Saturday 23 June 2012

Charles G D Roberts

Bertha left us a striking portrait of Charles G D Roberts, painted in his latter years.  It is at the centre of a puzzle that we'd dearly love to solve.  My sister has compiled the account below:

Charles G D Roberts
"Our mother used to tell us that Auntie Bert had been commissioned to paint a portrait of Charles G D Roberts, a well-known Canadian writer and literary figure, one of the ‘Confederation poets’, who was knighted in June of 1935. It was part of family lore that a picture of Bertha’s portrait had appeared in the Toronto Telegram newspaper at the time of the poet’s death, in November of 1943.

"Not having asked as many questions as we should have when we were young, we have no information on the date of this commission, nor how it might have come about. We had supposed that the arresting portrait of Roberts that we have in our collection was either the very portrait that had fulfilled the commission (somehow returned to the artist), or a preliminary version of it.

from the
Toronto Telegram
Jan 10, 1935
"Among Bertha’s papers there are only two items relating to this story, and they are both newspaper clippings. One shows a photo of Roberts wearing a hat, and is dated January 10, 1933 (his 73rd birthday). The other shows a picture of him bareheaded and turning slightly to one side. This second clipping extends greetings to Roberts on the occasion of his 75th birthday, January 10, 1935. The clipping has been verified by James Thomson to be from page 3 of the Toronto Telegram of that date. On the front, written in pencil in what we think is Bertha’s own hand, is the word “mine”, and on the back is written “my own”. We conjecture that this is probably the picture referred to in the family oral tradition.

"There’s a problem with it, though. It’s difficult to be sure, but the picture in the Telegram clipping looks more like a photograph of the man himself, rather than a photograph of a painting. The original photo, which would have been helpful, could not be found in the Telegram’s photo archives, which are now divided between the Sun newspaper archives and a special collection at York University. We know that Bertha often painted portraits from photographs, especially where sittings would have been difficult to arrange, for one reason or another. The newspaper clipping could show a photograph which she had used as a model for a painting, which she might have lent to the Telegram. In any case, the evidence of the clippings suggests that Bertha’s commissioned portrait of Roberts was painted some time in the early 1930s, very probably by the beginning of 1935, and that it may have been quite a different picture from the one we have.

"Searching the internet, DB came across a photograph of Roberts that appears on the dust jacket of Sir Charles G. D. Roberts, a Biography by Elsie Pomeroy, published in 1943. This photograph bears a striking resemblance to the painting in our collection [though DB noted that in our painting, the subject is lit from the opposite side, an interesting variation, artistically]. Pomeroy’s book gives no information whatsoever about the source of the photo (an oddity, because there is comprehensive information cited about every other photo in the book). It simply states that the photo is from 1936. If this date is correct (it may not be, but sadly there is no obvious way to verify it), it suggests that the portrait in our collection was painted later than the commissioned portrait – perhaps even years later, if the model photograph was from the biography.

"When attempting to trace the image, DB visited the Northern District Branch of the Toronto Public Library (40 Orchard View Blvd), where a copy of Pomeroy’s book resided at that time (it has since been moved to the Canadiana Reference Stacks of the North York Central Library). There was no dust jacket, but the same photo appears as the frontispiece. In an eerie twist, he found that the frontispiece picture had been scored with pencil lines, one horizontal and one vertical, each bisecting the picture, in much the same way that Bertha used to do with photographs from which she intended to make a portrait.

"We are left with yet another mystery. Was there really a commissioned portrait?  What was it  like?  Was it destroyed, or does it still exist? We are also left with a fine portrait, possibly from a later date, in which we believe the artist took much satisfaction."

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