Saturday, 28 April 2012

A Private View

It was probably in 1906 that Bertha May Ingle presented a 'private view' of oil paintings in the Principal's Studio of the Margaret Eaton School of Literature and Expression. We have the invitation card and catalogue, giving the date as Saturday December 15th (without a year). The catalogue lists twenty paintings by title and price.

We didn't know anything much about the Margaret Eaton School, but armed with our newly-learned research methods, we began to uncover some of its remarkable story.

The Lillian Massey Building,
University of Toronto
Our mother thought the School might have been in a building that still stands on Queen's Park, just south of Bloor Street West in Toronto. It's a very fine neo-classical structure, which now is called The Lillian Massey Building and houses the University of Toronto's Centre for Medieval Studies and the Department of Classics. Well, that wasn't where the School was, it turns out, but we can see now why she thought it might have been.

The Margaret Eaton School
 of Literature and Expression
In fact, the Margaret Eaton School of Literature and Expression was built on North Street, just south of Bloor Street West. The building was completed in 1906, and the School officially opened in January 1907. It was designed to be pretty much an exact copy of a Greek Temple, and it quickly acquired that nickname among Torontonians. Its design reflected the classically-inspired educational philosophy and passion of its founding Principal, Emma Scott Raff. The School was a strong positive force in support of the educational aspirations of women students in Toronto, especially in the performing arts, for two decades, before merging with Victoria College. But the original building itself had a less happy history. Within a few years of the School's opening, North Street was joined up with (and thus became re-named as) Bay Street, and the widening of the thoroughfare at that time required that the porticoed front of the Temple be removed. It survived in that violated state for several years more, even after the Margaret Eaton School moved to Yonge Street, but it eventually succumbed to the inevitable as Bay Street grew wider still, necessitating its demolition. This blog has the story in more detail: A brief history of the Margaret Eaton School in Toronto.

Pumpkin Patch by Bertha May Ingle
(signed Maylaw)
But in 1906 it was new and exciting. From the titles alone, we don't know much about the paintings that Bertha exhibited, and we don't know whether any were sold. There is one exception, however: Pumpkin Patch. We have a small watercolour on textured paper with that title, and we strongly suspect it is very like the oil painting. It was probably executed somewhat later in Bertha's life, and was perhaps intended as a card design.

Why did Bertha exhibit at the School? We thought there were probably connections between the School and the Knowles studio, but my sister has recently discovered that Bertha also very likely knew Emma Scott Raff in Owen Sound, in the 1890s. Perhaps holding an exhibition was a requirement connected with her work at the Knowles studio and the Westbourne School.

Following up Emma's story led us to another fascinating link to family legend. I had long understood that Bertha was somehow acquainted with Dr James Naismith, the Canadian who is famous as the inventor of the game of basketball. But we learned that Emma Scott Raff's second husband (they were married in 1916) was Colonel George Gallie Nasmith, a truly remarkable man in his own right. He was a Toronto chemist and medical professional who, among many accomplishments, suggested the first practical defence against gas attacks in the trenches of Europe during World War I. He was awarded the CMG medal by King George V. This, surely, was more likely Auntie Bert's 'Dr Nasmith'.

Replica of Apollo and Muses by Bertel Thorvaldsen
I have a replica of a famous frieze-in-relief by Bertel Thorvaldsen, known as Apollo and Muses, that belonged to Auntie Bert. The story I remember was that it was a gift from Dr Naismith. From the pictures of Emma's Greek Temple, I think we can safely speculate that Col George Gallie Nasmith was a much more likely donor than Dr James Naismith.

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Toronto ... and How One Thing Leads to Another

When the Ingle family moved to Toronto around 1901, Bertha's opportunities to develop her art through formal study expanded.

By then in her early twenties, she had certainly become an artist, had won prizes for her pictures, in Owen Sound, and knew it was her true vocation. We believe she likely had art lessons in Owen Sound from an Ontario-born American artist who had a studio there, Harry Valentine Woodhouse.

But Toronto offered more. Within a short time, she became a student of Farquhar McGillivray Knowles, a renowned artist and teacher as well as a prominent and important figure in the art world and in Toronto society. Within a few years, Bertha had become an associate of the Knowles studio, and had taken on teaching assignments of her own in the Westbourne School for Girls, where McGillivray Knowles was Art Director. Naturally we were curious to find out where the Westbourne School and the Knowles studio were located, and what they were like.

It happened that at about that time, a long-time close friend (and staunch pillar of the Genealogical Research community hereabouts) suggested we might be interested in a course that was being given regularly, twice a year, in the University of Toronto's School of Continuing Studies. It was called Your City, Your House, Your Family. It was taught by James F S Thomson, and is still being offered as Toronto's Past: Your City, Your House, Your Family.

It was a revelation! Advertised as a course in the resources and methods for doing research into genealogy and the history of buildings and neighbourhoods, it is in fact much more than that. In both its underlying philosophy and its practical applications, it emphasizes the interconnectedness of all these areas of investigation. We learned (and saw first hand, right away) how a broad enquiry that encompasses people, structures, and neighbourhoods can be much richer than a narrower search into any one of these. Pursuing all these aspects, following the tangents and the curiosities, almost always turns up unexpected insights and delights. James Thomson goes above-and-beyond in helping students get started on their specific personal research interests, using their personal projects as the practical illustrations for the class.

My sister proposed our questions about the Westbourne School and the Knowles studio as an illustrative enquiry for the course:

The Ingle family moved from Owen Sound to Toronto around 1901, and Bertha is said (in her obituary) to have studied with Farquhar McGillivray Knowles, RCA, and become an Associate of his studio. We know from a photograph that she did some teaching at Westbourne School on Bloor Street West. There is some information about Mr. and Mrs. Knowles and their studio at

The obituary of Mr. Knowles says: "For many years the Knowles studio on Bloor St. West, converted from a luxurious stable of an earlier day, was a Saturday night rendezvous for lovers of painting, music and literature. When Mr. and Mrs. Knowles removed to New York in 1915 they were banqueted by a party of hundreds of Toronto friends."

I have found that in the 1911 census, Mr. and Mrs. Knowles were listed in a "house" at 340 Bloor Street West, and the Westbourne School, principal Margery Curlette, was also at 340 Bloor Street West. Later in the Toronto Blue Book for 1913, Mr. and Mrs. Knowles were at 278 Bloor Street West, and so was the Westbourne School.

We'd be interested in the history of this property or properties, and in where the studio was.

We soon learned that not only were streets frequently re-named in Toronto's early history, but the properties on them were sometimes re-numbered, and not necessarily in systematic ways. James Thomson was able to help us establish that the numbering on the north (even-numbered) side of Bloor Street West was changed some time in the early 1910s, so the addresses 340 and 278 Bloor Street applied, in fact, to the same property at different times. And in so doing, he pointed us to several amazingly useful resources, one of which was the Fire Insurance Plans of the City*, which are gratifyingly detailed plans of buildings and other urban features. On Sheet 386 of the Fire Insurance Plans, 1914 - 1918 (found in the microfilm collection at York University's Scott Library), we can see that the studio was located behind a larger building, the Westbourne School, by then re-numbered from 340 to 278 Bloor Street West. Zoom in to the lower right-hand corner.

The School building itself was a formidable structure. There are photos of it in Toronto Society Blue Book Directories advertisements, for example in 1908 and 1913. The photos in those two ads show glimpses of the Knowles studio, behind the main building. Below is another early ad, the photo taken from a different angle:

My sister recognized that Jack Batten had included a photo of this very house in his book on The Annex (it appears at the start of chapter 3, and also in a cropped form on the cover), observing that it was one of the earliest in Toronto designed by renowned architect E J Lennox, who also designed Toronto's Old City Hall, Casa Loma for Sir Henry Pellatt, and many other notable Toronto landmarks.

Searching the Toronto City Directories, my sister also established that the property was occupied by James Crowther in 1897; by the Westbourne School and the Knowles Studio in 1914; and by James Crowther again in 1917 (with 'Havergal Preparatory' at the rear). We think Mr Crowther must have been the owner throughout this period, leasing it to the School and to McGillivray Knowles for several years.

Sadly (many would say), the E J Lennox-designed house at 278 Bloor Street West has been demolished, long ago. We hope to find evidence of when exactly that was. Tantalizingly, it has occurred to us that the house may still have been standing when my sister and I were students in the area nearby in the early 1960s, in which case we would have walked past it hundreds of times. How disappointed we are that at that time we didn't know enough to look for it. Note to all younger potential family historians: Start Now!

* And Another Thing ...

I mentioned tangents! The same Fire Insurance Plans elucidated something I'd been interested in for quite a while, namely the exact location and configuration of the baseball stadium at Hanlan's Point on the Toronto Islands. It was there on September 5th of 1914 that Babe Ruth hit his first home run as a professional baseball player (at least, in a game that counted), and also, incidentally, pitched a one-hitter for the Providence Grays against the Toronto Maple Leafs of the Triple-A International League. Those are the facts.

But there are always legends, as well, where the Babe is concerned. One legend has it that the home run ball splashed into Lake Ontario (which many people believe was practically lapping at the back of the right field wall) and that the ball may still be there. Another says the ball was actually discovered in the water in the 1960s and eventually put on display; and that it was then stolen by a baseball purist who ran away and threw it back into the Lake, "where it belongs".

As much as I would love to believe the story, it's almost surely poppycock. The 1914 - 1918 Fire Insurance Plan, sheet 178A, along with a photo of that part of the ball park I recently discovered, taken from the City of Toronto Archives, show that beyond the right field fence were:
  • quite a few rows of open spectator seats;
  • a covered structure called the Old Mill amusement ride;
  • a roller coaster structure built of wooden trestlework (both these rides part of the Hanlan's Point Amusement Park); and
  • a walkway complete with row of trees.
It would have taken a truly prodigious blast, perhaps of 400 feet or more, to clear all that and find water, a highly improbable feat in the 'dead ball era'. If it had actually been done, the news reports of the game would surely have said so, but as far as I know, none do.

Veteran sportswriter Lou Cauz has reportedly said that he once talked to an elderly retired clergyman, then in his 90s, who told Lou he was in the right field seats that day, and that's where Babe's homer landed.

Inevitably, however, the legend persists! Some of the folks who believe it also say Babe hit another home run into Lake Ontario in 1930, from Maple Leaf Stadium (which was at the foot of Bathurst Street). This is even crazier. The nearest water, beyond the straightaway centre field fence, was the Western Gap, easily 650 feet or more from home plate.

In the photo, Maple Leaf Stadium is in the left foreground, and Hanlan's Point Stadium can be seen, too, way off in the distance.

Thursday, 19 April 2012


Happily, most of the Bertha May Ingle artworks we have are in very good condition, despite their age and the highly variable storage conditions they have endured over the years. But many are in trouble, and need rescuing.

What to do? Where to begin?

Old paper. Brittle canvas. Surface damage. Decades of dirt. Perhaps mildew, in a few cases, obscuring the paint almost completely.

Much depends on the material a work was executed on. As struggling artists have always had to do, Bertha drew and painted on whatever materials were available and affordable. She often had proper artists' sketchbooks for drawing with pencil, and good paper for watercolours, but she also had to rely on many other kinds of lesser-quality paper, especially for her planning sketches and experimental studies. The latter she probably didn't intend or expect to last anyway, but fortunately for us she kept quite a lot of them. They are very much worth having, now, because they can tell us things about how she worked, and often provide clues as to names and dates and locations of other works. Many are also fine works of art, in themselves. But in many cases the poorer and older papers are deteriorating, yellowing, becoming brittle.

She painted oil paintings on canvas and on masonite, as well as on paper-based board of varying thickness and quality. Most of these materials have survived the years rather well.

[Masonite, I have learned, is still sold at art supply stores and is valued by artists as an archival material. When it is manufactured only from wood, without glues, oils, or other additives, it is a long-lasting, stable material very suitable for painting. This web site discusses its history and properties: ]

Pictures that have been displayed on walls in homes from the earliest years often have the to-be-expected accumulation of dust, grease from cooking, candle smoke, and tobacco smoke. Those that have been stored away, even if not in the best conditions, are at least more likely to have fairly clean surfaces. But they may have suffered from mechanical damage and the effects of excessive moisture in damp basements.

In our fantasy world, just after we have 'won the Lottery', we would apply the best and latest conservation methods to every work, starting tomorrow; we would clean every surface, de-acidify every piece of paper, restore every bit of flaked-off paint. But, in practice, we must make choices, set priorities.

An essential first priority has been to improve and stabilize the conditions in which the works are stored. All works on paper or board are now in archival sleeves, laid flat in acid-free museum boxes, and stored in an environment that is not subject to wide swings of temperature and humidity. Not quite Museum-standard controlled conditions, to be sure, but a great deal better than in the past.

Certain paintings we decided to have professionally cleaned right away, particularly where there appeared to be surface mildew as well as dust and dirt. They included a few portraits that we sensed could be very special, yet had become almost invisible. I took five of them to a Toronto gallery where they have an arrangement with a skilled and experienced conservationist. I was hopeful, but also rather skeptical about how much could be done. It would take a few weeks, they said.

I shall not soon forget the emotion I felt when the results were unveiled. Treasures that had seemed to us to be lost, with no hope of recovery, suddenly lay before me on the table, glowing in their original colours, miraculously reborn from what had seemed certain oblivion. No, I shall not soon forget that feeling.

We'll keep working at this part of the project, identifying the works most in need, most artistically deserving of attention, most suitable for purposes of exhibition, most important for representing her work in particular times and places. We've contacted experts, explored some of the treatments that are available. Choices aren't easy, and between us we probably won't fully agree on the priorities, but the direction we must go is clear. Onwards!

Tuesday, 17 April 2012


In my early childhood, I was aware that Auntie Bert was a painter. There were several of her pictures on the walls at home, many more at her own house, and she painted when she accompanied us on a family summer vacation at Oliphant. But I had little appreciation of the role of art in her life, or the scale of what she had accomplished. Perhaps I assumed that everyone had a relative who painted, and it was 'no big deal'.

After her death in 1962, I came to understand that there were boxes of her work in storage in our parents' basement and closets, inherited by our mother. No-one had ever had occasion to do much with them.

When it came time, a few years ago, for Mum to move out of the family home in Toronto that we'd occupied since the 1960s, it became necessary to look more closely at what was there. My sister and I decided we should make it a priority to look at Auntie Bert's work properly. Retirement from our 'day jobs' (a gradual process in my sister's case, still not complete) eventually afforded the time required. We reckoned there might be as many as a couple of hundred works. We got out scanner and camera, and began.

The reality was quite different, and was a staggering revelation. The count kept mounting higher, as we sifted through more and more boxes. Counting every preliminary drawing and sketch as well as finished works, there are over a thousand pieces. And this doesn't include works that she sold or donated to others during her lifetime, for which we have only scant records.

More important than the number, we acquired a new appreciation for how brilliant an artist she was. And we established what she loved to paint most: landscapes and portraits, especially of children. Most often she worked in oils, or in pencil on paper; often in watercolours; less often in other media. Thanks to my sister's growing expertise in genealogical and historical research, we were also able to increase our understanding of the events and influences in Auntie Bert's life, and to delve into the family stories and legends about her.

Most important of all, we came to realize that we have a previously unsuspected 'buried treasure'. We realized that Bertha May Ingle was an artist of extraordinary quality, whose name and work deserve to be much better known than they are. Trying to bring that about is the task we have set ourselves.

Many people we know, including new friends who are professionally knowledgable about art, have viewed her works on the web site or directly or both. We are greatly encouraged that reactions are always very positive -- welcome reassurance that our assessment is not due merely to family bias. We're always delighted to hear from anyone who wishes to comment or enquire.

Sunday, 15 April 2012

A Labour of Love

My siblings and I have inherited an enormous responsibility and a great privilege: the task of preserving, organizing, and eventually bringing into public view the wonderful artworks of our beloved great-aunt, Bertha May Ingle (1878 - 1962).

Bertha May Ingle - a self-portrait
Bertha's childhood was spent in farming and small-town environments, but she lived most of her creative life in or near Toronto, Ontario, Canada. We knew her in her elder years, there, as 'Auntie Bert': a strong, independent, feisty, kind, and generous woman. It was always a special treat to visit her.

She loved the outdoors, and captured natural scenes of great variety with consummate artistry. She was equally accomplished in portraying people, whether with a few deft brush strokes in a landscape, or in any of her hundreds of portraits. Among the portraits, those of children are especially remarkable.

This blog will provide a means of reporting our progress. Many of our family and friends and supporters are already aware of the web site we have compiled, where her biography and images of her works can be found: Bertha M Ingle - an artist to celebrate. There, our visitors can see, learn, and leave comments and questions. But that site is only a beginning.

We have made considerable strides, over several years, in improving the storage conditions of the works, and in applying conservation to those most in need. Much, much more needs to be done. Please watch this blog, as the journey proceeds.