The RCAF War Painting

Unveiled March 20, 1944

Scaffolding along the wall inside Union Station's Great Hall in 1944.

Scaffolding for the RCAF painting inside of Union Station.

Courtesy of the Toronto Star. TSPA_0114618f. 

With World War II causing chaos around the world, people in Toronto were doing what they could to support Canadian troops at home and overseas. Torontonians joined the cause, gave blood, and worked in factories to produce airplanes and ammunition. To boost public morale, an arts council known as the Writers', Broadcasters', and Artists' War Council (WBAWC) organized a contest that would result in a larger-than-life painting fixed to the wall in Union Station. After all, what better way to raise spirits and engage the community than a contest to create public art at one of the most well-known sites in the city? 

Together with the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) and the Toronto Terminals Railway Company - who owned Union Station at the time - the WBAWC called for submissions depicting unity and cooperation. The subject of the painting was intended to show the dedication of the air force. Additionally, the WBAWC hoped that the success would lead to future paintings depicting other branches of the military. After the competition ended, the designs were reviewed by a jury, and the winner was announced as Nancy Burden, a 21-year-old commercial artist. 

After the announcement, a group of four Toronto artists created an enlarged version of Ms. Burden's design. The artists completed the painting in just under two weeks. The design was recreated on a canvas measuring 17.6 metres x 8.2 metres (58ft x 27ft). 

A young woman, Nancy Burden, presenting a drawing of the RCAF to be painted inside Union Station.

Nancy Burden presents her winning design to J. de Niverville, an Air Vice Marshall in the Royal Canadian Air Force. 

Courtesy of City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1266, Item 89708. 

Visitors could watch the installation take place on the west side of the north wall in Union Station's Great Hall. As compensation for their efforts, the WBAWC paid each artist a small amount, primarily viewing their participation as a contribution to the war effort. 

Artists Allen Wargon and Joy Bain sit on scaffolding for a war mural inside Union Station in 1944.

Toronto artists Allen Wargon and Joy Bain working on the painting at Union Station.

Courtesy of the Toronto Star. TSPA_0114620f. 

Just over a year after the contest ran, the painting was unveiled to the public on the evening of March 20th, 1944. In soft colours including blues and greys, the image depicted a group of RCAF personnel in a variety of roles. As part of the unveiling, Nancy Burden was awarded one hundred and fifty dollars by Martin Baldwin, Curator of the Art Gallery of Toronto - now the Art Gallery of Ontario. 

The painting stayed on display until 1947, when Union Station began looking for the painting's new home. Due to its considerable size, it was not something that could simply be bought and taken home. The station considered donating the painting to the RCAF themselves, but its current whereabouts have ultimately been lost. 

A black and white photograph of a large air force-themed painting on the wall of Toronto's Union Station in 1944.

An image of the RCAF war painting taken on the night of its unveiling. 

Courtesy of City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1266, Item 89707. 

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