Thursday, 11 October 2012

Lady with Violin

We've long recognized that there must be many works of Bertha's that were either given or sold to others during her lifetime, and probably a few more shortly after her death, as the result of efforts by her sister, Kate. Every once in a while we come across such a work, and it never fails to be a thrilling moment.

It happened a short while ago, when we received a note in the Visitor Feedback section of our web site, Bertha M Ingle - an artist to celebrate. Our visitor tells us that she purchased a lovely oil painting by Bertha last year, at a small local auction in Chilliwack, British Columbia. It depicts a woman holding a violin, something that is unique as far as we know in Bertha's oeuvre. The owner wonders whether we have any idea who the woman might be.

It's a relatively large painting, executed in oils on board of some kind, signed Bertha M Ingle, and nicely framed. It's much taller than it is wide, and shows the figure full length: a youngish, slender woman in a long gown and a matching hairband. The face is not painted in sharp detail, but in a muted manner, slightly indistinct. It may not have been intended primarily as a portrait. The violin is held at her waist; the bow hangs vertically from her hand. There is a tone of calm and serenity, a warm glow in the colours and the contrasting light of foreground and background. It is a very beautiful picture.

My sister guessed that the subject might have been a senior music student at Ontario Ladies' College (OLC), perhaps at the time of her recital to be given as part of the Commencement Exercises in June of her final year. Bertha was teaching at OLC in 1908 - 1909 and all the years from 1922 to 1927.

The dress struck my sister as Edwardian in its fashion (an assessment independently arrived at by the painting's owner), which would make 1909 a likely time. I felt the hairstyle looked a bit later, perhaps more typical of the 1920s. But there is a photo of two OLC students that we believe was sent to Bertha in about 1909 that shows similar hairstyles; and a photo from ~1908 found in the on-line Whitby Archives shows a preponderance of hairbands.

As one would expect, detailed programs were printed up for the OLC Commencement Exercises, and some of them have survived. One from 1887 is available on-line, scanned from a copy in the Oshawa Public Library. It gives details of musical performances that were part of the ceremonies. We realized that if we could find the programs for Bertha's years at OLC, we might find names of violinists who could be candidates for the painting's subject.

I emailed a request to OLC's successor institution, Trafalgar Castle School. The Archivist Sarah Harries-Taylor quickly responded with interest and willingness. She was able to find Commencement programs for 1924 and 1926. The only mention of a student violinist was in connection with the awarding of a Preliminary Certificate (from the Ontario Conservatory of Music) to a student named Grace Elliot, in 1924. [In searching for that name elsewhere, I found that Pierre Trudeau's mother's maiden name was Grace Elliott, and that there is now a Grace Elliott Trudeau Prize for excellence in musical performance, named for her. But the OLC student in 1924 could not have been the same Grace Elliott.  By June 1924, Pierre Trudeau was nearly 5 years old and had two siblings ...]

We still hoped to find programs from other years Bertha was at OLC, but meanwhile, another lead captured our interest. The Archivist also scanned and sent a page from a Commencement program dated only 'Wednesday June 19th'. Based on the names of two of the participants (the Rev D O Crossley and Whitby School Inspector Dr John Waugh), it must be from either 1901 or 1907. It indicates a performance for solo violin by 'Miss K. Archer, Mus Bac', who played a Canzonetta by D'Ambrosio.

Well, it was easy to find out more about Miss Archer with a little searching, because she was a well-known performer and teacher in Toronto. Miss Kate Archer received her Mus Bac degree at the unusually young age of 20. That would have been in about 1895, if the 1901 Census of Canada is correct; it gives her birth date as November 1874. She was already teaching violin and harmony at OLC and at Glen Mawr School in Toronto by 1898, and at the same time was a well-regarded and frequent soloist in Toronto concerts. She is listed as the violin and harmony teacher in the OLC Biennial Calendar for 1909 - 1910 and 1910 - 1911 (which we have from Bertha's papers, and which was published in 1909). There's little doubt that during her year as Assistant Art Teacher at OLC in 1908 - 1909, Bertha would have known Miss Archer.

Might not she, then, be the subject of the painting? It's difficult ever to be certain, of course, especially given the painting's lack of crisp detail. There is a comparison we can make: a book that is on-line called A Musical Souvenir of Toronto (1898) includes a photo of Miss Kate Archer. We think it could be the same person.

Archivist Sarah suggested we contact the Whitby Archives about further programs. The Archivist there is Brian Winter, who has helped us on past occasions. He was unable to find Commencement programs, but discovered that OLC's Vox Collegii yearbooks always contained detailed information about the Music Department's recitals, awards, and other activities.  He kindly sent us copies of the relevant pages from the yearbooks he could find for the years of interest (1923, 1925, 1927). In none of these, however, can we find any violinist named who might especially suit the circumstances.

Of course, a connection with OLC is a matter of speculation, and it's not the only place Bertha could have encountered a violinist. But, for now, Miss Kate Archer remains our 'best guess' as the subject of the painting. Despite our being unable to be more certain, it is deeply satisfying to connect with someone who has acquired such a special painting of Bertha's, and who treasures it as much as we would ourselves. We're sincerely grateful to her for taking the time to share it with us, and we've enjoyed immensely the exploration of its possible origins.

Monday, 1 October 2012

More on Sir Charles

Anyone who does research into family history knows about the time-consuming process of delving into hard-to-find details regarding times, places, and people. Progress usually comes in small steps, often few and far between. There tends to be an ongoing mixture of serendipitous hopeful discoveries and disappointing dead-ends. Yet one "plods remorselessly on", as Neville Moray, renowned Professor of Psychology at Scarborough College in my youth, was wont to say ...

Bertha May Ingle:
Sir Charles G D Roberts
From time to time, as was reported in the posting on Charles G D Roberts, we have pondered a long-standing 'family legend' concerning Bertha's portrait in oils of that well-known writer. The legend is that she was commissioned to paint a portrait of him, and that an image of that portrait was published in the Toronto Telegram at the time of his death in 1943. We're not entirely certain whether there really was such a commission, nor whether the painting we now have was the one intended to fulfill it. But the existence of such a fine formal portrait must have an explanation, and a commission seems at least plausible. The idea of its appearance in The Telegram is mysterious.  Bertha kept a Telegram clipping from January 10, 1935 (Roberts's 75th birthday), and wrote "mine" and "my own" on it; but the picture in the clipping is not a photo of the portrait we have.

From The Telegram
Nov 27, 1943
I extended the enquiry earlier this year by checking the Telegram for November 27, 1943, the day after Roberts died in Toronto. Such checks can be made in the Toronto Reference Library's newspaper room, where old issues of many newspapers are viewable on microfilm. The Telegram article on that day included a photo, as well. It wasn't Bertha's portrait either, but it showed him in a pose that more closely resembled that of the portrait we have. Perhaps, I speculated, that greater resemblance contributed to the story that had come down to us. But it certainly didn't resolve the question.

More recently, it occurred to me that the other two major Toronto newspapers, The Toronto Star and The Globe, might also have published articles about Roberts on the two dates in question (in 1935 and 1943). Checking, I found that neither The Star nor The Globe reported the occasion of Sir Charles's 75th birthday. [Perhaps my sister's intuition is correct:  she suspects Roberts himself instigated The Telegram's birthday wishes, being rather fond of seeing his name in print.]

From The Star
Nov 27, 1943
But both newspapers reported his death, in articles accompanied by photos. In The Star, I encountered an entirely unexpected finding. Despite the rather poor quality of the microfilmed image, I realized that the photo in The Star is almost certainly the same photo that appears in Elsie Pomeroy's biography of Roberts, the photo that we think Bertha probably used as a 'model' for her painting. Pomeroy's book ascribes it to 1936, but gives no supporting citation. I was excited by the prospect that the original of that photo might still be found in The Star's Archives, and that its true date and origin might be traceable after all.

My emailed request to The Star received a discouraging initial response. They don't search their Archives any longer for purposes of 'personal use', partly because they would have to charge a fee. They recommended that, for a nominal cost, I could subscribe to 'Pages of the Past', a searchable site where I could at least determine whether the same photo had been published in The Star at other times as well.

I persisted, saying that the photo's date of origin was really the key thing.  They kindly agreed to 'make an exception' for me, if I'd be willing to pay the search fee. But they cautioned me that the chances were high that the photo would not be found, especially if it had not been taken by a Star photographer. Even if found, it would not likely have date information on it. We decided that it would be worthwhile to 'roll the dice', paid the fee, and asked them to proceed.

From The Star's Archives
A few days later, we received the results. To our delight, and against the odds, the photo was found! Even better, as we hoped, there are date stamps on the back of it. Such stamps could indicate the date it was acquired by The Star, and/or the occasions it was published. The most gratifying date is the earliest one, possibly the date it entered their file:  December 3, 1935. It proves that, as I had suspected, the photo must have been taken earlier than 1936, making its use for a commission prior to January 1935 at least a possibility.

There is also a handwritten acknowledgement of the photo's source:  it came from Milne Studios, a photography studio founded in 1925 and still in business to this day. The Milne Studios web site says that there over a million of their negatives in the City of Toronto Archives. I emailed them to ask whether they or the City Archives might have records of the Roberts photo, or even the negative itself. I learned that Charles Milne (the grandfather of David Milne, who runs the Studios now) was the photographer in those days. Alas, all his negatives went missing after his death, and cannot be found.

Might the same photo have been published in other books by or about Roberts, in the 1930s? With a visit to the Library and the Rare Book Room at the University of Waterloo, my sister was able to check. Only one other book turned up with a photo of Roberts: a collection of his poems published in 1941 called Canada Speaks of Britain. It is not the same photo, but it actually looks as if it could have been taken at the same photo session. The book was published by Ryerson Press, as was the Pomeroy biography of Roberts in 1943.  McGraw Hill acquired Ryerson Press in 1970 and became McGraw Hill - Ryerson. Would they still have such photos in their files? I asked them. They do not.

We may have pretty much exhausted all possibilities, as far as searching for the photo and its date of origin goes. We're still hopeful we might find something somewhere about a commission. And if there was a commission, there may be another portrait out there somewhere. Perhaps some day it will turn up.