Special to The Globe and Mail
Published Thursday, Sep. 17, 2015 3:38PM EDT
Before the current Donald Robertson mania swept through the design world, Canadian fashion illustrators were seen but rarely heard of. A long-time admirer of the niche medium – like me – was lucky to spot Ruth Freeman mentioned among her contemporaries Tod Draz and Constance Wibaut in even the more comprehensive anthologies and exhibitions of fashion illustration. Irwin (Bud) Crosthwait (1914-1981), though, was even more rarely noted. If he is remembered at all, it’s for his stint as a war artist and recruitment poster designer.
Despite how little fashion work was thought to have survived, Crosthwait was well-known in European fashion circles of the 1960s and may yet get his due at home with Drawing on Style, the new exhibition opening in London, England, today at Gray MCA, a gallery that specializes in original fashion illustrations from post-war 1940s through the 1970s.
The exhibit is the most representative exhibition of Crosthwait’s art ever assembled – more than 60 rediscovered works, many of which have never been on view (and are on sale for £350 to £10,000 [$714 to $20,412]). The road to rediscovery started around this time last year when someone brought gallery co-owner and show curator Connie Gray a small pencil drawing during the annual exhibition she puts on during London Fashion Week.
“It was a really crappy sketch,” she recalls, “but I looked closely and there was a faint signature – and it flashed in my head that it was the illustrator I’d seen in Harper’s in the 1960s.” The sketch had come from two boxes of correspondence, photographs and art found in the trash near where Crosthwait had last lived in Paris. The letters put her on to Canadian descendants of distant family friends. “That led me on this huge journey – from Canada travelling to Switzerland, Italy and Germany finding people who knew him and still had some of his work.”
The exhibition catalogue is a work of investigative reconstruction, “a real jigsaw,” Gray admits. “This is me spending hours and hours with various people around the world who knew him personally. I’ve been very careful – for instance, there’s a story that he swam in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, but I spoke with the Canadian Olympic Association and they don’t have any record of him, yet I have other people who swear blind that he was there and have photographs – but because I haven’t got it officially, we didn’t use that. Everything you read in the catalogue is because we’ve seen documentation or have it verified.”
Gray’s annual exhibition is usually a mixed-artist show but, “because we felt Bud was so important within his three mediums of working, it would be wrong to just highlight one aspect” ( the “we” here is Connie and her husband Ashley Gray, who is an abstract modern art specialist). The show accordingly includes Crosthwait’s oil paintings, nudes, wartime art and fashion sketches.
Born on a farm in Creston, B.C., the Montreal-raised Crosthwait studied at the Pratt Institute, where he was as inspired by Hans Hofmann’s work as that of master illustrator Carl (Eric) Erickson to attend and sketch the New York fashion collections. He returned to Montreal and worked as the principal advertising artist for a department store before enlisting with the Royal Canadian Navy and serving as an official war artist aboard the HMCS Ontario and HMCS Warrior. It’s there that he energetically recorded the daily goings-on and captured the atmosphere in ink and watercolour; most of his surviving war work was thought to be in Ottawa’s Canadian War Museum, but those boxes and Gray’s travels have revealed more.
“No matter the medium or genre he was working, he had a very loose style,” Gray says, “but I think more than anything, that’s where he learned speed, on those aircraft carriers – and in fashion illustration you need to be seriously fast.” While other illustrators of the day could be far more reproductive of a fashion look, Crosthwait took more of a feeling from it, “and women were really important to him. He was a very handsome man!” Gray adds with a laugh. “That comes out much more than in many of his contemporary illustrators – he had a lot of romance in him.”
Perhaps, but further research confirmed that Crosthwait left his wife, Olga, and two children behind in Canada when he moved to Paris in 1947 (returning to Montreal only in 1979 after the onset of dementia, nursed by his estranged wife until his death in 1981).
While in France, commercial illustration work for a wide range of clients including Vogue, Femina and The Herald-Tribune enabled Crosthwait to fund his passion for abstract art. The work he produced was regularly exhibited across Europe, alongside that of other members of the Tachisme school, such as Nicolas de Staël and Serge Poliakoff. Whether it was an aircraft propeller or the cut of a sleeve, that sense of abstraction is evident in his early war and later commercial work – the posture, the way the clothes drape and fall, conveys an attitude and a sense of motion and tumult. “Maggia Girl (1968) I think encompasses everything Bud was,” Gray says of the painting. “It’s abstract, seriously textured with proper layering of paint and it’s the female form. It crosses all borders.”
Angela Landels, a former art editor at British Harper’s Bazaar & The Queen (as it was then called), recalls how she began assigning Crosthwait work when she joined the magazine in 1959, after meeting him through his friend Tom Kublin, the Hungarian fashion photographer. “Most men in fashion were, if not mincing, then at least temperamental and given to kinds of moods and demanding,” Landels recalls by phone from London. “He was gentle, funny and sweet – the nicest person in the whole of the fashion industry, which as I’m sure you know can be difficult.”
Canadian cordiality may be why he was often requested by designers Hubert de Givenchy and Cristobal Balenciaga and later Marc Vaughan and Emilio Pucci. “And the Mondrian dress sketch – that was Saint Laurent ringing Bud up and telling him he had something exciting to show him and to come round to the studio – its first-ever viewing,” Gray says.
“The more I discovered of him, the more astonishing it was – so much so that when I was in Basel, Switzerland – a portfolio of work that had not been seen for 40 years came out from underneath [Crosthwait’s muse and model Ursula Frey’s] bed and I got very emotional,” Gray adds. “It’s my raison d’être, it has been a long-term project and over the years is trying to bring the really good illustrators to the public’s eye, to say they were more than ‘just’ commercial artists, that it’s an art form.”
“His style of drawing then was very loose and impressionistic and I’m not sure I was sophisticated enough to appreciate it at the time,” Landels adds. After seeing some of his later work and abstracts for the first time in this show, she says, “it was his style that was dominant, rather than the information he was giving us about the clothes. As he got more confident, he got better and better.”
Drawing on Style: Crosthwait runs through Sept. 22 in London (graymca.co.uk).