War Artist Plucked from the Sappers

D-Day The Assault by Orville Fisher
RCE dozer clearing the way through Caen, August 1944
Royal Engineers Escorting a Gold Shipment on the Cariboo Trail (Restoration and Photo of the mural by Elizabeth Jablonski)
Publication Date 
05 Jun 2019

Captain Orville Fisher (Ret'd), one of Canada's most renowned war artists, was the only allied war artist to take part in the D-Day invasion of Normandy, coming ashore with the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division. There is a Sapper connection.  Already an accomplished and successful artist, he joined the Canadian Army in 1940 as a Sapper in the Royal Canadian Engineers. After officer training in 1942, he was sent to the Army Historical Section as a war artist. While overseas he took part in the invasion of Normandy and the advance into Holland. On returning to Vancouver in 1946 he resumed his work as a muralist, graphic artist, and painter. Over two hundred of his sketches and paintings are held by the Canadian War Museum with hundreds of reproductions across the land.

His painting, D-Day – the Assault, depicts the terrifying odds Canadian soldiers faced on Juno Beach where he landed as the only war artist in the Allied force. The painting shows a group of soldiers advancing through the water as exploding shells and machine-gun fire rain down on them. Between the tank traps, the explosions, the smoke clouds, and the pounding waves, the soldiers themselves look very small in the painting. Nonetheless, it shows their tremendous courage as they fought through this terrifying experience. It is because of the terrifying odds that this artwork almost takes a heroic tone. Here are these few soldiers, out of thousands, foundering through the sea in the face of overwhelming opposition, and yet they keep fighting on to victory. However, it never loses that sense of how brutal the invasion was, with the massive explosions in the background and the broken bodies floating out to sea.

Among his many war paintings are a number that pay homage to his Sapper roots. This one shows a lone RCE armoured bulldozer working to clear rubble is Caen with a power shovel and dump truck further down the road. The mural Royal Engineers Escorting a Gold Shipment on the Cariboo Trail shown here now resides at the Canadian Forces School of Military Engineering in Gagetown, NB

The following obituary is reprinted from MacLean's magazine. 

Canadian Orville Fisher was the only allied war artist to land in Normandy on D-Day

Orville Fisher was already an accomplished professional artist when the Second World War broke out in 1939. However, when he joined the army the following year, it was as a sapper in the Royal Canadian Engineers. The army soon recognized what it had, transferred Fisher to officer training and made him an official war artist. On June 6th, 1944, he was the only allied war artist to take part in the D-Day invasion of Normandy, coming ashore with the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division. To Fisher, who died last week on 22 July 1999 at 88 at his home in Langley, B.C., after a series of strokes, his war work was among his best.

Born in Vancouver in 1911, Fisher studied at that city’s school of art under the Group of Seven Painter Fred Vardy. His major pre-war work was painting murals with two other artists for the B.C. pavilion at the 1938 San Francisco world’s fair, depicting scenes from the province’s economic life. The giant murals, which required him to work 15 hours a day for five months, were a far cry from the quick, vivid sketches made under fire on Normandy beach.

Bobbing offshore, watching Canadian troops struggle in water already stained with blood, Fisher realized that the 30 kg of art supplies in his backpack would drown him. So he threw them overboard and landed with only a 15-by-13-cm sketch pad of waterproof paper strapped to his wrist and a charcoal pencil. On the beach, in the midst of the carnage, Fisher made a series of sketches recording the successful landing.  He stayed with the 3rd Division until Nijmegen in The Netherlands. In all, Fisher sketched 246 images that he later turned into powerful and evocative oil paintings or watercolours. Now in the Canadian war museum, they are a testimony to another kind of military courage.

Written by Brian Bethune, Maclean’s 02 August 1999.