By Keith Roulston
In one of the other farm publications I recently saw that the Ross Butler collection is being discontinued and disbursed. Oh how it made me feel my age.
I remember, decades ago, going down to interview the artist’s son David for The Rural Voice. He was maintaining a collection of the Woodstock-area’s famous artist of farm animals – dairy and beef cattle in particular.
Butler was famous, if only in rural circles, as a precise artist of farm animals dating back to the 1930s. He had a cow named Major’s Sea Girl that he used to gather precise measurements to be used for the animals that appeared in his art.
“We’ve all seen cases where people do paintings and you think, well that’s a nice painting. But if you were going for proportions of a real animal, you know, you’re a little off,” said Russell Gammon, who worked with several cattle associations and met Butler before his 1995 death at age 88.
Before the Second War, Butler painted ideal depictions of 11 different breeds, “standard types” as they were called — four dairy cow breeds, four beef breeds and two draft horse breeds. He continued painting and sculpting animals for many years. The bulk of them remain on display at the family farm gallery, which once doubled as Butler's studio before he died.
His paintings were distributed as prints in the Ontario schools system and across Canada.
Perhaps even more famously Butler was the first Canadian artist to sculpt in butter in refrigerated displays at the Canadian National Exhibition and the Royal Winter Fair in Toronto. I recall that he drew attention in Britain, following World War II when rationing was still in effect, because sculpting in butter seemed so wasteful. Commentators didn’t know the butter was re-used when the shows ended.
When Ross Butler died, David, now 68, who lives at the farm took over the gallery, and has run it for some 30 years.
But thanks to waning public interest, David is making plans to close it down. The art will be sold, bequeathed and donated, he said.
Yet the art still draws interest, often from younger generations who weren’t around to appreciate the artist’s work during his lifetime, Gammon says.
“I was shuffling through some paperwork and came upon a print of his depiction of the true type Jersey cow that he probably did in the ’40s or ’50s,” he recalled. He posted it on the Canadian Guernsey Association Facebook page.
“That was a page that runs 35-36,000 followers. I had 34,000 reactions to that picture, through sharing and so on. For a Facebook page of that size, it is going viral. We would be happy with 100 reactions to something we post.”
Woodstock Art Gallery curator and director Mary Reid believes Butler’s work has an even greater significance today than in the past.
“It not only speaks to representation of agriculture from 100 years ago, but also what is being lost as the agricultural industry becomes more and more corporatized,” she said.
“Butler’s paintings are a beacon of hope and a reminder of us to not forget or lose sight of what is important in life.”
The Ross Butler gallery shut down during the pandemic, but has since reopened by appointment.
The art of Ross Butler was an important part of my, and other kids’, education. I remember seeing his butter sculpture the first time I went to the CNE.
In the next two to three years, the gallery will likely just close, said David. Probably it’s time. Still, it’s sad to see such an important part of rural past disappear. Thanks to David for keeping this work available. ◊