I was excited recently to learn that the excellent retrospective exhibit of artist Ross Butler, curated by Samantha Purvis-Johnston for the Woodstock Art Gallery is currently on view at the nearby Norfolk Art Centre in Simcoe, Ontario until June 22nd, 2019. If you’ve ever noticed the classic Dawes Brewery Black Horse Ale advertising, or remember lithographs of cattle breeds displayed in high schools around the province, then you are familiar with Mr. Butler’s work. What follows is a condensed version of the information presented in the exhibition catalogue. I highly recommend viewing the exhibit, or viewing his work, and hearing stories of his life from his son at the Ross Butler Gallery, located just outside Woodstock, Ontario. . Here is the link http://www.rossbutler.gallery/
A Jersey Man
Ross Butler (1907–1997), was born into a farming family in Norwich, Ontario. While he painted an impressive variety of livestock portraits and landscapes, over his life, his true inspiration was the Jersey cow. His fascination ignited at an early age when, after witnessing a ground-breaking sale of a Holstein cow, he convinced his father to purchase registered purebred pedigreed Jerseys for the potential of a similar windfall. Ross Butler would become the primary caretaker for his father’s newly acquired livestock, and at the age of twelve he recorded their daily habits and illustrated their pedigrees.
Butler’s connection with and enthusiasm for the Jersey breed would last throughout his artistic career. The artist’s works were adopted in various commercial branding enterprises, including the logo for the Canadian Jersey Cattle Breeders Association (now Jersey Canada), and the trademark emblem for the Canadian Jersey Cattle Club.
“Breed standards” designate a set of physical and functional qualities that speak to an animal’s production and pedigree. Standards can vary provincially and nationally, and are defined by the incorporated association for that breed. Ross Butler was a progressive advocate for the development of Canadian breed standards in the mid-twentieth century, deviating from the use of American breed standards. The artist discovered a pattern of correlated body measurements that led to his theory of perfect animal proportions. He eventually gained eager support from various cattle, poultry, and equestrian breed associations for the adoption of these standards, though not without initial difficulty and dismissal.
Butler’s True Types serve as a guide to his theory of animal proportions. Within his creative practice, animal portraiture continues to represent the greater body of his work. The True Types are evidence of his idealist and emotive affinities. Beyond perfection, Butler’s paintings of animals share a unique lifelike quality and individual personality. The True Type paintings represent not one particular animal, but rather the ideal for that breed. The detail with which he built distinct characteristics is both impressive and sympathetic. This attention to detail, combined with his apparent adoration for animals, is exceptional and an important facet of Butler’s life’s work.
Ross Butler’s commissioned designs exemplify his determination and the journey of forming a legacy within the canon of agricultural art. He leveraged his strongest creation, the True Type. Following much opposition, he eventually secured a contract with the Department of Education that dispersed hundreds of thousands of his photolithographs to decorate the walls of schools across Canada. This contract would transform his cows and bulls into icons of Canada’s agrarian past. He went on to develop a number of branding assignments for various associations and businesses, including the Township of Norwich, Dawes Brewery in Quebec, and the aforementioned Jersey Canada.
At the Fair
His involvement at the fairs started at a young age when he was employed to watch over the cattle for his neighbour, Beryl Hanmer, at the Guelph Winter Fair in 1922. To his amazement, the fair showed thousands of breeds of animals, rewarding an educational experience that surely inspired his calling. His childhood delight for the fair never waned. Among many others, Ross Butler participated at both the Canadian National Exhibition (CNE) and the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair (RAWF).
Ross Butler’s All Canadian Holsteins – The Cattle upon the Thousand Hills (1976), shows the best of the breed in each class from 1975. Like many of his works, it serves as a guide for breeders to consult when mastering their herd standards. The painting captures the impressive parade of living Holsteins and represents the artist’s fortitude and passion for celebrating the animals’ excellence through equally excellent representations Only one year prior, Ross Butler painted the captivating Royal Review (1974) for the RAWF. Departing from his typical portraiture, Butler assembled a vision of champions heading to the fair. The group portrait assumes a wonderfully imaginative scenario with multiple vanishing points that suggest a journey, but one with no distinct start or finish. Since the painting proved favourable to the thousands of fair attendees, Butler found an excited audience to purchase his reproductions. The popularity of the Royal Review drew hundreds of visitors to Woodstock, and the reproductions continue to enjoy similar success.
Building with Butter
Butler’s arguably most recognized involvement at the fairs were his butter sculptures at the Canadian National Exhibition (CNE) and the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair (RAWF). The artist was amused by the concept of a cow made from butter – a reversal of nature. Over his lifetime, Ross impressively formed more than ten life-size sculptures featuring both Canadian and agricultural icons. The most renowned of them, Queen Elizabeth on her Horse Winston, sculpted in 1952 for the CNE, garnered international fame and awarded Ross the trip of a lifetime to England to take part as a media presence at the Queen’s coronation.
Ross Butler’s agricultural art can be found in archives, classrooms, museums, galleries, and the homes of Woodstock and Oxford County residents. Butler strove to build a legacy by creating his own opportunities, and his perseverance is inspiring. When faced with challenges, he shaped his achievements and forged a path to success. His practice of collecting and holding the rights to his own images was intentional in building the prominence of his collection. The collection is now maintained and cared for by his only son, David Butler.
Whatever the challenge, Butler humbly yet enthusiastically persisted. The artist married his artistic talent with his adoration for animals by producing his standard types, achieving status and eventual support from the global agricultural community. He built his reputation by working hard as an independent artist, collaborating with businesses and associations, refining his moulding abilities, and avidly collecting his life’s work. Both his commercial initiatives and artistic pursuits offer evidence of Ross Butler as an idealist inventor and a visionary artist.