Earlier in September, I paid a visit to Woodstock, Ontario, to check out one of several new intermunicipal transit services that launched across the province this year. While in Woodstock, I paid a visit to the Highway 401 interchange at Highway 59.
In 1968-1969, London, Ontario artist Jack Chambers painted 401 Towards London No. 1, which depicts a tranquil scene from the Highway 59 overpass, looking west. The highway, just two lanes in each direction, bends slightly to the southwest as it heads towards London and Windsor. On either side, autumn trees, farm fields, and gentle hills stretch out. The only buildings visible are farm silos, and two truck terminals on the north side of the highway. Only a few vehicles on Highway 401 are visible in the scene.
Chambers became well known for photorealism in his work. The scene in 401 Towards London No. 1 is slightly askew, as if this was a Kodachrome snapshot.
Highway 401 was only fully completed between Windsor and the Quebec border in 1968, the year the painting was started, though the section between Woodstock and London was completed in 1957, bypassing an especially congested section of Highway 2. Like many interchanges built by the province in the 1950s and early 1960s, the junction of Highways 59 and 401 was an eight-ramp cloverleaf.
By the 1990s, Highway 401 was widened to six lanes. The cloverleaf interchange, like most others in Ontario, was removed and replaced by a simpler interchange. (As traffic levels increased, the danger of vehicles entering and exiting the highway with little space to merge became apparent.)
Woodstock’s sprawl caught up to the highway, with new warehouses, motels, subdivisions, and a hospital joining the original freight terminals. Though the distant trees and hills are the same as those in Chambers’ painting, the gentle curve in the distance remains the easiest way to match the two views, fifty years apart. Highway 59 itself was downloaded by the province in 1997. To the south, the old highway is Oxford County Road 59. To the north, it is simply Norwich Street.
As I climbed over guardrails and navigated sidewalk-less embankments and road shoulders to capture the contemporary image of Jack Chambers’ painting, I was surprised by two things. The first were fully AODA-compliant crossing treatments at the highway ramps, despite there being no safe and marked way to get to those crosswalks.
I was even more surprised to see an engraved version of the Jack Chambers painting embedded in the guardrail. When the Ministry of Transportation Ontario (MTO) rebuilt the overpass in 2017-2018, it thoughtfully included this nod to a local artist.
Unfortunately, given the isolation of the plaque, few will actually see it, even if thousands pass by it daily. Larger signs mark the overpass as the Constable Jack Ross Memorial Bridge, in honour of a Ontario Provincial Police officer.
But it will always be the Jack Chambers bridge to me.
Though 401 Towards London No. 1 has long been one of my favourite Canadian paintings, it is not typically on display at the Art Gallery of Ontario. I would love to see this work put on permanent display, either at the AGO, or at another gallery that will appreciate the ode to Ontario’s mother road.