Sunday 17 June 2012

Churchville - Helping to Preserve History

Churchville is an historic village in the Credit River Valley, in the southern part of Brampton, Ontario, Canada. It was founded in 1815 by Amaziah Church, who built a gristmill there. From Churchville, the Credit River meanders southward through Meadowvale and Streetsville; remarkably, these early villages are still recognized as place names despite the suburban sprawls of Brampton and Mississauga that have threatened to engulf them. A few old streets and houses have survived in Churchville, and there is a beautifully kept old Cemetery there, where the earliest grave (1831) is that of Amaziah Church himself.

In the 19th century, the area immediately surrounding these villages was divided into farms, though there is relatively little evidence of them today. Bertha May Ingle had a great-aunt, Rachel Burton, widow of Samuel Burton, who lived on one of these farms, and Bertha visited her there as early as 1898. There were probably several visits to the Burton family over at least three decades. Old maps allow us to locate the Burton farm; it was on land immediately east of what is now Mississauga Road, just south of Highway 407.

Bertha enjoyed painting farm landscapes, and we can be sure that the locale of at least some of them was the area around Churchville. We know because Bertha mentioned painting at Churchville in letters and in personal notes, but there is another fascinating circumstance that establishes the fact in a very specific way.

In the 1930s, the businessman and historian William Perkins Bull undertook to collect a large range of historical materials related to Peel County. One aspect of his collection was a compilation of artworks documenting the pioneering spirit of Peel County's early settlers and celebrating its natural beauty. A catalogue of the Perkins Bull art collection was published in 1934, and there (on page 72) we can confirm that Bertha donated two oil paintings to the collection, both of scenes near Churchville, and said to be painted in October, 1929.

The catalogue also includes (on page 73) a black-and-white photograph of one of the paintings, entitled Autumn Leaves. Among Bertha's surviving memorabilia is a photograph that I think must be the very photo that was used to make the image in the catalogue. And we have a very similar painting of the same scene -- though it's not the same painting. In fact, Bertha painted quite a few versions of that composition.
Bertha's photo of Autumn Leaves, 1929

The exact appearance of the second painting, Autumn Sunlight, Churchville, we could only guess at ... until recently.

After Perkins Bull died in 1948, the collection of paintings became somewhat dispersed. Many were on display in a Brampton school at that time, and remained in the school till the 1960s. Others entered the care of the United Church of Canada Archives, and these now reside at Victoria University in the University of Toronto. I contacted Gillian Pearson, Curator of the University Art Collection, and I was thrilled when she reported that one of the two paintings Bertha donated is there, and has the best possible professional care. Gillian kindly sent me a photo. It is Autumn Sunlight, Churchville, so there was the added excitement of seeing a composition we hadn't ever seen before.

Autumn Sunlight, Churchville, 1929

At that time, it was in storage, and not framed. The canvas is brittle and fragile, and it needs conservation work to repair an area where paint is flaking off. But we've recently learned that it has been very suitably framed, and that a professional conservator, Heidi Sobol, is in the process of investigating its repair. Her initial exploration has determined that a possible reason for the flaking paint is that there is another painting beneath the one that is visible. The canvas will be x-rayed soon, at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, to help ascertain what the underlying painting is and determine the best conservation approach. We are very excited about this, and we are deeply grateful to all concerned who are taking such pains to rescue the painting and allow it to be seen again after all these years.

The whereabouts of Autumn Leaves is still a mystery. There has been considerable interest in recent years in re-constituting the Perkins Bull Collection, perhaps starting as early as 1984, when an exhibition was mounted in Mississauga called Peel Remembers: Artists from The Perkins Bull Collection. Through Gillian Pearson, I contacted her colleague Gerrie Loveys of the Peel Art Gallery, Museum and Archives (formerly the Peel Heritage Complex) in Brampton, and she, too, has been very responsive and helpful. However, no records of the missing painting have yet been found.

What used to be the Burton farm is now the site of a vast pharmaceutical manufacturing facility, mostly surrounded by busy modern roads. It is not easy for urbanites like me, driving by, to visualize those early days. But in museums and heritage buildings and cemeteries and artworks, we can maintain a connection to our past. The foresight of someone like William Perkins Bull in collecting the history and images of the pioneer days is something we should all be grateful for. And, happily, there are still many dedicated people who are striving to preserve these records and memories and places. We are all richer for their efforts.

P.S. If you looked at the catalogue, page 72 or 73, you might have noticed how Bertha's name was given in the Perkins Bull collection. She's called 'Bertha Maylaw Ingle', although the signatures on the pictures have the middle initial M, as was her usual practice. We also have a few of her pictures that she actually signed only as 'Maylaw'. We have no idea where this adopted name came from, nor why she decided to use it. Another mystery!
Watercolour card signed 'Maylaw'

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