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Archiving William Townsend: The Importance of Personal Collections

Written by Lauren Ball, AGA Gallery Attendant


One of the greatest perks of being a Gallery Attendant is surrounding oneself with artwork almost every day. While we are educated on the upcoming exhibitions, it’s not often that Attendants work directly with collections themselves. In the spring of last year I had the opportunity to immerse myself in an enormous collection of work on paper by British artist William Townsend (1909-1973), through a SCiP research internship with the Art Gallery of Alberta.

On the first day of my internship, I was introduced to five large boxes of his unfinished paintings and sketches I was then tasked with creating a data-base of the contents, which the curatorial team would use for research and organization of the exhibition. Over the next year I would spend hours photographing, archiving, and organizing Townsend’s collection. Every box revealed something entirely new and unexpected. By the end of the internship I had documented over 1,400 pieces, including sketches, paintings, loose drawings, wood-cut prints, sketch books, childhood notebooks and even one of the artist’s paint boxes. I admittedly became obsessed with completing this archive, and came to realize that Townsend was a bit of an obsessive archivist himself.

Meticulous journaling

From an early age, Townsend had a knack for documenting his daily experiences. One box revealed several note books, dated as early as 1920, each labelled as either “Excursions” or “London Journals” and archived with Roman numerals. Like a typical journal, these note books recounted daily events, trips to London, and family vacations spent in the English country side. Most importantly, they revealed his absolute love of the arts, and shed a glimpse into the London art scene, as seen in the 1920s through the eyes of an 11 year old boy. Young Townsend wrote reviews on plays he had attended, describing the skills of the performers, his feelings about each act, and the accompanying music. The descriptions of his visits at the London museums depict famous artefacts and works of art. He wrote paragraphs on each piece he enjoyed, and even included small sketches of artefacts and their display.

The meticulous documentation went beyond describing daily happenings. He created surveys of two small towns in England. These surveys included brief histories of the areas, drawn maps, lists of flowers and wildlife that he had seen, with times and locations he saw them, bodies of water, soil quality, local agriculture, population, number of churches, and other details.

 The practice of documentation and drawing continued throughout his life as he documented his travels across Europe and Canada. One sketch book documented a trip across Canada, taken by train. As you flip through the book you are invited to travel with him, looking out his window at Manitoba prairies, small towns along Ontario’s Great Lakes and railyards in Québec. You even get a glimpse of other passengers on the train, snoozing in their seats or reading a newspaper. The drawings reveal snapshots of Canadian life that otherwise may never have been captured.

Book Illustrations

At one point, Townsend was employed as an illustrator, and many of the loose works within the collection include preliminary drawings of book covers, novellas, greeting cards, and marketing logos for businesses. The books range from colourful children’s novels about adventures across Europe and Asia, to non-fiction works with simplified covers that focused on design and patterns. The archive includes illustrations in progress, and I was left with an impression of Townsend’s creative process in composing illustrations.

The Townsend project has left an impact on my life as I begin to explore my new career in the arts and reflect on the archives of my own family. I noticed a few parallels between Townsend and my father—both English immigrants to Canada, both artists supporting families, and dabbling in the field of illustration. In the archives I found drawings of Townsend’s daughter, standing in pose or simply sitting in a chair with her nose in a book. They reminded me of sketches in my dad’s studio, when I would pose for a portrait, or the doodles of my five-year-old profile glued to the TV. Townsend’s landscapes, from English country sides to looming Albertan mountain range, mirror the large pastel landscapes of England and the boreal forests of Fort McMurray that cover the walls of my home. 

To me, these similarities emphasize the importance of preserving archives and works in our own families, as they reveal precious moments captured from our personal histories. I feel inspired to continue archiving, and to hopefully work with more collections in the future. For now, I hope to adopt some of Townsend’s archiving techniques—to document my own experiences, dive into my family’s own archive, and preserve my own historic collection.

Tags: agaTownsend
April 23, 2018


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