Monday 30 September 2013

A Georgian Bay Connection?

Some time ago, my sister found an article in Pathmaster, the newsletter of the Pickering Township Historical Society, about the well-known Whitby-born painter, Florence Helena McGillivray. We are fairly sure that she and Bertha were acquainted. Florence McGillivray taught art at Ontario Ladies' College (OLC) in the early 1900s, and we think Bertha's first teaching year at OLC (1908 - 1909) may have come about because of a leave of absence for Florence. Also, Bertha owned (and we now have) a small signed watercolour by Florence, entitled A Georgian Bay Evening.

Florence Helena McGillivray:
A Georgian Bay Evening
The Pathmaster article (published in Spring 1999) reports that, at the time of writing, the Whitby home of the McGillivray family in Florence's time, a fine old house called Inverlynn, was still in the possession of their descendants. I wondered whether that might be true today. And I wondered whether the present owners might have artworks that had belonged to Florence, perhaps including those of painters she knew, as well as her own work. Might there, in fact, be something by Bertha May Ingle? It seemed at least worth asking.

I wrote to the current owners of Inverlynn. I had discovered that in recent years they have hosted art exhibitions there, which made the possibilities all the more promising. I received a gracious and prompt reply, telling me that they had looked through all their old artworks, but had found nothing of Bertha's. However, they had kindly undertaken to forward my letter to other family members, several of whom have paintings by Florence, to ask if anyone else might be able to contribute any information of interest.

Within a short time, I was pleased to receive an email from one of those family members. It came from Bill Allen, whose wife is descended from the McGillivray family and is a painter in her own right. Bill wrote to say that he is in the process of trying to locate, photograph, and catalogue chronologically as many of Florence Helena McGillivray's works as he can. He was therefore interested in seeing our McGillivray watercolour, and asked whether we would make it available to his camera.

We were delighted at the prospect of meeting and sharing experiences with someone engaged in a quest somewhat similar to our own, and with the possibility of a mutually beneficial exchange of findings. We arranged a meeting at my home, to which Bill brought his lights, tripod, and camera, a much more sophisticated set-up than anything we've ever used.

His visit brought us much fascinating conversation and sharing of stories and anecdotes. Bill photographed the signed watercolour. We also brought out a sketch in oils that has puzzled us, a work that we've always been fairly sure was not painted by Bertha.  On the reverse side of the board is written in pencil what looks like "Miss McGillivray", though slightly truncated; it seems that the board was cut after that was written on it. It doesn't really appear to be a signature or attribution. Bill Allen is interested in the painting, however, and thinks it might indeed be one of Florence's works, based on its style, brushwork, and colour palette. He has since shown his photograph of that painting to other knowledgable people, who agree with his assessment that it could be hers.

A Georgian Bay Evening has proven even more interesting to Bill than we expected. He thinks the location depicted may be quite near where he and his family have a summer cottage. That locality also happens to be near where Dr James McCallum had a home.  Dr McCallum is famous for his enthusiastic and generous support of artists in Toronto in the early twentieth century, including Tom Thomson and the painters who eventually formed The Group of Seven. Bill tells us that Dr McCallum often invited artists to stay and to paint at Georgian Bay, and it is possible that Florence McGillivray was one of those.

And of course we wonder now if Bertha May Ingle might also have painted there around that time. Her younger, formative years had been spent in Owen Sound, so the Georgian Bay shores were probably familiar to her, and she may have welcomed an opportunity to return there as a more mature artist.

Bill Allen has asked us to 'spread the word' about his quest for works by Florence Helena McGillivray. He would be grateful to hear from anyone who possesses (or knows of) such paintings. He can be contacted at

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