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The Apocalypse, the King and the Walking Sticks: An archive-based exhibition presenting William Gordon MacKendrick

19 September - 22 November 2009

Oakville Galleries in Gairloch Gardens

Curated by Teresa Casas

A walking stick was a part of the correct attire of the elegantly dressed gentleman in Edwardian England. The custom of presenting sticks was a mark of individual esteem and admiration. After World War I, the fashion quickly died out.

William Gordon MacKendrick died fifty years ago—here, in the house that he built in 1922. This room, featuring a 1917 newsreel, a photo album and a walking stick evokes his repeated return to the events of the Great War in order to grasp its earth-shaking significance, as a hinge between the past and the present.

MacKendrick made his fortune in the first decade of the twentieth century as the head of a road-paving operation that laid a newly patented mix of cement. With his road-building background in muddy Toronto, this self-made colonial entrepreneur quickly proved himself on the warfront, creating stable roads on terrain blasted by constant artillery barrage. By 1916 he was Director of Roads for the British Fifth Army, rising—in the very class-bound British army—to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel.

While at the front, MacKendrick made a series of walking sticks from oak doors removed from the ruined medieval Cloth Hall in Ypres. During the war, the skeleton of the Cloth Hall became symbolic for Canadians of their power to stand against heavy artillery assault. Using a shell casing as a ferrule to strengthen the slender stick, MacKendrick carefully sanded the wood and polished the brass, to create a gentleman’s war trophy. He presented seventy-nine of these walking sticks as tributes to important men, who acknowledged the gift with an autographed portrait.

For MacKendrick World War I was the first of what was to be a series of end-of-time cataclysms. He belonged to a Christian Fundamentalist sect whose followers believed that Britain (including the Commonwealth) and the United States were formed by the descendants of God’s chosen people. Personally, MacKendrick believed that King George V was a divinely promised leader of the Christian world. It was this mixture of biblical prophecy, colonial one-upmanship and cultural anxiety that inspired his presentation of a symbol of aristocratic leisure and military authority to the men who would save the modern world in its conflict with the armies of evil.

This installation takes one back to the tradition of the war museum as a depository of portraits, uniforms, medals and war trophies—presenting history as something created by the actions of great men. While nowadays the Canadian War Museum and the official war sites link public memory to the magnitude of loss measured in fields of crosses, looming memorials and recreations of life in the trenches, MacKendrick’s mind was caught in both a pre-war time warp and the promises of an empire that was already on the wane.

Teresa Casas

This exhibition is made possible through the generous support of Veterans Affairs Canada and the Oakville Community Foundation.

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