Our Great Ones


Our Great Ones by Jack McLaren, 1932

Our Great Ones: Twelve Caricatures Cut in Linoleum by Jack McLaren with Footnotes by Merrill Denison and a Foreword by E.J.Pratt


Published in 1932 by the Ryerson Press, this is a First Edition and Number 1 of only 450 copies printed. The edition consists of 13 folios each containing a linocut caricature and footnotes accompanying each print. The prints are cut in linoleum by Jack McLaren and printed from original blocks. This edition is printed on Rolland White Antique with the portfolio on Donvale Antique. The biographical notes, which are contributed by Merrill Denison and foreword by E.J. Pratt are set in Kabel Bold (see below). The composition, presswork and binding were produced in Canada at Toronto, by Rous and Mann for the Ryerson Press.

The collection contains caricatures of George Brown, Sir Georges Etienne Cartier, Joseph Howe, Sir Wilfrid Laurier, Sir John A. Macdonald, Sir Richard Cartwright, Thomas D’Arcy McGee, Rev. Egerton Ryerson, D.D., Sir Donald Smith, John Strachan, Colonel Thomas Talbot and Sir Charles Tupper.

The Foreword, by E.J. Pratt states the following: “One of the most promising signs of the cultural progress of this country is that national biography should be recorded not merely through text-books and romantic fiction, but through the medium of caricature. This Album of prints by Jack McLaren, accompanied by the incisive and entertaining sketches of Merrill Denison, is a brilliant pioneer adventure in an art which in older countries has had a long and honourable tradition. It is the mark of intellectual maturity, when comic muse is invoked to throw a bag of salt into the cauldron of romance, and it is a matter of common historical observation that any period which, out of inflated seriousness, has too stridently advertised its vogue, has been most effectually corrected by a chorus of laughter.

The function of caricature is to place on exhibit, by controlled exaggeration, the quirks and salient of human character – mannerisms, it may be, which live longer in the public mind than the more sedate and self-conscious qualities. It does happen indeed that about the only thing which posterity remembers in the life of an individual is the size and colour of his nose, when all the other features of the proprietor have disappeared in the mist. Immortality in such cases is pre-eminently the gift of the caricaturist. It must not be assumed, however, that it is just the incidental lines that comprise the specialty of his art, and much less that it is the savagely satiric role which usually finds expression. Anyone turning over the pages of this portfolio will see that kindly though trenchant fingers have been probing into the recesses of our heroes with the purpose of restoring them to our streets and our homes. For, with our tendency to idolatry, we are inclined to forget that those dynamic personalities not only thundered in Parliament and from the rostrum, but that they were known to sleep, eat, perchance to swear, to doff togas and don bathrobes, and it is therefore fitting that, in addition to striking their official gestures in oil and marble and bronze, they should be lured into giving their unguarded intimacies in linoleum. Moreover, it was an inspired judgment in selection when the Ryerson Press committed to the care of two such artistic surgeons as McLaren and Denison the task of operating on our national glands.”




McLaren’s Rev. Egerton Ryerson

Rev. Egerton Ryerson, D.D. 1803-1882. Denison’s text reads, “This celebrated divine and public servant did for Methodism in Canada what Mussolini has done for Italy in Italy. Ordinarily a well-mannered, if somewhat forceful, gentleman of the cloth, he was capable of protracted choleric moments, particularly when contemplating the Family Compact and the villainies of that celebrated divine and public servant, Dr. John Strachan. Although contemporaries, the two never seem to have been strong personal friends, and this colourful relationship of another day has been nicely recaptured by the artist in depicting the great non-conformist educator, not only thinking of Dr. Strachan, but actually telling the latter gentleman in measured tones what he thought of him. While an ardent U.E. Loyalist, a devoted shepherd of his flock, and an editor who could write editorial that blew subscribers out of their pews, the seraphic Doctor’s first and last love was education, and lots of it, as cheaply as possible. He particularly loved to educate the opponents of Responsible Government. The public school system in Ontario – conceded by most Ontarioians to be the best on earth – was founded by him, in 1846, and has suffered few changes to the present day. Victoria College (“The truth shall make you free”) was his first founding. While inclined to be explosive in debate, he was never known to use profane language, and, by some miracle, avoided fighting any duels.”




McLaren’s Sir Wilfrid Laurier

Sir Wilfrid Laurier 1841-1919. Denison wrote, “This dignified study of the white-plumed chieftain, presents Sir Wilfrid as he is best remembered – in one of those moments of exalted spell-binding when, across the limpid folds of the Union Jack, the golden flood of his oratory hypnotized vast audiences. He is about to say a few words to the effect that this is Canada’s century, his only known utterance with which all parties agreed. He was the great pipe organ of Canada, the mighty Wurlitzer of his day, the last of our platform orators who possessed the grand manner. He could make an evening of constitutional law as exciting as a present-day broadcast of a football match and as entertaining as an evening in the theatre. Few have risen to dim his memory** or play the keyboard upon which he so majestically performed. So great was the magic of his personality, that he was not only able to change Quebec politically from a Conservative to a Liberal Province, but to make this spiritual anomaly persist down to the present day. But it might have been the horse-shoe pin in his cravat that did it. A staunch Imperialist and free trader, he also made a hobby of railroads, building as many of these as time and the national credit allowed. Sir Wilfrid was defeated at the last attempt to increase Canada’s trade with the United States; an unfortunate mistake which all succeeding governments on both sides of the border have done their best to rectify.”


**we forget their names for the moment

Jack McLaren was born in Edinborough, Scotland in 1899 and was educated in Edinborough and Toronto. He joined the Princess Patricia Light Infantry during WWI and became a member of the famous Canadian touring group, The Dumbells, entertaining soldiers at the front. In 1921, McLaren was part of the “Biff, Bing, Bang” comedy revue, the first Canadian revue to hit the New York Broadway stage. He was a brilliant satirist and used his pen to great effect during the 40s and 50s illustrating a number of books, notably The Incompleat Canadian and The Flying Bull. His landscapes hang in The National Gallery, Ottawa.

Merrill Denison (1893 to 1975) was born in Detroit, Michigan and grew up in Ontario. He became Art Director of Hart House in 1921 and began writing comedies, many of which were produced by local theatre groups in and around Tweed, Ontario where Denison had a cottage. His pioneering radio plays were successful throughout the 1930s. A strong follower of Canadian business, Denison also wrote about Canadian corporations including Molsons, Ontario Hydro, Massey-Harris and the Bank of Montreal. Denison died in 1975.



Poet E.J. Pratt, 1930, (courtesy David Pitt, Canadian Encyclopedia)

Edwin John Pratt (1882-1964) was an ordained Methodist minister. He was also a poet, a professor and a critic. Pratt grew up in Newfoundland. His first poems were published in 1914 but he was largely unnoticed until 1923 when his book Newfoundland Verse was published. Subsequent publications gave him recognition and he was made a member of the Royal Society of Canada in 1930 and won the Lorne Pierce Medal for poetry in 1940. Pratt won the Governor General’s Award for Poetry in 1937, 1940 and 1952 and was made Companion of the Order of St. Michael and St. George (CMG) in 1946. Several publications are represented in the Ryerson Press collection including Newfoundland Verse, 1923. E.J. Pratt taught English at Victoria College from 1920 until 1953. He died in 1964.




**The Linotype font Kabel was designed by German designer Rudolf Koch in 1928 soon after the release of Futura. It may have been named after the transatlantic telecommunications cable that had recently been laid. The font captures the modern look of the 1920s and features an Art Deco style with a low x-height and distinctive “a’, “e” and “g” along with the slanted endings on some of the tails of letters which adds to the “liveliness” of the font. A fitting typeface for McLaren’s evocative art and Denison’s witty remarks.



About The Ryerson Press Archive

My name is Clive Powell. I worked for McGraw-Hill Ryerson for 35 years. Recently I was asked to find a home for 3000 publications that represent the Ryerson Press Archive. I am happy to share my discoveries.
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