendar. The Company created a major splash by commissioning famed cartoonist Ronald Searle to produce drawings for its anniversary publication, a light-hearted history of HBC written by Kildare Dobbs, The Great Fur Opera: Annals of the Hudson's Bay Company 1670-1970 as well as for the final edition of the calendar. That year 124,000 English and 8,100 French copies of HBC's calendar were circulated.