Thursday 19 December 2013

Gunships Aren't Roses

Bertha M Ingle: Ships at harbour
There’s a painting of Bertha’s that we believe we have come to understand better in recent months. It’s a small sketch in oils that shows ships at harbour. It has an unsettled and unsettling quality, its ambience anything but calm.

Bertha grew up in Owen Sound, an important port city, and lived most of her adult life in Toronto. She travelled to Vancouver and to Santa Monica. She would have seen harbours and ships in many places. We’ve never been certain where this painting comes from. But perhaps it can be pinned down after all.
Bertha M Ingle: Roses

F McGillivray Knowles:
In Time of Peace, 1907
Bertha’s most influential teacher in Toronto was Farquhar McGillivray Knowles, a prominent artist and member of Toronto Society. Bertha studied at and became an Associate of his Studio, soon after arriving in Toronto, and at various times she taught Art at places where he was Art Director, such as the Westbourne School for Girls and the Ontario Ladies’ College. As an artist of considerable renown, McGillivray Knowles was (and still is) well known for his interest and skills in representing ships and marine subjects generally. An example is a large oil painting called In Time of Peace, 1907.  It depicts battleships at harbour. The painting was exhibited in the 36th Annual Exhibition of the Ontario Society Of Artists (OSA) in February - March 1908, from which it was purchased by the Government of Ontario, in whose hands it still resides. According to the book The Ontario Collection by Fern Bayer, a published review of that Exhibition indicated the locale of In Time of Peace to be Quebec City.

F McGillivray Knowles:
HMS Indomitable Leaving Quebec
There’s another somewhat similar painting by McGillivray Knowles, not quite as easy to find on-line, called HMS Indomitable leaving Quebec. This one was reproduced in Maclean’s Magazine of September 1913 as part of an article about Mr and Mrs Knowles and their Bloor Street West Studio  -  an article kindly located for us by James F S Thomson, at the time we were taking his excellent course at the University of Toronto's School of Continuing Studies (Toronto's Past: Your City, Your House, Your Family).

There are points of similarity between this Quebec painting and Bertha’s sketch, we feel, such as the shape of the distant hills and the general composition. They have caused us to wonder whether Bertha’s painting might also come from Quebec. We know she visited there at least once, as a member of a group of artists who were all painting and seeking commissions.

Just when was HMS Indomitable in Quebec, and why? Exploring the answers to these questions has opened up new possibilities in our speculations about Bertha’s travels. Most notably, HMS Indomitable made a voyage to Quebec in July 1908, when she was brand new. She was commissioned for the trip in June 1908 ("before she was fully complete", according to the Wikipedia article). It was for a very special occasion indeed, and she carried a very special passenger. She brought no less a personage than the Prince of Wales (who in 1911 would become King George V) to participate in the tercentenary celebration of Champlain's founding of Quebec in 1608. The Prince was greeted by thousands of spectators in addition to the formal welcoming party, when Indomitable steamed into the harbour on the afternoon of 22 July.

This celebration was no intimate gathering, but a multi-national gala on the grandest scale, an event unsurpassed in Canada till Montreal’s Expo 67. England, France, and the United States of America each had a major presence, and collectively they filled the St Lawrence River below the City with an impressive array of warships and other craft. The elaborate celebrations on land lasted two weeks, and included a large-scale fully-costumed multi-act Pageant on land and water, comprising re-enactments of Champlain’s arrival, key battles, and other notable events. People thronged to Quebec in their thousands to see the spectacles. The three visiting nations, former adversaries, somehow were able to collaborate and join forces to honour the tricentennial in the most spectacular possible way. It was an organizational and political tour de force, yet one which is little remembered in the annals of this country's history. It is recalled and described in detail in the fascinating book by H V Nelles, The Art of Nation-building: Pageantry and Spectacle at Quebec's Tercentenary.

Nelles writes that about a half-dozen Canadian painters were officially invited to come and record their impressions of the events. Mr McGillivray Knowles might well have been one of them, and it would have been especially fitting, since his mother had been born in Quebec. HMS Indomitable sailed for home at first light on the morning of 29 July, after a week in port, returning the Prince of Wales to England. It was that departure that Knowles captured in his painting.

Postmark on Bertha's postcard
Did Bertha paint her oil sketch at Quebec, at about that same time? We have long believed that she went to Quebec in the summer of 1907. Might she also have accompanied McGillivray Knowles and others the following year, to attend this extravaganza of a lifetime? Might we be mistaken about 1907? We reviewed the evidence. Apart from family oral tradition, there is just one dated document, a postcard with a photo of the Champlain Market, sent by Bertha from Quebec to her family in Toronto. It says nothing of celebrations, but it does clearly establish that she was there with a group of artists who were trying to find work. The postmark date is 22 July, and the writing includes the word ‘Monday’ as a sort of marginal note. The postmark year is very faint and indistinct, unfortunately. It does look most like ’07, and 22 July 1907 was indeed a Monday.

Is it possible the card was sent in 1908? The date 22 July 1908 was a Wednesday (and the very day of the arrival of the Prince of Wales). We think it unlikely that Bertha would wait two days, to post a card on Wednesday that she had written on Monday, but it’s not impossible. And, tantalizingly, there are spots of paint on the card that look as if they might be the same as colours in the oil sketch.

Postmark from 1907 found on-line
I decided to try searching the web for images of 1907 Quebec postmarks, and somewhat to my surprise I found quite a few. Those that most closely resemble the one on Bertha’s postcard strengthened the conclusion that the card was from 1907, because the faint impression of what should be the downstroke of the ‘7' is in exactly the right place. We wondered if another source of corroboration might come from the Toronto address to which the card was mailed, which was on Euclid Avenue. From the City of Toronto Directories (which were published in January of each year), we determined that the Ingles were living at Trinity Square at the start of 1907, but at Euclid Avenue by the start of 1908. A different postcard, mailed home by Bertha’s sister Ettie, confirms that they were there on 5 August 1907. So the address doesn’t really settle the issue conclusively; neither year can be ruled out on that basis.

I feel 1907 is the more likely date for our Quebec postcard. Bertha may have been there in 1908 as well. The two McGillivray Knowles paintings would appear to confirm that there were battleships present in both years. Whichever year it was, I believe that the sight disturbed her greatly, that she did not see in those massive objects the majestic display of military might; she saw, instead, forces of destruction and chaos. Her little sketch, I believe, expresses her revulsion, even anger.

One of the main events of the tercentenary celebration was a formal presentation on The Plains of Abraham. A huge gathering of militiamen and sailors from all the participating countries were assembled, as many as fifteen thousand altogether. They watched the Prince of Wales present the title deed to Governor-General Earl Grey, along with a large sum of money contributed to by all four countries and the Empire, with the express intent that the Plains be designated forever a 'shrine of union and peace' where 'two contending races won equal and imperishable glory'.

Bertha M Ingle: The Plains of Abraham
Bertha painted another picture that in family oral tradition depicts The Plains of Abraham. If this is true, it may also reveal something of her view of the mechanisms of combat, though in a very different way than the painting of the battleships. There is something that could be a cannon lying derelict and abandoned, off to one side, while domestic life, washing hanging out to dry in ordinary back yards, has claimed the main ground, upstage centre. A far less ostentatious way to portray union and peace, but telling nonetheless.

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