Sunday 26 May 2013

On Location

Bertha loved to work outdoors, embracing the practice of painting en plein air, and she did so at every opportunity. There are several photographs among her papers, taken over several decades, that show her working in this way. We remember clearly that she painted outdoors when she accompanied us on family summer holidays in the Bruce Peninsula in the 1950s. Bertha occasionally painted scenes showing other artists (or herself?) occupied in this manner.

Plein air painting was not, by any means, a brand new thing at the time she was young, but it was certainly growing in popularity. Pre-prepared paints in tubes were becoming more widely available, and more portable equipment like the field easel or box easel had been developed. The Impressionists were among its strongest and most influential proponents; and in Canada the new approach to landscape painting eventually made spectacularly popular by the Group of Seven depended on it. The movement is alive and well today, as witness the thriving Ontario Plein Air SocietyThe common goal of all plein air artists was (and is) to capture light and movement and atmosphere directly, to keep these aspects of the subject in continuous view from moment to moment, as colour is applied to canvas or board.

Three instances have come to our attention recently where not only can we identify the location of the painted scene, but we can pinpoint the spot with great confidence where she sat in front of her box easel or its equivalent. Two of the discoveries have arisen from my sister's keen observation of the kind of details that most people don't notice.


Beach at Normandale
Bertha May Ingle
This is the easy one. In 1999, our mother gave one of my daughters a painting by Bertha of the beach at Normandale, on Lake Erie. It has surfaced from storage recently, along with the note Mum wrote at the time:
"This is the beach at Normandale (foreground) and looks on to Turkey Point and then on to Long Point. John [her brother] and I were with Auntie Bert when she painted it - circa 1926. We were up on top of the hill that you and I have climbed many times since then, however we were further up. ..."

The cottage at Normandale that was built in the 1930s by one of Mum's uncles is still in our family, and we enjoy that beautiful village and its beach every summer. And so do the youngest members of the extended family, our mother's great-grandchildren  --  the fifth generation to do so. Every indication is that they will treasure the location as much as those who have gone before. I hope my daughter will take the youngest up that hill some day.

Ontario Ladies' College

Accompanying our Research Assistant, I recently had the chance to visit the Archives of Trafalgar Castle School, the successor institution to Ontario Ladies' College, still occupying the original buildings purchased by the Methodist Church in 1874. I leapt at it. I was excited and thrilled to see this wonderful building, to experience first-hand the grandeur, so beautifully preserved and cared for, of the place where Bertha worked for five years in the mid 1920s.  The hospitality and cooperation extended to us by the current Trafalgar Castle School staff were equally gratifying, as they supported our search for information with warmth and enthusiasm.

In an earlier edition (Ontario Ladies' College), I mentioned a painting that Bertha apparently donated to the College after she left.  It's a simple landscape showing grass, trees, and sky, executed in oils. A small plaque on the frame says it was "A Gift by the Artist". It occurred to me, being there on the grounds of the School, a site that is still beautiful and impressive even though somewhat reduced in extent compared to past decades, that most likely the painting had been painted while Bertha was there, and depicted a part of the property.

I mentioned this feeling in an email to my sister, who agreed it was likely. Then she wrote, "Sometimes I think I see a grey building behind the trees." I don't recall ever noticing that myself, but upon inspection I became convinced that she is correct. It's definitely there, toward the right edge of the frame, a hint of roof and a chimney.
OLC c. 1920
(looking northeast)

I did recall that on looking for old photos of OLC, I had found a number of aerial photographs. Looking for them again, I was pleasantly surprised to find that several exist from the period 1919 to the 1930s. Most parts of the College building are larger and architecturally more complex than the roofline suggested in Bertha's painting, but there is one part, at the extreme south end, where the scale and general appearance fit very well. For it to appear as it does, behind trees, I believe the artist would have been located east of that part of the building, on the other side of the collection of trees there, and facing westwards (I've marked the spot  --  click on the image to see a larger version). The trees were there in 1920, and were still there in about 1929, according to these two photos.

OLC c. 1929
Am I reading too much into what is, after all, a rather indistinct background? Perhaps. But I believe the collective weight of the evidence  --  the plaque on the frame, the painting itself, the context, the photographs from the air of the site as it was at the time  --  well, it all adds up.

Tappen BC

Sketching at
Tappen BC
My favourite photograph of Bertha at work outdoors is this one, identified in her own handwriting on the back as "Myself sketching at Tappen, B.C. 1914". The trees, and even their reflection in the amazingly still water, frame the artist perfectly. The calm and serenity in the moment emphasize her intimate connection with the beautiful surroundings.

So, in this case, we already had a location, and a year. But what was Bertha painting, precisely?  A few weeks ago I'd have said we had no idea. But my sister noticed something that has surprised and delighted us. That rather faint and distant outline beyond the water, over-exposed in the photo because it was in brighter light and the artist was in shade, rang a bell for her. A quick scan of our on-line album provided her a definitive answer.

Tappen BC
Bertha M Ingle
Lo and behold, we have in our collection what might well be the very painting Bertha was working on that day, when she was photographed there in 1914; it's certainly, at the very least, a painting of the identical scene, made from the same spot.  This is a work we'd previously had no connection for, as to time and place. Now, almost ninety-nine years after she painted it, we know exactly when and exactly where she did so.

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