Saturday, 23 June 2012

Charles G D Roberts

Bertha left us a striking portrait of Charles G D Roberts, painted in his latter years.  It is at the centre of a puzzle that we'd dearly love to solve.  My sister has compiled the account below:

Charles G D Roberts
"Our mother used to tell us that Auntie Bert had been commissioned to paint a portrait of Charles G D Roberts, a well-known Canadian writer and literary figure, one of the ‘Confederation poets’, who was knighted in June of 1935. It was part of family lore that a picture of Bertha’s portrait had appeared in the Toronto Telegram newspaper at the time of the poet’s death, in November of 1943.

"Not having asked as many questions as we should have when we were young, we have no information on the date of this commission, nor how it might have come about. We had supposed that the arresting portrait of Roberts that we have in our collection was either the very portrait that had fulfilled the commission (somehow returned to the artist), or a preliminary version of it.

from the
Toronto Telegram
Jan 10, 1935
"Among Bertha’s papers there are only two items relating to this story, and they are both newspaper clippings. One shows a photo of Roberts wearing a hat, and is dated January 10, 1933 (his 73rd birthday). The other shows a picture of him bareheaded and turning slightly to one side. This second clipping extends greetings to Roberts on the occasion of his 75th birthday, January 10, 1935. The clipping has been verified by James Thomson to be from page 3 of the Toronto Telegram of that date. On the front, written in pencil in what we think is Bertha’s own hand, is the word “mine”, and on the back is written “my own”. We conjecture that this is probably the picture referred to in the family oral tradition.

"There’s a problem with it, though. It’s difficult to be sure, but the picture in the Telegram clipping looks more like a photograph of the man himself, rather than a photograph of a painting. The original photo, which would have been helpful, could not be found in the Telegram’s photo archives, which are now divided between the Sun newspaper archives and a special collection at York University. We know that Bertha often painted portraits from photographs, especially where sittings would have been difficult to arrange, for one reason or another. The newspaper clipping could show a photograph which she had used as a model for a painting, which she might have lent to the Telegram. In any case, the evidence of the clippings suggests that Bertha’s commissioned portrait of Roberts was painted some time in the early 1930s, very probably by the beginning of 1935, and that it may have been quite a different picture from the one we have.

"Searching the internet, DB came across a photograph of Roberts that appears on the dust jacket of Sir Charles G. D. Roberts, a Biography by Elsie Pomeroy, published in 1943. This photograph bears a striking resemblance to the painting in our collection [though DB noted that in our painting, the subject is lit from the opposite side, an interesting variation, artistically]. Pomeroy’s book gives no information whatsoever about the source of the photo (an oddity, because there is comprehensive information cited about every other photo in the book). It simply states that the photo is from 1936. If this date is correct (it may not be, but sadly there is no obvious way to verify it), it suggests that the portrait in our collection was painted later than the commissioned portrait – perhaps even years later, if the model photograph was from the biography.

"When attempting to trace the image, DB visited the Northern District Branch of the Toronto Public Library (40 Orchard View Blvd), where a copy of Pomeroy’s book resided at that time (it has since been moved to the Canadiana Reference Stacks of the North York Central Library). There was no dust jacket, but the same photo appears as the frontispiece. In an eerie twist, he found that the frontispiece picture had been scored with pencil lines, one horizontal and one vertical, each bisecting the picture, in much the same way that Bertha used to do with photographs from which she intended to make a portrait.

"We are left with yet another mystery. Was there really a commissioned portrait?  What was it  like?  Was it destroyed, or does it still exist? We are also left with a fine portrait, possibly from a later date, in which we believe the artist took much satisfaction."

Sunday, 17 June 2012

Churchville - Helping to Preserve History

Churchville is an historic village in the Credit River Valley, in the southern part of Brampton, Ontario, Canada. It was founded in 1815 by Amaziah Church, who built a gristmill there. From Churchville, the Credit River meanders southward through Meadowvale and Streetsville; remarkably, these early villages are still recognized as place names despite the suburban sprawls of Brampton and Mississauga that have threatened to engulf them. A few old streets and houses have survived in Churchville, and there is a beautifully kept old Cemetery there, where the earliest grave (1831) is that of Amaziah Church himself.

In the 19th century, the area immediately surrounding these villages was divided into farms, though there is relatively little evidence of them today. Bertha May Ingle had a great-aunt, Rachel Burton, widow of Samuel Burton, who lived on one of these farms, and Bertha visited her there as early as 1898. There were probably several visits to the Burton family over at least three decades. Old maps allow us to locate the Burton farm; it was on land immediately east of what is now Mississauga Road, just south of Highway 407.

Bertha enjoyed painting farm landscapes, and we can be sure that the locale of at least some of them was the area around Churchville. We know because Bertha mentioned painting at Churchville in letters and in personal notes, but there is another fascinating circumstance that establishes the fact in a very specific way.

In the 1930s, the businessman and historian William Perkins Bull undertook to collect a large range of historical materials related to Peel County. One aspect of his collection was a compilation of artworks documenting the pioneering spirit of Peel County's early settlers and celebrating its natural beauty. A catalogue of the Perkins Bull art collection was published in 1934, and there (on page 72) we can confirm that Bertha donated two oil paintings to the collection, both of scenes near Churchville, and said to be painted in October, 1929.

The catalogue also includes (on page 73) a black-and-white photograph of one of the paintings, entitled Autumn Leaves. Among Bertha's surviving memorabilia is a photograph that I think must be the very photo that was used to make the image in the catalogue. And we have a very similar painting of the same scene -- though it's not the same painting. In fact, Bertha painted quite a few versions of that composition.
Bertha's photo of Autumn Leaves, 1929

The exact appearance of the second painting, Autumn Sunlight, Churchville, we could only guess at ... until recently.

After Perkins Bull died in 1948, the collection of paintings became somewhat dispersed. Many were on display in a Brampton school at that time, and remained in the school till the 1960s. Others entered the care of the United Church of Canada Archives, and these now reside at Victoria University in the University of Toronto. I contacted Gillian Pearson, Curator of the University Art Collection, and I was thrilled when she reported that one of the two paintings Bertha donated is there, and has the best possible professional care. Gillian kindly sent me a photo. It is Autumn Sunlight, Churchville, so there was the added excitement of seeing a composition we hadn't ever seen before.

Autumn Sunlight, Churchville, 1929

At that time, it was in storage, and not framed. The canvas is brittle and fragile, and it needs conservation work to repair an area where paint is flaking off. But we've recently learned that it has been very suitably framed, and that a professional conservator, Heidi Sobol, is in the process of investigating its repair. Her initial exploration has determined that a possible reason for the flaking paint is that there is another painting beneath the one that is visible. The canvas will be x-rayed soon, at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, to help ascertain what the underlying painting is and determine the best conservation approach. We are very excited about this, and we are deeply grateful to all concerned who are taking such pains to rescue the painting and allow it to be seen again after all these years.

The whereabouts of Autumn Leaves is still a mystery. There has been considerable interest in recent years in re-constituting the Perkins Bull Collection, perhaps starting as early as 1984, when an exhibition was mounted in Mississauga called Peel Remembers: Artists from The Perkins Bull Collection. Through Gillian Pearson, I contacted her colleague Gerrie Loveys of the Peel Art Gallery, Museum and Archives (formerly the Peel Heritage Complex) in Brampton, and she, too, has been very responsive and helpful. However, no records of the missing painting have yet been found.

What used to be the Burton farm is now the site of a vast pharmaceutical manufacturing facility, mostly surrounded by busy modern roads. It is not easy for urbanites like me, driving by, to visualize those early days. But in museums and heritage buildings and cemeteries and artworks, we can maintain a connection to our past. The foresight of someone like William Perkins Bull in collecting the history and images of the pioneer days is something we should all be grateful for. And, happily, there are still many dedicated people who are striving to preserve these records and memories and places. We are all richer for their efforts.

P.S. If you looked at the catalogue, page 72 or 73, you might have noticed how Bertha's name was given in the Perkins Bull collection. She's called 'Bertha Maylaw Ingle', although the signatures on the pictures have the middle initial M, as was her usual practice. We also have a few of her pictures that she actually signed only as 'Maylaw'. We have no idea where this adopted name came from, nor why she decided to use it. Another mystery!
Watercolour card signed 'Maylaw'

Monday, 11 June 2012

Santa Monica

In the late summer of 1928, Bertha travelled to Santa Monica, California, to paint. Her brother John and his family, who lived there, had visited their Toronto relatives early that summer. Bertha decided to return to California with them in July, by car. The route took them through Iowa, Nebraska, and Wyoming, as evidenced by few faint pencil sketches, labelled, and by postcards Bertha mailed home from Sioux City, Iowa.

While she was in California, and in the years following her return to Toronto, she painted a collection of seaside pictures that are truly extraordinary. The bright California light, the vibrant colours, and the movement of the water combined to inspire delightful vignettes of seashore leisure. As always, she was especially attracted by the opportunity to paint children at play. She captured their unselfconscious pleasure with great sensitivity and deep affection.

(Possibly) Lindsay and Douglas Ingle
There were promising contacts and commissions for Bertha in California, but sorrow struck hard. In October 1928, her beloved brother John died suddenly, possibly from appendicitis. Just three weeks later, news came of a steep decline in her mother's health, back home. She returned to Toronto by train, and was present at Mary's death, in November. Three months later, her brother Roy's wife also died of appendicitis.

Bertha cared for her father, Robert, for many years, after Mary died. He suffered a stroke in 1933. When he accompanied Bertha on another visit to California in 1936, it appears to have done him some good. But another stroke in 1937 led to his eventual death in 1941.

Despite her sacrifice, pain, and grief in those years, she left us wonderful paintings that celebrate the joys of life.  

Saturday, 2 June 2012

By Way of Illustration

Besides teaching, artists of the day who were in need of a relatively steady source of income could turn their talents to illustration. Books, magazines, and advertising media created a considerable demand for artwork over a broad range of subjects. Bertha excelled in several styles. Happily, she left us many examples of the kind of work she could dwhen drawing or painting for purposes of illustrative art. They are quite distinct from her more 'serious' and personal art, but she brought her exceptional skills in colour and composition to the task.

The T Eaton Company

As with her other works, we have a lot of preliminary sketches as well as finished illustrations. Among Bertha's pencil sketches is a very rough Eaton's Catalogue cover design for the Golden Jubilee Anniversary edition of Fall-Winter 1919 - 1920. We don't know the circumstances surrounding it, but we do know that the Ingle family had several connections with the T Eaton Company, and perhaps directly to the Eaton family, as well.

Bertha's sisters Ethel and Kate both worked in the Eaton's department store starting in about 1902. That store was Kate's place of employment for several years, and she met her future husband there, E Stanley Lindabury (our grandfather), a Department Manager. Bertha's mother, Mary, may also have worked at Eaton's as a garment worker when she first arrived in Toronto.

As mentioned in an earlier posting (A Private View), Bertha very likely knew Emma Scott Raff in Owen Sound, in the 1890s. It was Timothy Eaton who, at the urging of his wife Margaret (a close friend and admirer of Emma), funded the original construction of Emma's Greek Temple, the Margaret Eaton School of Literature and Expression, where Bertha held her private exhibition in 1906. Emma's husband, George Gallie Nasmith, whom Bertha likely knew well, published a biography of Timothy Eaton in 1923. So, as my sister puts it, the T. Eaton Company was in a sense 'the family firm' for the Ingles.

Around the turn of the century, the Eaton's mail-order catalogue was already a Canadian institution, and in fact it remained so well into the latter half of the twentieth century. I began to look at the old Eaton's Catalogues on-line in the hopes of finding out whether Bertha's cover design sketch for the Golden Jubilee had ever been used. So far, it appears that it was not, but I discovered something else of equal interest.

Excerpt from Eaton's 1916
Spring and Summer Catalogue
Published typically twice a year, each Catalogue was filled in those days mostly with illustrative artwork, and very few photographs. Pages and pages of women's fashions, especially, relied on detailed drawings of women's faces and hairstyles, all done in a recognizable style, but astonishing in their variety.

I realized (only quite recently) that Bertha did some illustrations that are are of exactly the type and style that appeared in the Eaton's catalogues:

They are rather better than average, in my opinion. We don't know whether they were ever published in an Eaton's catalogue (or anywhere else), but they might well have been. So here's a challenge for someone: go through as many of the old catalogues as can be found, and see if any of Bertha's 'faces' can be found. I may offer a small cash prize.

The 1919 and 1921 Toronto City Directories list Bertha as being employed by James E Laughlin, whose workshop or studio was in the downtown Arcade Building, a then-fashionable four-storey shopping centre that stretched between Yonge Street and Victoria Street, just south of Queen Street. The Directories tell us there were at least two other women artists employed by James E Laughlin there. We don't know what their work was, and we'd love to find out more about it.

James Everett Laughlin was an illustrator whose efforts, as my sister has discovered, can be seen on-line in the ebook version of Lieutenant-Governors of Upper Canada and Ontario 1792 - 1899, by D B Read, QC. Laughlin illustrated that book with full-page portraits of 22 of the subjects.

Upon examining the book, my sister realized that the style of Laughlin's Lieutenant-Governor illustrations bears a certain resemblance to that of the Eaton's Catalogue illustrations. She wondered if the James E Laughlin workshop might conceivably have had contracts to do commercial artwork for Eaton's, and that Bertha might have been hired on for that purpose, around 1919 or perhaps shortly before. Perhaps she did the 'faces' shown above while working for Laughlin. It's purely speculation, at this stage, but not such a far-fetched notion.

The Canadian Red Cross Junior Magazine

By contrast, we can be completely certain about Bertha's role in another publishing arena. Especially close to Bertha's heart, as subjects in illustration as well as in portraiture, were children. She loved to make images of children, and to create images that children would enjoy. Both these interests were served in the work she did for the Canadian Red Cross Junior magazine, in a long association that lasted from 1922 to 1949. We have many of the magazines themselves, as well as sketches and finished 'original' pieces.

There is always great charm and a high level of artistry in even the simplest of Bertha's works as an illustrator. We may never frame very many of them and hang them on walls, but they are treasures, nonetheless, and we are delighted to have them.