What is the Sampson-Matthews Collection?


Under the guidance and supervision of Group of Seven members A.J. Casson and A.Y. Jackson, the most renowned Canadian artists came together during World War II to create a unique war effort art project. At the Government of Canada’s request and in collaboration with the National Gallery of Canada, some of these artists’ best and most inspirational works were selected and meticulously reproduced as oil silkscreens by Sampson-Matthews Limited, Canada’s leading colour printing production firm in the mid-twentieth century. These works were originally produced for the Canadian troops abroad who used them to decorate their barracks, ships, hospitals and mess halls, to boost morale, and to remind them of their homeland and what they were fighting for. At the same time and during the decades after the war, these works were also hung in schools, libraries, banks, government offices, embassies, consulates and corporate offices throughout Canada and abroad. Today they are widely recognized for their defining contribution to the way Canadians view their nation. They reinforced the Group of Seven’s motherhood role in the history of Canadian art and popularized the imagery of landscape as the primary Canadian visual motif.

Launched in 1942 and lasting for 21 years, the Sampson-Matthews Limited silkscreen project was the largest public art program in Canadian history. In its annual report of 1944-45, the National Gallery of Canada advised that these silkscreens “are to be found in almost every quarter of the Allied World. It is difficult to overemphasize the value of this publicity for Canada.” The Globe and Mail called this program “one of the most interesting and successful cultural projects ever undertaken in Canada”. Exhibitions of these works were seen around the world. Author and artist Douglas Coupland, who has used these silkscreens in his own works of contemporary art, called this project “the branding of our nation.”

The idea was the brainchild of four important Canadians: A.Y. Jackson, painter and leading advocate of the Group of Seven; H.O. “Harry” McCurry, director of the National Gallery of Canada; Charles “Chuck” Matthews, general manager and founding partner of Sampson-Matthews Limited; and A.J. Casson, artist, chief designer at Sampson-Matthews Limited, and member of the Group of Seven. Already known for producing art, advertising, recruitment, propaganda and other communication materials of the very highest quality available, Sampson-Matthews Limited would use the still-new technology of silkscreening (also known as “serigraphy”, the printing method later made famous by Andy Warhol and still used by contemporary artists including Ryan McGinness and Shepard Fairey) to produce handcrafted prints from a “who’s who” of Canada’s leading artists in cooperation with the National Gallery of Canada. Commercial sponsors from corporate Canada, as part of the war effort, would fund the production of each work (including a fee to the artists) and the Department of National Defence would manage logistics and ship the works to the far-flung locations where Canadian soldiers were stationed during the Second World War. Many of the pieces would be kept in Canada and sold in retail stores such as Eaton’s and through promotional programs with institutions such as the CBC, Sunnybrook Hospital, the National Gallery of Canada, and the Ontario Association of Teachers. From the 1940s through the 1970s, these silkscreens were hugely popular and were hung in private and public spaces where they shaped Canadian notions of art and identity. 36 designs were produced during the war and another 81 images were produced after 1945.

Produced more than 60 years ago, this collection of original handcrafted silkscreen prints includes artworks of the Group of Seven and other distinguished Canadian men and women from British Columbia to Atlantic Canada including Lawren Harris, J.W. Morrice, Arthur Lismer, A.J. Casson, Tom Thomson, Emily Carr, and others. The original paintings upon which these images are based can be found in the National Gallery of Canada, the Art Gallery of Ontario, the McMichael Collection of Canadian Art, the Montreal Museum of Fine Art, and other important institutions. However, these silkscreens are not copies or mechanical reproductions. They are original, hand-pulled silkscreen artworks produced under the supervision of A.J. Casson who was the Vice President and Creative Director of Sampson-Matthews Limited at the time of their production.

Sampson-Matthews Limited produced these works between the years of 1942 and 1963 and though printed at the time in unnumbered series in large quantity, they are considered very rare today. Of those shipped overseas as part of the war effort, most did not survive the war or make it back to Canada and during the decades after the war many more perished. Hugely popular from the 1940s through the 1970s, by the 1980s, these works had grown out of favour. More recently, however, interest in the works from this program has re-ignited. Joyce Zemans, a highly distinguished professor of art history at York University in Toronto, published an excellent series of scholarly articles in the Journal of Canadian Art History about the Sampson-Matthews Collection between 1995 and 2004. In 2015, Ian Sigvaldason and Scott Steedman published a thoroughly researched and exquisitely illustrated history of the Sampson-Matthews print program; their beautiful hardcover book, Art For War and Peace, can be acquired here through this website. Works from the collection have recently been shown in commercial galleries across Canada and appeared as part of the exhibition “Douglas Coupland: everywhere is anywhere is anything is everything” at the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art and the Royal Ontario Museum, both in Toronto.

By 1963, Sampson-Matthews had ended the silkscreen print program and, in 1968, the firm was sold to new owners. By the early 1980s, Sampson-Matthews Limited had closed down and ceased to exist for the next 30+ years. Unknown to anyone until 1990, there was a remaining inventory of silkscreens from the series, stored safely but anonymously in the estate of Charles Matthews. These were eventually located by Max Merkur, a successful Toronto land developer and art collector who knew the history of the Sampson-Matthews Limited silkscreen series and always suspected that there was a remaining inventory somewhere. In 1990, with the assistance of a private investigator, he located Charles Matthews’ three daughters – a difficult task as they were all married and now had different married names – and discovered that his hunch was correct; each of the three daughters had in their possession small piles of the original silkscreen works stashed in their homes. Merkur purchased all of the remaining works held by each of the sisters.

Shortly after the acquisition, Merkur reached out to A.J. Casson and advised him that he had located the Sampson-Matthews “mother lode”. Casson was invited to visit Merkur’s storage facility and inspect the anthology. He reviewed each work and was satisfied they were what remained of the original handcrafted oil silkscreens from the project he had supervised many years before. Though in his 90s, he took the time to painstakingly authenticate each work by adding his signature, writing “Supervised by A.J. Casson” on the face of each piece. During his time at Sampson-Matthews Limited he had personally translated some of the paintings to silkscreen himself; these pieces, which include images by Emily Carr, Tom Thomson, and Casson himself, he simply signed “A.J. Casson”. All of the existing silkscreens that display either of these signature formats come from this last stash from the original Sampson-Matthews Limited inventory. Shortly after authenticating these works,A.J. Casson passed away at the ripe age of 94; he was the last surviving member of the Group of Seven.

The entire collection of remaining silkscreens, now signed by A.J. Casson, were acquired from Max Merkur by our organisation in 1992. We have held these works for almost 30 years in a climate-controlled art storage facility. During the ensuing years, we have sold a number of pieces to various organisations and galleries across Canada. Given the direct lineage of this collection to the original founders, we have reinstated Sampson-Matthews Limited in an effort to share these works and their beautiful history. We are very pleased to offer this website, rich in the researched history of the beloved artists involved, and offer for sale the very last pieces from the original Sampson-Matthews Limited collection.