Monday 1 October 2012

More on Sir Charles

Anyone who does research into family history knows about the time-consuming process of delving into hard-to-find details regarding times, places, and people. Progress usually comes in small steps, often few and far between. There tends to be an ongoing mixture of serendipitous hopeful discoveries and disappointing dead-ends. Yet one "plods remorselessly on", as Neville Moray, renowned Professor of Psychology at Scarborough College in my youth, was wont to say ...

Bertha May Ingle:
Sir Charles G D Roberts
From time to time, as was reported in the posting on Charles G D Roberts, we have pondered a long-standing 'family legend' concerning Bertha's portrait in oils of that well-known writer. The legend is that she was commissioned to paint a portrait of him, and that an image of that portrait was published in the Toronto Telegram at the time of his death in 1943. We're not entirely certain whether there really was such a commission, nor whether the painting we now have was the one intended to fulfill it. But the existence of such a fine formal portrait must have an explanation, and a commission seems at least plausible. The idea of its appearance in The Telegram is mysterious.  Bertha kept a Telegram clipping from January 10, 1935 (Roberts's 75th birthday), and wrote "mine" and "my own" on it; but the picture in the clipping is not a photo of the portrait we have.

From The Telegram
Nov 27, 1943
I extended the enquiry earlier this year by checking the Telegram for November 27, 1943, the day after Roberts died in Toronto. Such checks can be made in the Toronto Reference Library's newspaper room, where old issues of many newspapers are viewable on microfilm. The Telegram article on that day included a photo, as well. It wasn't Bertha's portrait either, but it showed him in a pose that more closely resembled that of the portrait we have. Perhaps, I speculated, that greater resemblance contributed to the story that had come down to us. But it certainly didn't resolve the question.

More recently, it occurred to me that the other two major Toronto newspapers, The Toronto Star and The Globe, might also have published articles about Roberts on the two dates in question (in 1935 and 1943). Checking, I found that neither The Star nor The Globe reported the occasion of Sir Charles's 75th birthday. [Perhaps my sister's intuition is correct:  she suspects Roberts himself instigated The Telegram's birthday wishes, being rather fond of seeing his name in print.]

From The Star
Nov 27, 1943
But both newspapers reported his death, in articles accompanied by photos. In The Star, I encountered an entirely unexpected finding. Despite the rather poor quality of the microfilmed image, I realized that the photo in The Star is almost certainly the same photo that appears in Elsie Pomeroy's biography of Roberts, the photo that we think Bertha probably used as a 'model' for her painting. Pomeroy's book ascribes it to 1936, but gives no supporting citation. I was excited by the prospect that the original of that photo might still be found in The Star's Archives, and that its true date and origin might be traceable after all.

My emailed request to The Star received a discouraging initial response. They don't search their Archives any longer for purposes of 'personal use', partly because they would have to charge a fee. They recommended that, for a nominal cost, I could subscribe to 'Pages of the Past', a searchable site where I could at least determine whether the same photo had been published in The Star at other times as well.

I persisted, saying that the photo's date of origin was really the key thing.  They kindly agreed to 'make an exception' for me, if I'd be willing to pay the search fee. But they cautioned me that the chances were high that the photo would not be found, especially if it had not been taken by a Star photographer. Even if found, it would not likely have date information on it. We decided that it would be worthwhile to 'roll the dice', paid the fee, and asked them to proceed.

From The Star's Archives
A few days later, we received the results. To our delight, and against the odds, the photo was found! Even better, as we hoped, there are date stamps on the back of it. Such stamps could indicate the date it was acquired by The Star, and/or the occasions it was published. The most gratifying date is the earliest one, possibly the date it entered their file:  December 3, 1935. It proves that, as I had suspected, the photo must have been taken earlier than 1936, making its use for a commission prior to January 1935 at least a possibility.

There is also a handwritten acknowledgement of the photo's source:  it came from Milne Studios, a photography studio founded in 1925 and still in business to this day. The Milne Studios web site says that there over a million of their negatives in the City of Toronto Archives. I emailed them to ask whether they or the City Archives might have records of the Roberts photo, or even the negative itself. I learned that Charles Milne (the grandfather of David Milne, who runs the Studios now) was the photographer in those days. Alas, all his negatives went missing after his death, and cannot be found.

Might the same photo have been published in other books by or about Roberts, in the 1930s? With a visit to the Library and the Rare Book Room at the University of Waterloo, my sister was able to check. Only one other book turned up with a photo of Roberts: a collection of his poems published in 1941 called Canada Speaks of Britain. It is not the same photo, but it actually looks as if it could have been taken at the same photo session. The book was published by Ryerson Press, as was the Pomeroy biography of Roberts in 1943.  McGraw Hill acquired Ryerson Press in 1970 and became McGraw Hill - Ryerson. Would they still have such photos in their files? I asked them. They do not.

We may have pretty much exhausted all possibilities, as far as searching for the photo and its date of origin goes. We're still hopeful we might find something somewhere about a commission. And if there was a commission, there may be another portrait out there somewhere. Perhaps some day it will turn up.

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