PHILLIPS, MARY MARTHA (May), artist, educator, and social reformer; b. 8 March 1856 in Montreal, daughter of William Anderson Phillips, a notary, and Mary Anne Johnstone; d. there unmarried 17 April 1937 and was buried two days later in the family plot at Mount Royal Cemetery in Outremont (Montreal).
Mary Martha Phillips, who was called May, was educated in Montreal, her hometown, at Mrs Lucy Simpson’s seminary for young ladies and Misses Symmers and Smith’s school. In 1872 and 1873 she attended the Montreal Ladies’ Educational Association, where she had strong female role models. She studied at the Art Association of Montreal’s school for several years during the early 1880s. During her twenties she probably worked to save for her sojourn in New York City, where she took classes and taught from 1884 to 1889. Besides attending studio sessions with other women at the Art Students’ League, May supported herself by teaching at Annie Brown’s Boarding and Day School for Girls in Manhattan and at St John’s School in Brooklyn. She also sold her decorative artwork on commission to booksellers.
Phillips returned to Montreal in 1889, confident in her professional credentials. She presented her work at seven of the annual exhibitions of the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts between 1890 and 1904 and at the World’s Columbian exposition in Chicago in 1893. From 1891 she showed landscapes at the invitation of the Art Association of Montreal, the Ontario Society of Artists in Toronto, and the Women’s Art Association of Canada (WAAC). Several of her paintings appear in Little Canadians, a book of children’s verses by Elizabeth Rollit Burns, which was published around 1899. She was known for oil and watercolour paintings of Canadian scenes, particularly relating to Montreal. In 1901 Phillips presented a solo art exhibition in the city featuring 84 watercolours of landscapes, streets, and buildings. It appears that the last time she showed her work was in April 1909, at the annual spring exhibition of the Art Association of Montreal.
By 1892 Phillips had been appointed co-principal, along with Harriette J. MacDonnell, of Montreal’s Victoria School of Art, which offered classes in oil and watercolour painting, drawing, modelling, and design, and in china painting, for which it had a gas kiln. By April 1895 Phillips was sole principal of the institution, which had been renamed the School of Art and Applied Design. Three years later it boasted 75 pupils (adults and children), five assistant teachers, and a new curriculum that included wood carving and ceramics. Designs for architects and manufacturers were also produced at the school, which was successful for seven or eight years. There is no evidence that it continued to be in operation after 1904.
Throughout the 1890s Phillips devoted her energies to the new women’s club movement. Mary Ella Dignam [Williams], the founder of the WAAC in Toronto, invited her to establish a branch in Montreal. Phillips held the first organizational meeting in her studio on 16 April 1894, and on 6 June she and Mary Alice Peck [Skelton*] launched the Montreal branch. Phillips was its vice-president for the first two years and president from 1897 to 1906. As a member of the National Council of Women of Canada [see Ishbel Maria Marjoribanks] from 1894, she campaigned for public training in applied art and design for women. She worked with Dignam to produce the council’s Women of Canada: their life and work; compiled … for distribution at the Paris International Exhibition, 1900, and she joined its standing committee for the promotion of industrial and fine arts in Canada in 1901.
The Montreal branch of the WAAC offered women artists studio space, art history lectures, and the opportunity to exhibit regularly in Canada and even in international destinations such as St Louis, Mo., and Berlin. But a new challenge to preserve and develop artisanry, often considered a lesser art form, soon absorbed Phillips and Peck. Knowledgeable and enlightened about the applied arts, they both realized that rural, immigrant, and Indigenous craftspeople were languishing from neglect and needed support. Choosing to champion women artisans was astute since Phillips and Peck posed little threat to the male-dominated fine-arts establishment. They earned respect and support from some of the country’s most notable men, among them Lord Strathcona [Smith*], Honoré Beaugrand*, and Sydney Arthur Fisher*. In 1903 a funding campaign supported by Lord and Lady Strathcona brought in thousands of dollars for the organization, and almost half of the donors were women.
Competitive friction over this new focus severely damaged relations with Dignam and the Toronto WAAC, however. By 1905 Phillips and Peck had collaborated in a bold decision to remove the handicrafts work from the control of the WAAC and transfer it to the Canadian Handicrafts Guild, a national organization they founded in Montreal that year which was open to both sexes. Phillips became the guild’s first president (1905–8) and in 1906 retired from the presidency of the Montreal WAAC with the blessing of its members. In support, the following year her colleagues dissolved their WAAC branch and re-formed as the Women’s Art Society of Montreal. Phillips and her stalwarts had quickly achieved a national mandate for the guild by securing its dominion charter of incorporation in 1906. She would preside over years of weekly meetings to further the guild’s initiatives. The Women’s Arts Society of Montreal was so popular that in 1911 the organization would put a cap on membership at 350. The guild, which was affiliated with the Montreal Local Council of Women, received private donations and, with the help of Fisher, annual federal funding of $1,000 from 1910, but it was discontinued during the First World War.
In 1910 Phillips became the guild’s ambassador to western Canada. An experienced traveller, having conducted a ladies’ sketching tour in the Netherlands in 1895 and voyaged around the world (Japan, Australia, India, the Middle East, and Europe) in 1903–4, she was, moreover, a passionate advocate for her cause. Through inspirational talks, she promoted Canadian handicrafts and the guild’s work from Kenora, Ont., to Victoria. She researched traditional handmade creations and Indigenous arts in both public and private collections. At immigrant settlements and Indigenous communities, she exhorted talented craftspeople to send work to the guild for exhibit and sale in its Montreal shop, which had opened in 1902.
From the beginning Phillips and Peck carefully managed the guild’s affairs to ensure its success. In 1911 they achieved a publicity coup by offering Canadian handicrafts to Queen Mary as a coronation gift. Phillips’s expertise set the standard for prize-winning crafts at guild exhibitions and local fairs. She published an article in the 2 March 1912 edition of the Ottawa Journal on handicrafts as a means of nation building. In it she wrote: “It is a mistake to look upon Indian art as crude and tawdry; it is only so when debased by the influence of the white people they meet. It must be remembered that those with whom they are most in contact have not a very cultivated taste, and the aim of the missionaries in the past was usually to wean them away from anything belonging to their former life.” As the chair of the guild’s educational committee, Phillips initiated and supervised handicraft classes for immigrant children from 1921 until 1928 in the hope of preserving their cultural designs and skills. She never wavered from the guild’s commitment to nurture opportunities through education, support, national exhibitions, and sales at the shop. Phillips worked on various philanthropic boards and advocated handicrafts for their therapeutic value.
Active with the Canadian Red Cross Society from its establishment in 1909, Phillips founded a children’s Red Cross group at Greenfield Park (Longueuil), Que., shortly after the outbreak of the First World War in 1914. The group organized financial and material relief for the war effort. The Women’s Arts Society of Montreal also contributed by fundraising to provide aid to impoverished artists in the city and, after the armistice, to disabled veterans. During the conflict Phillips supervised all branches of the Canadian Red Cross Society outside Montreal. Later, in 1922, she organized Junior Red Cross groups of immigrant children from the guild’s handicraft classes. Although a small group of Canadian children had raised funds for the Red Cross during the South African War, Phillips’s initiative was the first of its kind during the First World War, and the Junior Red Cross became an organized program after the conflict and spread internationally during the 1920s. Both the Canadian and American Red Cross organizations credited her with founding the Junior Red Cross and the former awarded her an honorary councillorship in 1931. Four years later she received the King George V Silver Jubilee Medal.
Since 1905 Phillips had resided with her younger brother, Edward William Henry, in one of Montreal’s first elegant apartment buildings, known as the Old Sherbrooke. Their grandfather Thomas Phillips of Beaver Hall Hill had bequeathed the land for Phillips Square to Montreal in 1842, and May and Edward deliberately emulated his example of benevolence. Since neither married, it seems they formed a household in which Edward, a prominent notary, managed the finances and May combined her charitable work with stewardship of the home. This would account for May’s freedom to pursue her interests without concern for income.
May Phillips died at home in 1937, at age 81. Her funeral took place at Montreal’s Anglican Christ Church Cathedral, where she was a lifelong and active member. The city’s McCord Stewart Museum holds seven of her landscapes. The Canadian Handicrafts Guild (known as the Canadian Guild of Crafts from 1967 to 2017), which she co-founded, persists as a non-profit organization called La Guilde, with an art gallery, museum, and archives.
The author would like to thank A. E. P. Judge Coffey for her assistance with the Phillips family tree.
A list of writings by and about Mary Martha (May) Phillips is available in the artist database of the Canadian Women Artists Hist. Initiative at cwahi.concordia.ca/sources/artists/displayArtist.php?ID_artist=230 (consulted 27 Oct. 2021).
La Guilde, Coll. & Arch. (Montreal), C11, D1 051 1910, M. M. Phillips, “Address used on afternoon talks and on western trip 1910”; annual report, 1911, 1922; general committee minutes, 25 Jan. 1909; minutes 13 Dec. 1907 and 4 Feb., 10 Oct. 1908; M. M. Phillips, report of the educational committee, 31 Dec. 1921. McCord Stewart Museum (Montreal), P125 (Women’s Art Society of Montreal fonds), A2, 1, “The story of the Montreal Women’s Art Society told by Miss Mary M. Phillips, Jan 2nd., 1917”; A4, 1, Catalogue of the Canadian Handicrafts Exhibition, 1907; A4, 1, file 1, box 1, M. M. Phillips, “History of the handicrafts movement in Montreal etc.,” 23 Jan. 1906 (handwritten speech); A4, 1, file 2, box 1, Alice Lighthall, “Excerpts read by Miss A. Lighthall at members’ day 1974” (photocopy); E4, box 23, Illuminated presentation piece with embroidered cover. “Edward H. Phillips dead here aged 77,” Gazette (Montreal), 18 Oct. 1938: 4. “Junior Red Cross founder is dead,” Montreal Daily Star, 19 April 1937: 4. “Women artists of Canada,” Montreal Daily Herald, 12 April 1895, Illustrated: 1–4. E. R. Burns, Little Canadians, with illustrations by M. M. Phillips (n.p., 1899). Canadian Handicrafts Guild, Constitution, by-laws and act of incorporation … (Montreal, 1907). Sarah Glassford, Mobilizing mercy: a history of the Canadian Red Cross (Montreal and Kingston, Ont., 2017). E. [M.] E. McLeod, In good hands: the women of the Canadian Handicrafts Guild (Montreal and Kingston, 1999). “Schools of art and design founded and conducted by women,” comp. Mrs [Mary Ella] Dignam, in National Council of Women of Can., Women of Canada: their life and work ([Montreal?, 1900]), 218–19. “The Victoria School of Art,” Arcadia (Montreal), 1, no.13 (1 Nov. 1892): 260.