Alan Caswell Collier was one of Canada’s most admired and successful landscape painters, but during the Depression he worked alongside other single, unemployed men in government-run relief camps. Labouring for twenty cents a day, he detailed camp life and politics in letters to his fiancée and depicted fellow “relief stiffs” and the BC landscape in character sketches and paintings. Incisive and candid, his letters reveal a born contrarian with a strong sense of social superiority over his fellow “twenty centers.” But his letters also offer a fresh perspective on the hopes and dreams of an eminent Ontario artist and of the generation who came of age at a time of economic upheaval and class conflict.
Peter Neary is a historian and the editor and author of several books, including White Tie and Decorations: Sir John and Lady Hope Simpson in Newfoundland, 1934–1936 and On to Civvy Street: Canada’s Rehabilitation Program for Veterans of the Second World War. He is a professor emeritus of history at the University of Western Ontario.
[Collier] was a skilled letter writer and his lively narrative is free of pretension. He attempted to record the toughness of the life in a way that was authentic, while no doubt taking off a few rough edges and embellishing anecdotes, as all writers do … This book is an easy read and will appeal to general readers, as well as those interested in the 1930s life or Canadian art. This fascinating slice of social history forms a Canadian counterpart to the volume of Pollock family letters.
Peter Neary has done a real service by bringing Alan Collier’s letters to a wide public audience. Collier’s views of the politics of the camps, while contentious, provide a useful comparison to the more familiar leftist reading of the era. More importantly, his letters, along with the paintings and photographs that Neary has collected, provide an intimate and detailed glimpse, a view from the inside, of the relief camp system, a short-lived but embryonic experiment in social control during a time of economic crisis.