Peter's parents met at MacDonald College, situated just outside Montreal on a shore of Lake St. Louis. Edith was teaching there, and Clarence was working as an instructor after his initial experiences as a farmer and surveyor. They were married June 4th, 1917, and embarked on a honeymoon canoe trip from Montreal, Quebec to Yarker, Ontario, a distance of some 230 miles. See A Most Unusual Honeymoon
Edith and Clarence
Kisbey Sask. 1917
Upon returning, in the autumn of that year Clarence thought it would be a decisive step, and a wholesome adventure as well, to introduce Edith to the joys of the prairie which had so impressed him in his younger days. (see Clarence's article Springtime on the Prairies) With the help of his relatives in Kisbey, Saskatchewan, and with his newly pregnant wife, he took on a manageable parcel of land near Kisbey which had an established house and some small outbuildings for a modest collection of livestock and equipment. They called it "Willowpop Farm". It was a substantial buggy ride from their homestead into town.
Edith feeding the chickens
Any prairie farmer can appreciate the challenges they must have encountered just dealing with the landscape and the weather, let alone the birth of their son. Edith was 36 years old, and this would be her first child. She found the time to begin a journal and record her thoughts and observations while at the same time keeping the house and helping with the farm.
Late one windy Saturday in early April, in the initial throes of labour, Edith was transported to Clarence's sister Violet's house in Kisbey where the kitchen table served as a delivery platform for the local doctor. Peter was born on Sunday afternoon, April 7, at about 5:00. It was a difficult delivery which put Edith's life in the balance until Tuesday. Peter had a sickly start, not taking to the "Nestle's Food" the doctor had prescribed, and contracting rickets in the first months of his life. In her journal Edith wrote about the worry she felt, and the difficulties feeding him. Gradually their health improved and they began to enjoy certain aspects of life on their farm.
Peter's reminiscence of his own first Christmas he wrote as follows:
A Christmas Memory
It happened in 1918. I was nine months old- a bit early for me to actually remember the event, but I do remember my parents telling me about it when I was a child. We had been invited to spend Christmas day with the Sullivans. My father built a sleigh, a 'cutter', for the trip to Kisbey and, bundled up against the cold of a prairie winter, they set out for the event. Aunt Violet had prepared a magnificent Christmas meal and no doubt it was a happy contrast to the lack of social life on the farm. Dinner was at noon, because my parents had to return to the farm before nightfall to feed the stock.
Winter on the prairie can be fickle, and as the day advanced there was a steady deterioration which became a blizzard. Blowing snow was drifting in the road and the temperature was dropping, but my father felt sure it would be okay to head home. Bundled up under a buffalo robe, they set out.
My father was guiding the horses on the now drifted road. As darkness set in even this security was obliterated and he realized that we were in serious trouble- the temperature dropping like a stone, the security of the road nowhere to be seen, a very frightened wife and a small baby. At such a time the real danger is to panic and lose focus. Keep close together, he reasoned. Preserve body heat and survive the night. My father knew that horses had a sort of "homing instinct" and that there was a good chance they would find their way home. His own sense of direction was gone in the blizzard and this, it seemed, was their only hope. He slackened the reins and hoped for the best.
After a while he realized that the sleigh was no longer moving, and that the horses were probably too exhausted to go any further. He looked out from under the robe and saw the dim outline of a barn. Sure enough, it was their barn, and the horses had found the way home. Soon he had made a fire in the house and unhitched the horses. I am sure that they got some extra oats for their Christmas dinner.
So ended my first Christmas. I have often imagined it and brought it to life in my mind's eye. I have also wondered if it might somehow have engendered my life-long fascination with snow in all its manifestations. Growing up in Montreal, I used to love to go out and walk in blustery winter nights, with snowflakes forming halos around the street lights.
The following spring Edith writes: "Another thing (Peter) loves to do is lie on my lap and look out at the leaves of a poplar tree his daddy planted by the window. The rustling leaves seem to fascinate him."
So many experiences in these early days found their way, inexorably, into Peter's heart, mind and inevitably into his art.
For two years the little family persevered in a prairie setting. Peter's first two years of life are documented in his father's photographs and his mother's written accounts and observations.
Daughter's note: Edith's father, Arnold Doane, almost 20 years his wife's senior, had died in 1911. Consequently, Grandma Amanda had come to live with them soon after they were married and, with her strict Methodist upbringing, she brought a certain decorum to the household. She quietly conveyed her expectations and views in the daily flow of things. "Grandma Doane" helped in household activities, served as Peter's babysitter when needed, and was Clarence and Edith's responsibility as she grew older. It took quite an adjustment for her to fathom the telephone, and the miracle of radio remained largely a mystery to her. The new radio arrived in 1932 to replace the faltering and temperamental crystal set which, quite often, had been a thing of frustration rather than pleasure. Peter had memories of his grandmother dressing formally for the broadcast of Sunday morning worship and seating herself before the radio, hushing those who spoke above a whisper while the service was in progress.
In the early spring of 1920 it was decided that they would return to Montreal. Edith writes in her journal, "One day on the farm his daddy received a telegram offering him a position as teacher of manual training in Montreal and after much consideration he accepted... All was hurry and scurry to pack and get ready to leave... On a stormy night little Peter and his Grandma Doane drove in with Peter's Uncle Gordon to stay a day or so with Grandma Ewart. Peter enjoyed his ride in the blinding snow and dark, laughing when the car would jump or skid."
The prospect of taking a post as an elementary " shop" teacher did not especially appeal to Clarence, but with a baby son and a wife who missed the society of friends and family, it seemed the most logical and responsible direction to take. Edith, with her mother and Peter, travelled first by train to Yarker, Ontario, to stay with Clarence's Grandpa VanLuven. Clarence stayed a few days there with the family, and then continued on to Montreal to start his teaching.
Peter and Grandpa VanLuven
"Peter soon got acquainted with his great-grandfather and grew very fond of him - He would go and lay his head on his knee or crawl up in his lap with a book...."
They stayed with Great-Grandpa VanLuven until January, and then made the journey to Montreal to stay at the Ruxton Apartments on St. Matthew Street. Peter was just learning to talk at this point, and Edith's journal is full of news of his development. Then in May there was a move to #3 Regent. At the end of a row of flats next to the Lachine Road, it was "A nice open place with vacant lots and apple trees and gardens all about and here we have been ever since...Of singing (Peter) is very fond and he gets plenty from his grandma who rocks and sings to him a lot... He is most observant - we cannot say anything about him or before him because he notices it." After #3 Regent, the Ewarts moved to 14 Melrose Avenue where they felt more settled.
In 1921, the family spent the summer months at Varty Lake near Yarker, Clarence's boyhood home in Southern Ontario. "Peter had the time of his life living in tents for four weeks right by the water in a big cedar grove, fishing, swimming on his daddy's back and falling in the lake when he could find nothing more exciting. The canoe sailing suited him perfectly and he went out on very rough days. Yarker also he had a grand time, but I was afraid that he would be completely spoiled with eating cake, of which he was inordinately fond, and with having people take notice of him..."
Peter with fish
Peter just loved barns. He saw his first barn when he was a little boy, at Varty Lake on the Galbraith Farm. It was red, with white trim, and it was the biggest building he had ever seen.
Daughter's note: Throughout his life, into his 80's he could describe the hay, the horses, the wonderful way it smelled - of sweet hay and harness, how the cows were driven in for milking, the sound of mooing and the milling sounds... Alma and Percy Galbraith, the pump, the geese, digging potatoes...
When summer was over, "he was delighted to get back to Montreal and see his house, his bed etc. etc. Then his Grandma U [short for "Ewart"] came and stayed with us three months so he got quite well acquainted with her. He is fonder of books than ever and will listen for hours to anyone who will read to him. He reads himself by the pictures, and loves his books which are of every sort."
A wonderful keepsake survives of a horse, cart and driver that his father made as a Christmas gift for Peter in 1922. During autumn walks in the city, Clarence devoted much attention to delivery rigs and horses to see how they stood and moved, and how they were dressed for harness. From November on, four-year-old Peter couldn't understand why he was not allowed to go down to the basement. Clarence's perfectionism blossomed, and the resulting piece of folk art was beautifully crafted. The reins and harness were of leather, and the chestnut colour of the horse's coat was rich and pleasing. Real horse hair was used for the mane and tail, knotted in a practical fashion. Edith made a full set of clothing for the driver who was carved with articulated limbs, weighted with lead cuffs and jointed to move authentically. His cheeks were ruddy with the cold. Unfortunately, the resulting Christmas masterpiece was so beautifully made that Peter was never allowed to actually play with it.
The family lived at #14 Melrose until 1925. Then, in December Clarence made a down payment on a house which was under construction in N.D.G. (Notre Dame de Grace is a predominantly English speaking area of Montreal.) The building was completed in April and became their new home: 189 Mayfair Avenue (to become, as the neighbourhood grew, 4365 Mayfair).
Edith again writes in her journal, "...Peter amused himself wonderfully, drawing and painting, and I mounted a book of his work. He would come down and get out his brush and paints before breakfast and begin... I started him in arithmetic and reading. He liked the arithmetic better than the reading, and he loved the hand work ... We are near the woods here and have a nice garden, and there is lots of room to play."
"This summer we spent three weeks at Cascades Island, a lovely place on the St. Lawrence. We went in a motor boat from Lachine - had the two tents - got our supplies from Cascades and farm houses on Isle Perrot. Peter had a grand time watching the boats go through the canal, sailing, paddling- he and his daddy made trips every day for choke cherries- they made little canals in the edge of the rapids
Building a dock
and sailed boats. We had bonfires on the flat rocks - Our tent opened out on a glorious view down the river and we could always see the big boats going up and down... One day we sailed across the river to a sand beach. It was very windy coming home and we got soaked so that we had to take off everything and hang it on the line. Peter thoroughly enjoyed it and laughed heartily every time a wave came over."
"All that next winter Peter stayed home. He played outdoors, skied, and learned to skate. I gave him about ten minutes of lessons at night. He did not get on as fast as if he had been keen about it... This last summer his Grandma Doane went to Nova Scotia in June. His Grandma U and Aunt Frances came to visit us for a few weeks. There the three of us- Peter, his daddy and I - got ready to take a canoe trip. We sent the canoe and dunnage to Yarker and went ourselves by train there, too, arriving on a rainy day so Mrs. Winter very kindly insisted on our staying there 'til it was fit to start... The pump was a thing of great interest to Peter. He pumped so much and drank so much I had to stop him for it was making him sick... Then the weather cleared and we started on our way. Went to Birch Lake via Napanee River, through the lakes to Newborough and to Ottawa.... (Peter) always used to push the canoe off and could do it well and jump into his place. He also seemed to take to paddling naturally. He has a very good stroke and moves so easily in a canoe."
"A week after we got back Peter started school (at Kensington). He went in second year (I was afraid they might put him back) and is doing very well I think."
February 1926, Edith continues to write, " For Christmas [Peter's] daddy gave him a lovely pair of skis and boots. He does very well with them and sometimes goes with his daddy to Thornhill. His little red "baby" skis are put away now. He received quite a number of nice books which he greatly enjoyed, a boy scout knife and Eversharp, a Jackie Coogan pen, tinkertoy, etc. He had the usual tree and the usual happy time.
Peter at Thornhill
Christmas Card by Peter Ewart
He does not draw and paint as much as last year but he made some nice Christmas cards, the best of which were sent away, and he writes letters by the peck - six are at present reposing on the mantelpiece waiting for stamps."
Before "Talking Pictures" were in vogue, the Ewart family would occasionally attend "The Silents" at the Allan Theatre. Peter liked the piano and the orchestra providing the accompaniments and augmenting the drama. As a young child he was transfixed and inspired by the images on the screen, and the stories. After seeing the original Ben Hur, he played for days in the back yard, imagining a wooden box to be the ship and sticks to be oars, re-enacting with gusto the galley scene. Then, when "The Talkies" came along, there were movies such as "Steamboat Round the Bend", "The Barrets of Wimpole Street" and "What Price Innocence". Peter was absolutely taken by the wonder of it all. It was the beginning of a love affair with the movies that would last a lifetime.
There was a vacant lot adjoining theirs. Every spring, as soon as the ground was workable, Clarence would put in all manner of vegetables and, to Peter's delight, strawberries. It would be well underway by the time summer holidays arrived, and amazingly it fended for itself until summer's end when they returned from Nova Scotia. Always there was an impressive crop of tomatoes.
October, 1926 Edith records, "Here we are again to write a little with Peter more grown up than ever and eight years old and in the third year at school... Mother went to Marblehead to visit Fred and family and Clarence, Peter and I were here at 189 Mayfair for all of July. We had a lovely garden Clarence had made- about 80 quarts of strawberries and plenty of vegetables. Lots of wild strawberries there were too, right behind the garden."
Peter writes in later years about a summer spent at Varty Lake:
"A mile down the road from the teacherage was Mrs. Billy Fitzgerald's farm. Mrs. Billy, as she was known, had a horse named Fox. I remember the day I had my first real horseback ride on Fox. Mrs. Billy got out the saddle and put it on him. It was with both anticipation and apprehension that I put my left foot into the stirrup and my father lifted me into place... I think my love of horses began right then.
Many drawings, and paintings, followed. Years later, in my teens, I again experienced the exhilaration of riding a horse. This time he belonged to my Aunt Frances and Uncle Martin. While visiting their farm one summer in Meota, Saskatchewan, I mastered the art of riding bareback, on Babe."
Prairie summers harbour memories of husking and eating raw wheat, hunting gophers, visiting prairie families, threshing and stooking, going into Meota for ice-cream and touring Saskatchewan in a 1928 Chevrolet.
Peter's artistic and observant nature stemmed most definitely from his father's modeling and demands. Clarence was a formidable influence: intelligent, skillful, analytical, creative, dutifully demanding and devoted. He spent much time with Peter, and for Peter, teaching him an appreciation of the world around him, its challenges and its possibilities.
When Peter grew to be of school age, his parents, both experienced teachers, home schooled him for his first "grade", delaying his entrance into the public system until the second. In that first year his grandmother looked after him while his parents were teaching during the day, and after school and in the evenings his mother in particular instructed him in reading and arithmetic.
When he did attend public school, Peter was, for the most part, an obedient but not particularly outstanding pupil. He liked to draw and was good at reading and spelling, but the little sketches in the margins of his books bore evidence of daydreaming on his part. His favourite book in his youth was Ernest Thompson Seton's Two Little Savages- A Book of American Woodcraft for Boys. He would imagine himself as Yan or Sam in the adventures, and he learned much about natural science and wilderness survival from its pages. He struggled with mathematics and was at odds with his father's penchant for perfection. His "I guess it will have to do..." rang in his memory until the end.
As an only child, Peter was very good at occupying his own time. In fact, he preferred his own company, and as his mother had always valued the society of friends and family, she grew increasingly concerned that he was solitary to a fault. His father would expect that quite a bit of his time be spent in "constructive" activity, and was fairly strict in this. Peter had boyhood acquaintances for skating or hockey or marbles- the usual boyhood things- but more often than not he chose his own company, and liked to paint and draw in his free time. He often imagined adventures like those of the characters in movies he saw at the Monkland Theatre, and in the illustrated books that were the family's after-supper entertainment. Les Miserables and Robinson Crusoe were especially evocative for him, as they involved heroic deeds, and had masterful illustrations by N.C. Wyeth and Mead Schaeffer.
Peter's first awareness of an original oil painting came as a result of seeing one by G. Horne Russell- a man in a boat, rowing: "It didn't look like a boat and man to me, but my parents said 'stand back and it will.' This advice made me realize that imagination was all important and that it was the suggestion that mattered most."
Uncle Fred came up from Marblehead for visits on occasion, and was his favourite uncle due to his sense of fun and his easy way with children. He was a positive character influence for Peter as he grew.
Daughter's note: From the age of eleven in 1929 right through the Depression years, my father's parents continued to earn their living as teachers at Kensington School. On teachers' wages, watching the money coming in and spending wisely, they managed to provide a modest, comfortable home for Edith's mother, their son and themselves. Meals were always taken at home, or with friends. I still have many recipes passed down in my grandmother Edith's recipe notebook, with newspaper clippings and editorials stressing the importance of nutrition and thrift. Many recipes were gleaned from friends and neighbours- Mrs. Slater's Lemon Pie was an all-time favourite, but such recipes as Florrie's Cake, Kate's Brown Bread, Mrs. Edgar's Date Bread, Maddie's lemonade, Mrs. Jackson's Nut Cake, and Mrs. Lang's Icecream were tempting, too.
As a child, my father was not an adventuresome eater, so he always felt a certain uneasiness when a social supper was looming. There was one particular meal at the Edgars' which did make a favorable impression- a surprisingly tasty and somewhat artistic tour de force consisting of mashed potatoes and pork sausages sculpted to resemble a log cabin, with carrots and applesauce as accompaniments. What a relief to discover something visually exciting that also tasted good!
"My first awareness of the special magic of painting came when I was in Grade Four. There was a scribbler cover by an artist named Philip R. Goodwin. Its subject was a canoe trip entitled "End of Day" - and it captured the mood so perfectly.
Sometimes Peter felt the added pressure associated with having both of his parents teaching at the school with him. Any misbehavior was quickly dealt with on all fronts, and it kept him pretty honest, if not, he would admit, a trifle sneaky:
"Lowny's Nut Milk chocolate bars and marbles were responsible for starting me on a life of crime. I was in Grade Five, my allowance was 5c per week- and that was the price of the chocolate bar. The marbles were about two for a penny. My marble shooting skills were deplorable and my allowance, I knew, would in no way cover my losses. In the chocolate bar department, one bite into the bar and Bang! - it just seemed to disappear. The only solution to the problem, it seemed to me, was a life of crime. I concocted what I hoped was a foolproof procedure, which eliminated both..."
Clarence fulfilled his own professional role as "shop teacher" at Kensington School with high competence and imagination. Instead of the usual instructional trivets and shelving, he loved to think of projects that would inspire an artistic product for his students. His favourite assignment involved the crafting of sailboats that culminated in a trip to the park to sail them in the pond.
Clarence's shop class
ready to sail
sailing in the park
Peter's first camera
Clarence was also an accomplished nature and portrait photographer, adept at developing his own film. He was one of the first in his circle of friends to have a movie camera, and he took home movies as early as 1925. With his first box camera Peter was taught by instruction and example to look with an eye for subject and composition.
To quell Clarence's innate yearning for fresh air, nature and exercise-most definitely an echo from his youth- weekends, holidays and after-school time, regardless of the season, were regularly spent outdoors. He loved to take Peter on excursions. The fields and wooded areas around Montreal were full of streams, evergreens, sugar maples and wildflowers.
cabin in the woods
In spring and fall, Clarence and Peter, and sometimes Edith, would trek out into the woods and fields on daytrips and picnics. In winter they would strap on home made cross country skis or snowshoes and explore the wilder and as yet unpopulated areas around Montreal.
One year they built a small log cabin in the "far woods", complete with a fireplace that would draw so well it could, in Peter's words "suck the tacks right out of the carpet". It was a sturdy, cozy little cabin. Clarence took his camera everywhere with him and his son was obliged to provide the "human interest" in many of his photographs. Each spring when the sugar maple sap was running they would set up to tap the trees for the "first run". When the cans and buckets were full, the steaming liquid was boiled down, first for syrup, and then in due time poured on the snow for toffee ... wonderful, sweet, tooth-wrenching candy... Clarence's photos and home movies are also rare and wonderful documents of these precious days.
...Growing up in the Depression taught me to appreciate the fact that happiness can be achieved without material possessions, as we think of them today ... Often in Montreal we experienced what was known as "the February thaw", when the temperature rose to well above freezing and, instead of snow, there was rain. Low areas of the fields filled with
water and small lakes formed. I remember looking forward to spring when the snowdrifts on the Benny farm would melt and the water would collect in a low spot and make a small lake. We boys would make a raft of sorts and venture forth on its surface ... In a day or so the cold swept in again and these "lakes" would become glistening sheets of ice. Great excitement gripped us, and out came the skates! It was as though, suddenly, a dreamed-of opportunity had become a reality and we now had a chance to savour its delights."
And in summers... Peter cultivated memories, wonderful memories, of canoe trips to Yarker, the portages, setting up camp at day's end, whittling whistles, building campfires. He remembered pike frying, the cries of loons at sunset, reading aloud by candlelight to the sound of rain on a tent roof, the smell of the tent, evergreen bough beds....
Most summers were reserved for maritime sunshine, fresh sea air, and relaxation. As soon as school was out the Ewarts with Grandma Doane would head off to Nova Scotia to visit Edith's family and friends in and around Barrington. Daytrips were treasure troves of adventure. In 1932 Clarence and Edith bought a small lot at Sebim, a popular holiday area up the coast from Barrington, and the following summer they oversaw and contributed to the construction of a small cottage there. Although not right on the beach, it commanded a beautiful view of the bay, and the surrounding area offered considerable opportunities for photographs. The rocky coastline, stormy weather, sunsets- these were becoming part of Peter's sensibilities.
Of all his material possessions, Clarence's sixteen-foot Peterborough cedar strip canoe was his greatest pride and joy. When he was in it, it almost became a part of him. Ever since he had acquired it in 1915, he had employed it often See A Most Unusual Honeymoon and had used and maintained it with loving care, so in 1933 it remained in as good a condition as the day he got it. It even had sails - forty square feet of them. When the cabin at Sebim was completed, Clarence had the canoe shipped to Nova Scotia, and it began its second life in the sun and salt water of Barrington Bay. Clarence and Peter often rigged it up and enjoyed sailing it near the cottage. As, generally, canoes are not thought of as seagoing vessels, the sight of Clarence riding the winds, leaning out or standing to balance it under sail, was impressive, and created quite a stir.
Swimming, sunning, paddling and sailing in the bay were givens at Sebim. Peter spent many hours by his own account, walking along the shore to Solid Rock, on to Blade's Beach, over the sand flats and down at Baccaro, "running and leaping from rock to rock" up and down the length of the beach below the cottage. A walk along the beach to Cousin Emma Pinkham's house one foggy night to play the piano in the parlour, Jessie Pinkham's cookies, the feather bed, tea cakes by the fire - these also had rich associations for Peter.