Thursday 23 September 2021


Recently we have had a particularly gratifying result in our ongoing work with restorer and artist Guennadi Kalinine and the McMaster Gallery in Dundas, Ontario. An Ingle painting that dates from around 1907, a year in which the artist visited Québec during the summer with a group of her colleagues, has been dramatically rescued – pretty much from the back of a closet, where it had been stored for many years. The painting is in oils on canvas, showing a narrow sunlit street with a ‘parked’ horse and cart and a sprinkling of colourful pedestrian traffic. At the far end of the street is a wide set of stairs.

It was framed for the first time quite a while ago, probably in the 1960s. That frame did not suit the painting well, and now looks dated and dingy. In the 1960s, the painting was already obscured behind five decades of dust and dirt, and the varnish was discoloured, but as far as we know, it wasn’t cleaned at that time. The previously unmounted canvas was glued to a piece of artist’s canvas board, which became oddly warped in the ensuing decades, possibly in part because it fit too tightly into the frame.

Guennadi set to work. He carefully and gradually flattened the board, and then worked his usual magic with cleaning and revarnishing. At the Gallery, Francis applied his artistic insights to help us quickly find the perfect frame. Now the painting glows with all its original light and space and depth, and in its new, satisfyingly complementary frame it is a handsome sight to behold.

The question arose, as it has for so many Ingle works, of whether we could deduce the exact location depicted in the painting. Heritage areas of Québec are well preserved and greatly treasured, so it seemed likely that the street in question would still exist. Luckily, Bertha left brief notes listing a few of the places she’d visited in Québec, and one of these was the rue du Petit-Champlain.

That street does indeed still exist and is a hugely popular destination for visitors to Vieux-Québec. It is a few short blocks long, straight and very narrow. A pedestrian-only thoroughfare now, it is packed with cafés and tourism-oriented boutique shops. It runs in a north-south direction. There is an impressive stairway leading upwards from the north end of the street.

Bertha also left us several bound sketchbooks, including one which has many references to Québec and must have been her constant companion during her time there. The second page has a rough pencil sketch of a horse and cart which appears to have been a preliminary study for the oil painting – same position, same angle.

On the first page of the book is a sketch of a street that is long, straight and narrow, and seems to be viewed from a height. On a distant horizon is a structure that appears to be a church or a monument.

We found a Wikimedia photo of present-day rue du Petit-Champlain that looks southward (the direction is confirmed by the shadows). In the high-resolution version it’s possible to see the steeple and bell tower of a distant church on the horizon, strongly suggesting that Bertha’s page one sketch was of a similar view, probably from high above the street on the stairs at the north end. There is a church today that stands in that direct line of sight: Église catholique Saint-David situated in Lévis, QC, south of the St Lawrence River.

What about the buildings shown in the oil painting? Might any of them still be there? Here we turned to Google Street View and strolled (virtually) along rue du Petit-Champlain northward toward the stairs. There is indeed a close match in shape between the south end of an old building and the reddish profile in the painting. The old building is at the bottom end of the Funiculaire du Vieux-Québec, an electrified cable railway inaugurated in 1879 to take people up and down the steep slope to the west of the street.

Taken all together, these clues strongly suggest that the oil painting, along with Bertha’s smaller watercolour version of the same scene, are indeed depictions of the rue du Petit-Champlain.

The stairway at the north end has a long history. There have been landings or stairs there since about 1680, initially intended to make safer what was previously a very steep footpath. In the nineteenth century wooden stairs were built, but by 1880 they had become famously dangerous, so a three-ramp iron stairway was built in 1893, and that’s the one Bertha would have encountered. That stairway was completely renovated in the late 1960s as part of the restoration of Place-Royale; there is a plaque dated 1971 that recognizes that project. Since then the stairway has been officially known as Éscalier Casse-Cou (Breakneck Stairs), adopting a nickname that was given to the earlier nineteenth century version – in London travel guides, no less (trying to discourage visitors?)

It proved highly worthwhile to pursue the history of the stairs! On the official Ville de Québec
website page about them, there’s a postcard image from about 1910 that truly clinches our identification of the locale of the paintings. Details of the buildings’ façades and roof lines can be matched up quite closely. We're left with little doubt that they show the same place, and we can title the paintings with confidence.


  1. Great sleuthing, D! Many thanks for sharing.

  2. Beautiful painting, I love the setting ,the colours and the lighting , I have been to Rue du petit-champlain several times, it's a lovely area of Quebec City