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In 1917, the Canadian War Memorials Fund commissioned Major James Kerr-Lawson to journey to the battlefields of France and Belgium to paint two large canvases of the ruins of Arras and Ypres. These two historic cities had suffered greatly in the shelling. In Arras, The Dead City, the ruins of Arras Cathedral are shown as they were in 1917.
James Kerr-Lawson was an established painter at the time of his commission for the Canadian government. Although he was born in Anstruther, Fife, Scotland, the artist had emigrated to Hamilton, Ontario, with his family at the age of three. Kerr-Lawson lived much of his life in London, England, and maintained many links with the Canadian artistic community that he had forged early in his career. Kerr-Lawson was well known as a portraitist, painter and decorator.