Thursday 7 November 2013

Owen Sound - Beginnings

How and when does it begin, for a creative artist?

Many musicians, dancers, actors, writers, and visual artists can remember a defining or seminal moment in their lives, a moment when a voice inside said 'That's what I will do. That is who I am. That will be my life.' For others, there was no single moment; some can't really remember a time before they played or sang or danced or wrote or put pen, pencil, or paint to paper. It came as naturally, and was as essential to their lives, as breathing.

For Bertha May Ingle, we can only speculate, but there are clues. Her earliest childhood years were spent on farms in Ontario, first in Puslinch Township, then in Proton Township. Her father Robert was an amateur painter and a skilled fiddler; her mother Mary could dance up a storm. There were books, and a family atmosphere where education was important. The Ingles moved to Owen Sound in 1884 (Bertha was six years old), where Robert found work at John Wright's Mill store. We've known for a long time that Bertha was painting well enough by her teens to win prizes, and to have identified her life's calling. The Ingles' family friend Herbert Casson wrote them a letter in October 1895, when Bertha was seventeen:

"Tell Bertha I'm proud of her, winning all those prizes. There is no reason why she could not come to Boston before long, to get an artist's inspiration from the wonderful living pictures & magnificent buildings & parks & ocean scenery."

What were "all those prizes", exactly? We weren't sure. Were there art teachers who provided her with guidance and encouragement? Bertha kept a photo showing an artist at work in his studio, identified in handwriting on the reverse side as 'Mr Woodhouse in his studio at Owen Sound'. We've supposed he might have taught Bertha, but he has proved an elusive character. A 'Woodhouse, H' appears in the 1901 Census for Owen Sound, an artist, living and employed as a domestic in a hotel headed by Eveleigh, George. We're fairly sure he was, in fact, Harry Valentine Woodhouse, a Canadian-born American artist.

Another important part of Bertha's Owen Sound story was the serious illness she contracted at the age of eleven. According to oral family history, it was polio, and it caused her permanent weakness in one leg. It is thought to have ended her formal education. But perhaps it helped her, as she spent so many hours at home, to discover and develop her lifetime calling as an artist.

Earlier this year, our keen, energetic Research Assistant made the trip to Owen Sound that we've had in mind for a long time. She went to search the Library's Archives and the newspaper collections on microfilm, with several lines of enquiry to pursue: to find events and explore the environment in the visual arts; to find references to polio or outbreaks of other possible afflictions; to look for Mr Woodhouse; to look for Emma Scott, who lived in Owen Sound in those years and who (as Emma Scott Raff) was the founding Principal of the Margaret Eaton School of Literature and Expression in Toronto, where Bertha had a Private View of Oil Paintings in December 1906; to look for the horse stables that Bertha wrote about, located across the street from the Ingle family home; and to be alert for anything else that might shed light on the Ingles' life in Owen Sound between 1884 and 1901 (when they moved to Toronto).

A daunting task, but our brave RA did not quail before it. Altogether she spent three full days searching through archived materials and, as she said, "swimming with the microfiche" to scan through old newspapers. Of course it's impossible to look at everything, so she focussed on specific years of interest, including 1889 (the year of Bertha's illness) and 1895 (the year of the prizes). We're infinitely grateful for her stalwart efforts, which have (as might well be foreseen) elucidated some questions, come up blank on others, and turned up some unexpected surprises.


We knew already that the Ingles had an address on Jackson Street in 1892, and we believe they lived on Union Street (now 8th Street East) in earlier years. Thanks to our diligent RA, we've now learned that as of the 1901 Census, they were located on Patterson Street (now 8th Street West). It has been difficult to identify the exact horse establishment on or near Union Street where, as a child, Bertha watched horses being broken. It appears that stables and similar establishments were common throughout the town. Horse shows and horse races were large and popular events, taking place year-round. There was a 10,000-square-foot livery at 10th Street East in 1887.

But the picture has now become clearer. Advertisements for a Riding Class at the R J Scott Stables, located "at the foot of Union Hill, Union St.", appeared in local newspapers (our RA found and photographed one from March 1889). The note Bertha wrote about watching horses being broken refers to "Jack and Bob Scott" as the owners of the stables, so it appears to be the same establishment.


There were numerous openly-reported instances of serious diseases striking people in Owen Sound. In 1885 there was an outbreak of smallpox, with which the town’s rudimentary new hospital was ill-equipped to cope. Concern over smallpox was still prominent in 1894, when the Owen Sound Times reported an epidemic in Chicago and cases of the disease in Kingston and Chatham.

There were also frequent and widespread concerns about possible outbreaks of cholera in the 1890s.

Neither of these diseases seems likely to have been what Bertha suffered in 1889. However, nothing turned up to suggest the possibility of polio. We know from other sources that the main epidemic periods in Ontario were still in the future. Whether this was Bertha's affliction remains a mystery.

Emma Scott

A few titbits turned up about Emma Scott. In 1889, along with other ladies of the Scrope Street Methodist Church (Central), she initiated a Circle of the International Order of The King’s Daughters and Sons (IOKDS). The Order, still active today, was then a new and rapidly-growing organization devoted to assisting those less fortunate. In Owen Sound it was named the “Help-in-Need-Circle”.

Emma's wedding on June 6th 1894 made the front page of the Owen Sound Times the following day:

"A great flutter of excitement was occasioned in society here yesterday, by the marriage of Miss Ema [sic] Scott, one of Owen Sound's most popular and accomplished young ladies, to Mr. Wm. B. Raff, of Aspen, Colorado."

There followed a detailed and colourful account of the ceremony itself, the déjeuner at the Scott home, and the couple's departure (the same afternoon) for Aspen, via Toronto and Chicago.

The Visual Arts Scene

Several pieces of evidence collectively establish that there must have been a thriving and vital visual arts community in Owen Sound in those years. The Times reported on its front page, on June 13th 1889, the results of the Art School Examinations, introducing the lengthy lists of names with this proud boast:

"OWEN SOUND students as usual take the largest number of certificates in the Province."

Earlier that year, the "Ladies' Auxiliary and members of the Y.M.C.A." held an art exhibition of paintings and other artworks at the Y.M.C.A. Hall. It proved so popular that its run had to be extended to meet public demand. "This promises to be something better than anything Owen Sound has seen in the Art line yet," predicted the Times, and so it seems to have been.

One of the painters represented in the Y.M.C.A. exhibition was Emma Scott. It was in the same month that she left Owen Sound to take a course at the Ontario School of Art in Toronto.

Newspaper ads confirm that artists' supplies were readily available from local sellers, such as "Vincent H Chantler / The Palace Drug Store". An Owen Sound branch of the Women’s Art Association (based in Toronto) was formed in 1909.

Five friends
Kate Andrew is in the centre; Bertha second from the left
We have learned a lot of new information about a remarkable woman named Kate Andrew. We have two photographs (one shown here) in which Bertha appears with four other women. One of them is identified on the reverse side as Kate Andrew. Kate is clearly the centre of the group. We already knew she was an elementary-school teacher, but we now know she was also an accomplished artist and teacher of art. She attended and became an Associate of the Ontario College of Art. Born in Owen Sound in February 1872, she lived till December 1971, just two months short of her 100th birthday. She is justly celebrated as one of the Eminent Women of Grey County, in the Grey County Historical Society's publication of that name. It seems highly probable that, being six years Bertha’s senior, she was one of Bertha’s early teachers and influences in the development of her art.

Yet despite all this, one figure eludes us still. In all the material searched, in all the news of enthusiastic artistic activity, not a single reference was found to our Mr Woodhouse.


The Owen Sound Advertiser, September 20th 1895
I've saved the best for last.

It may seem a small thing, I suppose. It was only the North Grey Fall Exhibition in 1895, undoubtedly a typical small-town and rural Fall Fair, with every kind of actvity and enticement from horses to hurdles races.

But there she is, in the Owen Sound Advertiser report of September 20th 1895, announcing the winners in the competition for FINE ARTS - AMATEUR. For oil painting in three categories -- landscape, marine, and domestic -- Bertha M. Ingle.

She didn't ever stop painting, for the next 67 years.

I don't know about anyone else, but it sends shivers up and down my spine.

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