Monday 6 May 2013

Down by the Old Mill Stream ...

More discoveries! Or at least hypotheses, or guesses, or wishes ...

My sister has become fascinated by two small sketches, in oils on canvas, that depict two slightly different views of the same scene: a stream just below a small dam, its bank strewn with stones, with a two-storey building on the higher ground beyond. She has come to think of the building as a mill or associated house. We think the pictures are quite old.

It struck me one day that if the site really is a mill, it might conceivably be Wright's Mill in Owen Sound. Robert Ingle (Bertha's father) worked for Wright's Mlll Store when they first moved to Owen Sound in the 1890s. The store was in town, but the mill itself was further up the river. I recalled looking into it a while back, and finding on-line a description of how people in those days reached Owen Sound from the community of Brooke, relying on the fact that there was a bridge at Wright's Mill. Because the description includes the modern names of the roads involved, it's possible to locate the bridge quite precisely.

With the help of a friend whom we've recently engaged as a part-time Research Assistant, we've contacted the Grey County Historical Society. President Janet Iles very kindly provided us a scan of some old photos, showing what the Mill looked like.

Courtesy of Grey County Historical Society
Comparing it to Bertha's sketches, there are some general similarities between those photos and the building she depicted, but the Mill did not have the chimneys at the ends of the roof ridge that appear in the paintings.

I did make a tantalizing discovery, though.  Google's streetview includes views from the modern-day bridge. Looking northwards (downstream), there is a glimpse of what might be an old house, which does have a chimney at the end of the roof ridge. It's just conceivable that it could be the building in the paintings  --  but I mustn't get carried away ...

Janet Iles tells us that the main Wright's Mill building was damaged by a storm in 1912 and was likely destroyed soon afterwards, so there's no trace of it now. But I believe there might still be a dam or similar feature at or near that point in the river. Our RA is going to visit Owen Sound for us in the near future, mainly to look for information in such places as the Library, museum archives, and newspaper offices. She's going to make a trip to that bit of the river, too, and get a better look at what might still be there. We're excited to learn what she will find.

Meanwhile, the two small canvases have been cleaned and re-varnished, once again by the conservator for St Germain Gallery. They, like others, had acquired an obscuring bluish haze, this time mainly from environmental effects and properties of the paint. They now look wonderful, rough sketches though they are, and it's possible now to confirm ( I actually had a minor doubt) that they were both done by Bertha, using the same palette of colours, the same techniques.

Somewhere there may well be a more refined, finished painting of this scene, for which these two sketches were preliminary studies. We'd love to see it!

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