Tuesday 3 December 2013

Trafalgar Treasure

As I mentioned in an earlier entry (On Location), our Research Assistant and I recently paid a visit to Trafalgar Castle School in Whitby, Ontario. That's one of several places where Bertha May Ingle taught Art, first in 1908 - 1909, and again in 1922 - 1927. It was called Ontario Ladies' College (OLC) in those years.

Our RA came armed with camera and scanner. Before we began to pore over the School's Archives, we were treated to a delightful tour of the entire School, and she was permitted to photograph quite a few of the many fine paintings that hang on the walls throughout the building. There are plenty of portraits, of course, depicting luminaries from the School's long history; there are also a variety of paintings executed by and/or donated by alumnae and former teachers.

Main Hallway, Trafalgar Castle School
One large portrait in the main hallway seemed likely to defy all efforts to get a good image, from directly in front of it. Our RA recalls seeing surface cracks in the varnish, and unevenness over the height of the canvas, as if it was perhaps not firmly mounted. In this photo of the Main Hallway, that portrait is visible, from an extreme angle, on the left. It was very lucky that she took this photo, because when my sister saw it, she realized right away, despite the odd angle, that it resembles a much smaller painting of Bertha's that we have in our collection.

Here is that smaller painting. We immediately realized that it might be a preliminary study for the larger portrait, which would mean Bertha almost certainly painted both of them. We had never identified the distinguished woman portrayed in our version, but now we had the connection we needed. The portrait opposite in the School Hallway (there's a glimpse of it in the photo above) is identified as that of Rev Dr John James Hare, founding Principal of Ontario Ladies' College in 1874, a position he held until 1915. Could the woman be Mrs Hare, who was herself Lady Principal at one time?

Mrs J J Hare; Dr and Mrs Hare
(Whitby Online Historical
Photographs Collection)
Happily, there is a good photo of Mrs Hare on-line, in the Whitby Online Historical Photographs Collection collection. The resemblance is clear and unmistakeable. The same site has their wedding photo, taken when she was just 20.

Could we confirm with certainty that the large portrait was painted by Bertha? The answer came in an unexpected and serendipitous way. I was at the North York Library's Canadiana Collection, and decided to have a look at the 1924 Ontario Ladies' College yearbook, a volume we'd seen before but hadn't had enough time to peruse. It's special, because that year marked the 50th anniversary of the College. As I browsed, a reference to presentation of a painting caught my eye, in a description of the events of Alma Mater Day in June 1924. And then, a little further down the same page came this gratifying revelation:

"Miss Burkholder unveiled a remarkable portrait of Mrs. Hare, executed by Miss Ingle, the present Art instructor, on behalf of the Ottawa Chapter of the Trafalgar Daughters.  This portrait, declared to be a speaking likeness, will hang opposite to that of Dr. Hare, in the Main Hall."

'Miss Burkholder' was Miss Nettie Burkholder, who served as Lady Principal at OLC from 1901 to 1912 (including Bertha's first year there). She had subsequently moved to Alberta, and she returned as a special guest for the Jubilee celebration of 1924.

We still didn't know what the large portrait looked like, in detail. But fortunately our friend Bill Allen was planning a visit to Trafalgar Castle School himself. Bill is on a quest to track down and photograph as many paintings by Whitby native Florence Helena McGillivray as he can, and the School has three of them that he hadn't yet seen. He very kindly promised to photograph Mrs Hare for us, while he was there.

Bertha M Ingle:
Mrs J J Hare
Meanwhile, we took our small painting to the conservator and framer, very much wanting it to be presented it in its best light, wanting it to be something that could be exhibited. Cleaned and framed, it glows with new life. 

Bertha M Ingle:
Mrs J J Hare
(photo by Bill Allen)
Bill's visit happened in November, and the photograph arrived by email from him the following day. With his camera and tripod and lights, he can get a much more professional result than we 'snap-shotters' can. Here she is, a most impressive and pleasing portrait.

It's fascinating to compare the two, and doing so raises further questions. In our version, Mrs Hare is portrayed at a distinctly more advanced age than in the larger one. Although the poses are identical, we feel that the age difference casts doubt on the notion that it was simply a study for the large one, and was done at the same time.

Mrs Hare, née Katherine Isabella McDowell, was born in 1854. She married Dr Hare in 1874, the same year Ontario Ladies' College was founded. She is mentioned as being Lady Principal in 1894, and may have held that title in later years as well. When Bertha first taught at the College in 1908 - 1909, Mrs Hare was about 54, an age that seems very much consistent with the small portrait. We have come to believe (without any further evidence, as yet) that Bertha painted the small portrait during that year, perhaps from life.

The wording of the 1924 yearbook passage quoted above suggests to us that it was probably Miss Burkholder who had the idea, in 1923 or 1924, of having Bertha paint a larger portrait to commemorate Mrs Hare, who had died in 1922. By then the portrait of Rev Dr Hare had already been on display for several years. Brian Winter, formerly Archivist at the Whitby Archives, wrote in his History of the College:

"Commencement Day 1906 saw the presentation to the Board of Directors of an oil painting of Dr. Hare by a former student who was then assistant art director.  It now hangs in the main hall opposite a picture of Mrs. Hare presented at a later date."

Until recently, we weren't sure from that rather ambiguous passage whether the 'former student who was then assistant art director' (whom we felt was undoubtedly Florence Helena McGillivray) had simply presented the painting to the Board, or had actually painted it as well. Bill Allen has confirmed that it was indeed painted by Florence. It bears her signature, he says, though the signature appears to have been overpainted, and can be seen only by shining light on it at a suitable angle.

The painting of Dr Hare shows a man not yet very grey. It would make sense for Bertha, creating a companion portrait in 1923 or 1924, to alter her earlier composition so that Mrs Hare would be portrayed as she would have appeared at the time depicted in her husband's portrait. Perhaps Nettie Burkholder had a suitable photo of Mrs Hare at a younger age, for Bertha to work from.

We're extremely happy that both versions have survived. As ambitious and finely executed as the large portrait is, the small study has qualities that make it, in some ways, the more satisfying of the two. Mrs Hare appears more relaxed, more approachable. The impression is of a more spontaneous and friendly encounter.

There remain many portraits by Bertha May Ingle where we have not identified her subject. Many decades after she created them, identification will likely remain beyond our grasp for most. But it can happen, so we remain hopeful. The occasional happy discovery such as this one delights us all the more, and fuels our resolve to keep looking.

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