Wednesday, 7 September 2016

Connecting the Dots

In the decades-old puzzles known as ‘connect the dots’, the dots are sequentially numbered. Traditionally they are for children, who learn to reveal a mystery picture by finding and joining the dots in the proper sequence. Recently more difficult versions intended for adults have become popular as well. One might say that exploring family history is like 'connect the dots’  – except that few dots have numbers, and many dots are missing or hidden, at least at the outset.

It’s always important to distinguish between that which can be known with a degree of certainty based on documentary and physical evidence, and that which is more speculative. I was reminded of this when my partner and I visited the Markham Museum recently. In addition to the fine new Museum building, there is a large outdoor area where the ‘exhibits' are a variety of heritage buildings representing various periods of Markham’s history, furnished and presented just as they would have been back in their day. Among the exhibits are several houses, a Baptist Church from 1848 (moved to the Museum site literally brick by brick), a sawmill, a General Store, a railway station and railway cars. We had the special pleasure of being given a full tour by a friend of ours who works there. As always we had the benefits of her wide knowledge and her sparkling enthusiasm; in addition, she was scrupulously careful to distinguish between dates and names and other details that are well-established on the historical record, and those that are less certain.

In our exploration of Bertha M Ingle’s life and work, we face the same need. But speculation and guesswork should certainly not be disallowed. We should treat intuition in the manner of scientific hypotheses, ideas that help to guide the design of experiments or the search for historical information.

As an example, I’ve mentioned in earlier postings the two paintings, both Peel County landscapes, that Bertha M Ingle donated to the William Perkins Bull Collection in the early 1930s. We’ve long puzzled over how that donation came about, and what connections Bertha may have had with other artists represented in the Collection. We’re pretty sure she knew a few of them. Or might it have had to do with her Burton family cousins, who owned a farm near Churchville, where the scenes are thought to be located, and with whom Bertha kept in touch through the years? Could it have come about because of the interest and support given by Sir Charles G D Roberts to William Perkins Bull and his endeavours?

Birch Trees and Autumn Sunlight, Churchville
at Victoria University
photo courtesy of Gillian Pearson
One of those two landscapes, Autumn Sunlight, Churchville, is now in the collection of Victoria University, University of Toronto. Recently we learned that, following the conservation work completed in 2014, it has been very nicely hung in a reception area that is part of the Principal’s Office in the historic old Victoria College building, a busy yet comfortable location where it can be enjoyed by many. It shares a space with a fine landscape painting, Birch Trees, by Addison Winchell Price, also a contributor to the Perkins Bull Collection (perhaps with this very painting). Addison Price lived much of his life in Port Credit, so his inclusion in the Collection is easy to understand.

A Collection of Works by
Florence Helena McGillivray
photo courtesy of W C Allen
Another contributor was Florence Helena McGillivray. I have mentioned her before as well, and I also referred to the major project being undertaken by Bill Allen to research and document her life and work. In recent years he has sought out and photographed hundreds of works by Florence, every single one he could find, in fact. The big news is that Bill has now produced a beautiful ‘coffee-table’ format book of ~300 pages,  A Collection of Works by Florence Helena McGillivray, in which all the photos have been included, all printed in full colour, a monumental achievement. It’s for sale from the author for $120. Anyone interested in acquiring a copy may contact Bill at wca55@sympatico.ca  He’s now at work on the next phase, a full-length biography.

Florence and Bertha were probably well acquainted, we suspect. The arrival of Bill Allen’s book prompted my sister to look again at the evidence for such an acquaintance (the dots, so to speak). They both had teaching positions at Ontario Ladies’ College (OLC) in Whitby, Ontario and at Pickering College in Newmarket, Ontario during the years between 1908 to 1913. Their assignments at these Colleges were likely in contiguous years, rather than overlapping, and they likely performed similar teaching roles. Also, Florence was a friend of Norma Wright, an art teacher at OLC just prior to Bertha’s longer teaching assignment there that began in 1922.

In June of 1924, Bertha’s large portrait of Mrs J J Hare was unveiled at OLC, joining Florence’s earlier portrait of Dr Hare (presented in 1906) in the main hall. According to the 1924 OLC yearbook, Bertha’s painting was presented by Miss Burkholder "on behalf of the Ottawa Chapter of the Trafalgar Daughters", an organization of which Florence was President in the early 1920s.

Bertha did not keep many paintings by other artists, but she did keep one signed work by Florence, a lovely watercolour called A Georgian Bay Evening. She also kept a small oil painting by Thomas Garland Greene, who was Director of Art at OLC during her teaching assignment there in the 1920s, and with whom she was certainly acquainted thereby.

All the evidence is admittedly circumstantial, the possibilities speculative. We’d love to discover more about this and other possible connections between Bertha M Ingle and the many other artists active in Ontario in those days. 

Bertha May Ingle:
Quebec street scene c. 1907

photo from Waddingtons
In January we had a pleasant surprise when an oil painting of Bertha’s, previously unknown to us, was offered in an online auction. It’s a sunny streetscape, almost certainly from Quebec (~1907), and is beautifully executed. Even better, it attracted active attention in the auction and there was some spirited bidding.

Its eventual buyer was Jon Dellandrea, an art historian and member of the Board of the Art Canada Institute (ACI).  He contacted us soon afterwards, sharing his enthusiasm for the painting, and letting us know that he is doing research into the lives and work of two other artists who lived and worked in Canada, Francis Fitz Roy Dixon (1856-1914) and William Firth MacGregor (1896-1979). MacGregor, it turns out, contributed fourteen paintings to the Perkins Bull Collection, and may have been a key person in its creation.

I’ve also become aware of another possible Toronto connection, as yet unexplored. Samuel Stevenson Finlay, a longtime art teacher at Northern Vocational School and at other Toronto schools, was an Irish-born artist who is given credit in the Founder’s Foreward of the Perkins Bull Collection Catalogue for being a major contributor of his time and energy to the project, as well as a painting called Dracass Mill, Streetsville (also on display now at Victoria University). Sam Finlay, as it happens, was the grandfather of a good friend of mine from high school and University days, Stephen Finlay Archer. Steve is writing a series of four historical action novels (the first, Searchers, is already in print) based on the Irish revolutionary period of the early years of the twentieth century, in which Sam Finlay is a key character.

Sometimes it seems the dots go on forever ...






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