Thursday, 19 December 2013

Gunships Aren't Roses

Bertha M Ingle: Ships at harbour
There’s a painting of Bertha’s that we believe we have come to understand better in recent months. It’s a small sketch in oils that shows ships at harbour. It has an unsettled and unsettling quality, its ambience anything but calm.

Bertha grew up in Owen Sound, an important port city, and lived most of her adult life in Toronto. She travelled to Vancouver and to Santa Monica. She would have seen harbours and ships in many places. We’ve never been certain where this painting comes from. But perhaps it can be pinned down after all.
Bertha M Ingle: Roses

F McGillivray Knowles:
In Time of Peace, 1907
Bertha’s most influential teacher in Toronto was Farquhar McGillivray Knowles, a prominent artist and member of Toronto Society. Bertha studied at and became an Associate of his Studio, soon after arriving in Toronto, and at various times she taught Art at places where he was Art Director, such as the Westbourne School for Girls and the Ontario Ladies’ College. As an artist of considerable renown, McGillivray Knowles was (and still is) well known for his interest and skills in representing ships and marine subjects generally. An example is a large oil painting called In Time of Peace, 1907.  It depicts battleships at harbour. The painting was exhibited in the 36th Annual Exhibition of the Ontario Society Of Artists (OSA) in February - March 1908, from which it was purchased by the Government of Ontario, in whose hands it still resides. According to the book The Ontario Collection by Fern Bayer, a published review of that Exhibition indicated the locale of In Time of Peace to be Quebec City.

F McGillivray Knowles:
HMS Indomitable Leaving Quebec
There’s another somewhat similar painting by McGillivray Knowles, not quite as easy to find on-line, called HMS Indomitable leaving Quebec. This one was reproduced in Maclean’s Magazine of September 1913 as part of an article about Mr and Mrs Knowles and their Bloor Street West Studio  -  an article kindly located for us by James F S Thomson, at the time we were taking his excellent course at the University of Toronto's School of Continuing Studies (Toronto's Past: Your City, Your House, Your Family).

There are points of similarity between this Quebec painting and Bertha’s sketch, we feel, such as the shape of the distant hills and the general composition. They have caused us to wonder whether Bertha’s painting might also come from Quebec. We know she visited there at least once, as a member of a group of artists who were all painting and seeking commissions.

Just when was HMS Indomitable in Quebec, and why? Exploring the answers to these questions has opened up new possibilities in our speculations about Bertha’s travels. Most notably, HMS Indomitable made a voyage to Quebec in July 1908, when she was brand new. She was commissioned for the trip in June 1908 ("before she was fully complete", according to the Wikipedia article). It was for a very special occasion indeed, and she carried a very special passenger. She brought no less a personage than the Prince of Wales (who in 1911 would become King George V) to participate in the tercentenary celebration of Champlain's founding of Quebec in 1608. The Prince was greeted by thousands of spectators in addition to the formal welcoming party, when Indomitable steamed into the harbour on the afternoon of 22 July.

This celebration was no intimate gathering, but a multi-national gala on the grandest scale, an event unsurpassed in Canada till Montreal’s Expo 67. England, France, and the United States of America each had a major presence, and collectively they filled the St Lawrence River below the City with an impressive array of warships and other craft. The elaborate celebrations on land lasted two weeks, and included a large-scale fully-costumed multi-act Pageant on land and water, comprising re-enactments of Champlain’s arrival, key battles, and other notable events. People thronged to Quebec in their thousands to see the spectacles. The three visiting nations, former adversaries, somehow were able to collaborate and join forces to honour the tricentennial in the most spectacular possible way. It was an organizational and political tour de force, yet one which is little remembered in the annals of this country's history. It is recalled and described in detail in the fascinating book by H V Nelles, The Art of Nation-building: Pageantry and Spectacle at Quebec's Tercentenary.

Nelles writes that about a half-dozen Canadian painters were officially invited to come and record their impressions of the events. Mr McGillivray Knowles might well have been one of them, and it would have been especially fitting, since his mother had been born in Quebec. HMS Indomitable sailed for home at first light on the morning of 29 July, after a week in port, returning the Prince of Wales to England. It was that departure that Knowles captured in his painting.

Postmark on Bertha's postcard
Did Bertha paint her oil sketch at Quebec, at about that same time? We have long believed that she went to Quebec in the summer of 1907. Might she also have accompanied McGillivray Knowles and others the following year, to attend this extravaganza of a lifetime? Might we be mistaken about 1907? We reviewed the evidence. Apart from family oral tradition, there is just one dated document, a postcard with a photo of the Champlain Market, sent by Bertha from Quebec to her family in Toronto. It says nothing of celebrations, but it does clearly establish that she was there with a group of artists who were trying to find work. The postmark date is 22 July, and the writing includes the word ‘Monday’ as a sort of marginal note. The postmark year is very faint and indistinct, unfortunately. It does look most like ’07, and 22 July 1907 was indeed a Monday.

Is it possible the card was sent in 1908? The date 22 July 1908 was a Wednesday (and the very day of the arrival of the Prince of Wales). We think it unlikely that Bertha would wait two days, to post a card on Wednesday that she had written on Monday, but it’s not impossible. And, tantalizingly, there are spots of paint on the card that look as if they might be the same as colours in the oil sketch.

Postmark from 1907 found on-line
I decided to try searching the web for images of 1907 Quebec postmarks, and somewhat to my surprise I found quite a few. Those that most closely resemble the one on Bertha’s postcard strengthened the conclusion that the card was from 1907, because the faint impression of what should be the downstroke of the ‘7' is in exactly the right place. We wondered if another source of corroboration might come from the Toronto address to which the card was mailed, which was on Euclid Avenue. From the City of Toronto Directories (which were published in January of each year), we determined that the Ingles were living at Trinity Square at the start of 1907, but at Euclid Avenue by the start of 1908. A different postcard, mailed home by Bertha’s sister Ettie, confirms that they were there on 5 August 1907. So the address doesn’t really settle the issue conclusively; neither year can be ruled out on that basis.

I feel 1907 is the more likely date for our Quebec postcard. Bertha may have been there in 1908 as well. The two McGillivray Knowles paintings would appear to confirm that there were battleships present in both years. Whichever year it was, I believe that the sight disturbed her greatly, that she did not see in those massive objects the majestic display of military might; she saw, instead, forces of destruction and chaos. Her little sketch, I believe, expresses her revulsion, even anger.

One of the main events of the tercentenary celebration was a formal presentation on The Plains of Abraham. A huge gathering of militiamen and sailors from all the participating countries were assembled, as many as fifteen thousand altogether. They watched the Prince of Wales present the title deed to Governor-General Earl Grey, along with a large sum of money contributed to by all four countries and the Empire, with the express intent that the Plains be designated forever a 'shrine of union and peace' where 'two contending races won equal and imperishable glory'.

Bertha M Ingle: The Plains of Abraham
Bertha painted another picture that in family oral tradition depicts The Plains of Abraham. If this is true, it may also reveal something of her view of the mechanisms of combat, though in a very different way than the painting of the battleships. There is something that could be a cannon lying derelict and abandoned, off to one side, while domestic life, washing hanging out to dry in ordinary back yards, has claimed the main ground, upstage centre. A far less ostentatious way to portray union and peace, but telling nonetheless.

Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Trafalgar Treasure

As I mentioned in an earlier entry (On Location), our Research Assistant and I recently paid a visit to Trafalgar Castle School in Whitby, Ontario. That's one of several places where Bertha May Ingle taught Art, first in 1908 - 1909, and again in 1922 - 1927. It was called Ontario Ladies' College (OLC) in those years.

Our RA came armed with camera and scanner. Before we began to pore over the School's Archives, we were treated to a delightful tour of the entire School, and she was permitted to photograph quite a few of the many fine paintings that hang on the walls throughout the building. There are plenty of portraits, of course, depicting luminaries from the School's long history; there are also a variety of paintings executed by and/or donated by alumnae and former teachers.

Main Hallway, Trafalgar Castle School
One large portrait in the main hallway seemed likely to defy all efforts to get a good image, from directly in front of it. Our RA recalls seeing surface cracks in the varnish, and unevenness over the height of the canvas, as if it was perhaps not firmly mounted. In this photo of the Main Hallway, that portrait is visible, from an extreme angle, on the left. It was very lucky that she took this photo, because when my sister saw it, she realized right away, despite the odd angle, that it resembles a much smaller painting of Bertha's that we have in our collection.

Here is that smaller painting. We immediately realized that it might be a preliminary study for the larger portrait, which would mean Bertha almost certainly painted both of them. We had never identified the distinguished woman portrayed in our version, but now we had the connection we needed. The portrait opposite in the School Hallway (there's a glimpse of it in the photo above) is identified as that of Rev Dr John James Hare, founding Principal of Ontario Ladies' College in 1874, a position he held until 1915. Could the woman be Mrs Hare, who was herself Lady Principal at one time?

Mrs J J Hare; Dr and Mrs Hare
(Whitby Online Historical
Photographs Collection)
Happily, there is a good photo of Mrs Hare on-line, in the Whitby Online Historical Photographs Collection collection. The resemblance is clear and unmistakeable. The same site has their wedding photo, taken when she was just 20.

Could we confirm with certainty that the large portrait was painted by Bertha? The answer came in an unexpected and serendipitous way. I was at the North York Library's Canadiana Collection, and decided to have a look at the 1924 Ontario Ladies' College yearbook, a volume we'd seen before but hadn't had enough time to peruse. It's special, because that year marked the 50th anniversary of the College. As I browsed, a reference to presentation of a painting caught my eye, in a description of the events of Alma Mater Day in June 1924. And then, a little further down the same page came this gratifying revelation:

"Miss Burkholder unveiled a remarkable portrait of Mrs. Hare, executed by Miss Ingle, the present Art instructor, on behalf of the Ottawa Chapter of the Trafalgar Daughters.  This portrait, declared to be a speaking likeness, will hang opposite to that of Dr. Hare, in the Main Hall."

'Miss Burkholder' was Miss Nettie Burkholder, who served as Lady Principal at OLC from 1901 to 1912 (including Bertha's first year there). She had subsequently moved to Alberta, and she returned as a special guest for the Jubilee celebration of 1924.

We still didn't know what the large portrait looked like, in detail. But fortunately our friend Bill Allen was planning a visit to Trafalgar Castle School himself. Bill is on a quest to track down and photograph as many paintings by Whitby native Florence Helena McGillivray as he can, and the School has three of them that he hadn't yet seen. He very kindly promised to photograph Mrs Hare for us, while he was there.

Bertha M Ingle:
Mrs J J Hare
Meanwhile, we took our small painting to the conservator and framer, very much wanting it to be presented it in its best light, wanting it to be something that could be exhibited. Cleaned and framed, it glows with new life. 

Bertha M Ingle:
Mrs J J Hare
(photo by Bill Allen)
Bill's visit happened in November, and the photograph arrived by email from him the following day. With his camera and tripod and lights, he can get a much more professional result than we 'snap-shotters' can. Here she is, a most impressive and pleasing portrait.

It's fascinating to compare the two, and doing so raises further questions. In our version, Mrs Hare is portrayed at a distinctly more advanced age than in the larger one. Although the poses are identical, we feel that the age difference casts doubt on the notion that it was simply a study for the large one, and was done at the same time.

Mrs Hare, née Katherine Isabella McDowell, was born in 1854. She married Dr Hare in 1874, the same year Ontario Ladies' College was founded. She is mentioned as being Lady Principal in 1894, and may have held that title in later years as well. When Bertha first taught at the College in 1908 - 1909, Mrs Hare was about 54, an age that seems very much consistent with the small portrait. We have come to believe (without any further evidence, as yet) that Bertha painted the small portrait during that year, perhaps from life.

The wording of the 1924 yearbook passage quoted above suggests to us that it was probably Miss Burkholder who had the idea, in 1923 or 1924, of having Bertha paint a larger portrait to commemorate Mrs Hare, who had died in 1922. By then the portrait of Rev Dr Hare had already been on display for several years. Brian Winter, formerly Archivist at the Whitby Archives, wrote in his History of the College:

"Commencement Day 1906 saw the presentation to the Board of Directors of an oil painting of Dr. Hare by a former student who was then assistant art director.  It now hangs in the main hall opposite a picture of Mrs. Hare presented at a later date."

Until recently, we weren't sure from that rather ambiguous passage whether the 'former student who was then assistant art director' (whom we felt was undoubtedly Florence Helena McGillivray) had simply presented the painting to the Board, or had actually painted it as well. Bill Allen has confirmed that it was indeed painted by Florence. It bears her signature, he says, though the signature appears to have been overpainted, and can be seen only by shining light on it at a suitable angle.

The painting of Dr Hare shows a man not yet very grey. It would make sense for Bertha, creating a companion portrait in 1923 or 1924, to alter her earlier composition so that Mrs Hare would be portrayed as she would have appeared at the time depicted in her husband's portrait. Perhaps Nettie Burkholder had a suitable photo of Mrs Hare at a younger age, for Bertha to work from.

We're extremely happy that both versions have survived. As ambitious and finely executed as the large portrait is, the small study has qualities that make it, in some ways, the more satisfying of the two. Mrs Hare appears more relaxed, more approachable. The impression is of a more spontaneous and friendly encounter.

There remain many portraits by Bertha May Ingle where we have not identified her subject. Many decades after she created them, identification will likely remain beyond our grasp for most. But it can happen, so we remain hopeful. The occasional happy discovery such as this one delights us all the more, and fuels our resolve to keep looking.

Thursday, 7 November 2013

Owen Sound - Beginnings

How and when does it begin, for a creative artist?

Many musicians, dancers, actors, writers, and visual artists can remember a defining or seminal moment in their lives, a moment when a voice inside said 'That's what I will do. That is who I am. That will be my life.' For others, there was no single moment; some can't really remember a time before they played or sang or danced or wrote or put pen, pencil, or paint to paper. It came as naturally, and was as essential to their lives, as breathing.

For Bertha May Ingle, we can only speculate, but there are clues. Her earliest childhood years were spent on farms in Ontario, first in Puslinch Township, then in Proton Township. Her father Robert was an amateur painter and a skilled fiddler; her mother Mary could dance up a storm. There were books, and a family atmosphere where education was important. The Ingles moved to Owen Sound in 1884 (Bertha was six years old), where Robert found work at John Wright's Mill store. We've known for a long time that Bertha was painting well enough by her teens to win prizes, and to have identified her life's calling. The Ingles' family friend Herbert Casson wrote them a letter in October 1895, when Bertha was seventeen:

"Tell Bertha I'm proud of her, winning all those prizes. There is no reason why she could not come to Boston before long, to get an artist's inspiration from the wonderful living pictures & magnificent buildings & parks & ocean scenery."

What were "all those prizes", exactly? We weren't sure. Were there art teachers who provided her with guidance and encouragement? Bertha kept a photo showing an artist at work in his studio, identified in handwriting on the reverse side as 'Mr Woodhouse in his studio at Owen Sound'. We've supposed he might have taught Bertha, but he has proved an elusive character. A 'Woodhouse, H' appears in the 1901 Census for Owen Sound, an artist, living and employed as a domestic in a hotel headed by Eveleigh, George. We're fairly sure he was, in fact, Harry Valentine Woodhouse, a Canadian-born American artist.

Another important part of Bertha's Owen Sound story was the serious illness she contracted at the age of eleven. According to oral family history, it was polio, and it caused her permanent weakness in one leg. It is thought to have ended her formal education. But perhaps it helped her, as she spent so many hours at home, to discover and develop her lifetime calling as an artist.

Earlier this year, our keen, energetic Research Assistant made the trip to Owen Sound that we've had in mind for a long time. She went to search the Library's Archives and the newspaper collections on microfilm, with several lines of enquiry to pursue: to find events and explore the environment in the visual arts; to find references to polio or outbreaks of other possible afflictions; to look for Mr Woodhouse; to look for Emma Scott, who lived in Owen Sound in those years and who (as Emma Scott Raff) was the founding Principal of the Margaret Eaton School of Literature and Expression in Toronto, where Bertha had a Private View of Oil Paintings in December 1906; to look for the horse stables that Bertha wrote about, located across the street from the Ingle family home; and to be alert for anything else that might shed light on the Ingles' life in Owen Sound between 1884 and 1901 (when they moved to Toronto).

A daunting task, but our brave RA did not quail before it. Altogether she spent three full days searching through archived materials and, as she said, "swimming with the microfiche" to scan through old newspapers. Of course it's impossible to look at everything, so she focussed on specific years of interest, including 1889 (the year of Bertha's illness) and 1895 (the year of the prizes). We're infinitely grateful for her stalwart efforts, which have (as might well be foreseen) elucidated some questions, come up blank on others, and turned up some unexpected surprises.


We knew already that the Ingles had an address on Jackson Street in 1892, and we believe they lived on Union Street (now 8th Street East) in earlier years. Thanks to our diligent RA, we've now learned that as of the 1901 Census, they were located on Patterson Street (now 8th Street West). It has been difficult to identify the exact horse establishment on or near Union Street where, as a child, Bertha watched horses being broken. It appears that stables and similar establishments were common throughout the town. Horse shows and horse races were large and popular events, taking place year-round. There was a 10,000-square-foot livery at 10th Street East in 1887.

But the picture has now become clearer. Advertisements for a Riding Class at the R J Scott Stables, located "at the foot of Union Hill, Union St.", appeared in local newspapers (our RA found and photographed one from March 1889). The note Bertha wrote about watching horses being broken refers to "Jack and Bob Scott" as the owners of the stables, so it appears to be the same establishment.


There were numerous openly-reported instances of serious diseases striking people in Owen Sound. In 1885 there was an outbreak of smallpox, with which the town’s rudimentary new hospital was ill-equipped to cope. Concern over smallpox was still prominent in 1894, when the Owen Sound Times reported an epidemic in Chicago and cases of the disease in Kingston and Chatham.

There were also frequent and widespread concerns about possible outbreaks of cholera in the 1890s.

Neither of these diseases seems likely to have been what Bertha suffered in 1889. However, nothing turned up to suggest the possibility of polio. We know from other sources that the main epidemic periods in Ontario were still in the future. Whether this was Bertha's affliction remains a mystery.

Emma Scott

A few titbits turned up about Emma Scott. In 1889, along with other ladies of the Scrope Street Methodist Church (Central), she initiated a Circle of the International Order of The King’s Daughters and Sons (IOKDS). The Order, still active today, was then a new and rapidly-growing organization devoted to assisting those less fortunate. In Owen Sound it was named the “Help-in-Need-Circle”.

Emma's wedding on June 6th 1894 made the front page of the Owen Sound Times the following day:

"A great flutter of excitement was occasioned in society here yesterday, by the marriage of Miss Ema [sic] Scott, one of Owen Sound's most popular and accomplished young ladies, to Mr. Wm. B. Raff, of Aspen, Colorado."

There followed a detailed and colourful account of the ceremony itself, the déjeuner at the Scott home, and the couple's departure (the same afternoon) for Aspen, via Toronto and Chicago.

The Visual Arts Scene

Several pieces of evidence collectively establish that there must have been a thriving and vital visual arts community in Owen Sound in those years. The Times reported on its front page, on June 13th 1889, the results of the Art School Examinations, introducing the lengthy lists of names with this proud boast:

"OWEN SOUND students as usual take the largest number of certificates in the Province."

Earlier that year, the "Ladies' Auxiliary and members of the Y.M.C.A." held an art exhibition of paintings and other artworks at the Y.M.C.A. Hall. It proved so popular that its run had to be extended to meet public demand. "This promises to be something better than anything Owen Sound has seen in the Art line yet," predicted the Times, and so it seems to have been.

One of the painters represented in the Y.M.C.A. exhibition was Emma Scott. It was in the same month that she left Owen Sound to take a course at the Ontario School of Art in Toronto.

Newspaper ads confirm that artists' supplies were readily available from local sellers, such as "Vincent H Chantler / The Palace Drug Store". An Owen Sound branch of the Women’s Art Association (based in Toronto) was formed in 1909.

Five friends
Kate Andrew is in the centre; Bertha second from the left
We have learned a lot of new information about a remarkable woman named Kate Andrew. We have two photographs (one shown here) in which Bertha appears with four other women. One of them is identified on the reverse side as Kate Andrew. Kate is clearly the centre of the group. We already knew she was an elementary-school teacher, but we now know she was also an accomplished artist and teacher of art. She attended and became an Associate of the Ontario College of Art. Born in Owen Sound in February 1872, she lived till December 1971, just two months short of her 100th birthday. She is justly celebrated as one of the Eminent Women of Grey County, in the Grey County Historical Society's publication of that name. It seems highly probable that, being six years Bertha’s senior, she was one of Bertha’s early teachers and influences in the development of her art.

Yet despite all this, one figure eludes us still. In all the material searched, in all the news of enthusiastic artistic activity, not a single reference was found to our Mr Woodhouse.


The Owen Sound Advertiser, September 20th 1895
I've saved the best for last.

It may seem a small thing, I suppose. It was only the North Grey Fall Exhibition in 1895, undoubtedly a typical small-town and rural Fall Fair, with every kind of actvity and enticement from horses to hurdles races.

But there she is, in the Owen Sound Advertiser report of September 20th 1895, announcing the winners in the competition for FINE ARTS - AMATEUR. For oil painting in three categories -- landscape, marine, and domestic -- Bertha M. Ingle.

She didn't ever stop painting, for the next 67 years.

I don't know about anyone else, but it sends shivers up and down my spine.

Monday, 30 September 2013

A Georgian Bay Connection?

Some time ago, my sister found an article in Pathmaster, the newsletter of the Pickering Township Historical Society, about the well-known Whitby-born painter, Florence Helena McGillivray. We are fairly sure that she and Bertha were acquainted. Florence McGillivray taught art at Ontario Ladies' College (OLC) in the early 1900s, and we think Bertha's first teaching year at OLC (1908 - 1909) may have come about because of a leave of absence for Florence. Also, Bertha owned (and we now have) a small signed watercolour by Florence, entitled A Georgian Bay Evening.

Florence Helena McGillivray:
A Georgian Bay Evening
The Pathmaster article (published in Spring 1999) reports that, at the time of writing, the Whitby home of the McGillivray family in Florence's time, a fine old house called Inverlynn, was still in the possession of their descendants. I wondered whether that might be true today. And I wondered whether the present owners might have artworks that had belonged to Florence, perhaps including those of painters she knew, as well as her own work. Might there, in fact, be something by Bertha May Ingle? It seemed at least worth asking.

I wrote to the current owners of Inverlynn. I had discovered that in recent years they have hosted art exhibitions there, which made the possibilities all the more promising. I received a gracious and prompt reply, telling me that they had looked through all their old artworks, but had found nothing of Bertha's. However, they had kindly undertaken to forward my letter to other family members, several of whom have paintings by Florence, to ask if anyone else might be able to contribute any information of interest.

Within a short time, I was pleased to receive an email from one of those family members. It came from Bill Allen, whose wife is descended from the McGillivray family and is a painter in her own right. Bill wrote to say that he is in the process of trying to locate, photograph, and catalogue chronologically as many of Florence Helena McGillivray's works as he can. He was therefore interested in seeing our McGillivray watercolour, and asked whether we would make it available to his camera.

We were delighted at the prospect of meeting and sharing experiences with someone engaged in a quest somewhat similar to our own, and with the possibility of a mutually beneficial exchange of findings. We arranged a meeting at my home, to which Bill brought his lights, tripod, and camera, a much more sophisticated set-up than anything we've ever used.

His visit brought us much fascinating conversation and sharing of stories and anecdotes. Bill photographed the signed watercolour. We also brought out a sketch in oils that has puzzled us, a work that we've always been fairly sure was not painted by Bertha.  On the reverse side of the board is written in pencil what looks like "Miss McGillivray", though slightly truncated; it seems that the board was cut after that was written on it. It doesn't really appear to be a signature or attribution. Bill Allen is interested in the painting, however, and thinks it might indeed be one of Florence's works, based on its style, brushwork, and colour palette. He has since shown his photograph of that painting to other knowledgable people, who agree with his assessment that it could be hers.

A Georgian Bay Evening has proven even more interesting to Bill than we expected. He thinks the location depicted may be quite near where he and his family have a summer cottage. That locality also happens to be near where Dr James McCallum had a home.  Dr McCallum is famous for his enthusiastic and generous support of artists in Toronto in the early twentieth century, including Tom Thomson and the painters who eventually formed The Group of Seven. Bill tells us that Dr McCallum often invited artists to stay and to paint at Georgian Bay, and it is possible that Florence McGillivray was one of those.

And of course we wonder now if Bertha May Ingle might also have painted there around that time. Her younger, formative years had been spent in Owen Sound, so the Georgian Bay shores were probably familiar to her, and she may have welcomed an opportunity to return there as a more mature artist.

Bill Allen has asked us to 'spread the word' about his quest for works by Florence Helena McGillivray. He would be grateful to hear from anyone who possesses (or knows of) such paintings. He can be contacted at

Sunday, 26 May 2013

On Location

Bertha loved to work outdoors, embracing the practice of painting en plein air, and she did so at every opportunity. There are several photographs among her papers, taken over several decades, that show her working in this way. We remember clearly that she painted outdoors when she accompanied us on family summer holidays in the Bruce Peninsula in the 1950s. Bertha occasionally painted scenes showing other artists (or herself?) occupied in this manner.

Plein air painting was not, by any means, a brand new thing at the time she was young, but it was certainly growing in popularity. Pre-prepared paints in tubes were becoming more widely available, and more portable equipment like the field easel or box easel had been developed. The Impressionists were among its strongest and most influential proponents; and in Canada the new approach to landscape painting eventually made spectacularly popular by the Group of Seven depended on it. The movement is alive and well today, as witness the thriving Ontario Plein Air SocietyThe common goal of all plein air artists was (and is) to capture light and movement and atmosphere directly, to keep these aspects of the subject in continuous view from moment to moment, as colour is applied to canvas or board.

Three instances have come to our attention recently where not only can we identify the location of the painted scene, but we can pinpoint the spot with great confidence where she sat in front of her box easel or its equivalent. Two of the discoveries have arisen from my sister's keen observation of the kind of details that most people don't notice.


Beach at Normandale
Bertha May Ingle
This is the easy one. In 1999, our mother gave one of my daughters a painting by Bertha of the beach at Normandale, on Lake Erie. It has surfaced from storage recently, along with the note Mum wrote at the time:
"This is the beach at Normandale (foreground) and looks on to Turkey Point and then on to Long Point. John [her brother] and I were with Auntie Bert when she painted it - circa 1926. We were up on top of the hill that you and I have climbed many times since then, however we were further up. ..."

The cottage at Normandale that was built in the 1930s by one of Mum's uncles is still in our family, and we enjoy that beautiful village and its beach every summer. And so do the youngest members of the extended family, our mother's great-grandchildren  --  the fifth generation to do so. Every indication is that they will treasure the location as much as those who have gone before. I hope my daughter will take the youngest up that hill some day.

Ontario Ladies' College

Accompanying our Research Assistant, I recently had the chance to visit the Archives of Trafalgar Castle School, the successor institution to Ontario Ladies' College, still occupying the original buildings purchased by the Methodist Church in 1874. I leapt at it. I was excited and thrilled to see this wonderful building, to experience first-hand the grandeur, so beautifully preserved and cared for, of the place where Bertha worked for five years in the mid 1920s.  The hospitality and cooperation extended to us by the current Trafalgar Castle School staff were equally gratifying, as they supported our search for information with warmth and enthusiasm.

In an earlier edition (Ontario Ladies' College), I mentioned a painting that Bertha apparently donated to the College after she left.  It's a simple landscape showing grass, trees, and sky, executed in oils. A small plaque on the frame says it was "A Gift by the Artist". It occurred to me, being there on the grounds of the School, a site that is still beautiful and impressive even though somewhat reduced in extent compared to past decades, that most likely the painting had been painted while Bertha was there, and depicted a part of the property.

I mentioned this feeling in an email to my sister, who agreed it was likely. Then she wrote, "Sometimes I think I see a grey building behind the trees." I don't recall ever noticing that myself, but upon inspection I became convinced that she is correct. It's definitely there, toward the right edge of the frame, a hint of roof and a chimney.
OLC c. 1920
(looking northeast)

I did recall that on looking for old photos of OLC, I had found a number of aerial photographs. Looking for them again, I was pleasantly surprised to find that several exist from the period 1919 to the 1930s. Most parts of the College building are larger and architecturally more complex than the roofline suggested in Bertha's painting, but there is one part, at the extreme south end, where the scale and general appearance fit very well. For it to appear as it does, behind trees, I believe the artist would have been located east of that part of the building, on the other side of the collection of trees there, and facing westwards (I've marked the spot  --  click on the image to see a larger version). The trees were there in 1920, and were still there in about 1929, according to these two photos.

OLC c. 1929
Am I reading too much into what is, after all, a rather indistinct background? Perhaps. But I believe the collective weight of the evidence  --  the plaque on the frame, the painting itself, the context, the photographs from the air of the site as it was at the time  --  well, it all adds up.

Tappen BC

Sketching at
Tappen BC
My favourite photograph of Bertha at work outdoors is this one, identified in her own handwriting on the back as "Myself sketching at Tappen, B.C. 1914". The trees, and even their reflection in the amazingly still water, frame the artist perfectly. The calm and serenity in the moment emphasize her intimate connection with the beautiful surroundings.

So, in this case, we already had a location, and a year. But what was Bertha painting, precisely?  A few weeks ago I'd have said we had no idea. But my sister noticed something that has surprised and delighted us. That rather faint and distant outline beyond the water, over-exposed in the photo because it was in brighter light and the artist was in shade, rang a bell for her. A quick scan of our on-line album provided her a definitive answer.

Tappen BC
Bertha M Ingle
Lo and behold, we have in our collection what might well be the very painting Bertha was working on that day, when she was photographed there in 1914; it's certainly, at the very least, a painting of the identical scene, made from the same spot.  This is a work we'd previously had no connection for, as to time and place. Now, almost ninety-nine years after she painted it, we know exactly when and exactly where she did so.

Monday, 6 May 2013

Down by the Old Mill Stream ...

More discoveries! Or at least hypotheses, or guesses, or wishes ...

My sister has become fascinated by two small sketches, in oils on canvas, that depict two slightly different views of the same scene: a stream just below a small dam, its bank strewn with stones, with a two-storey building on the higher ground beyond. She has come to think of the building as a mill or associated house. We think the pictures are quite old.

It struck me one day that if the site really is a mill, it might conceivably be Wright's Mill in Owen Sound. Robert Ingle (Bertha's father) worked for Wright's Mlll Store when they first moved to Owen Sound in the 1890s. The store was in town, but the mill itself was further up the river. I recalled looking into it a while back, and finding on-line a description of how people in those days reached Owen Sound from the community of Brooke, relying on the fact that there was a bridge at Wright's Mill. Because the description includes the modern names of the roads involved, it's possible to locate the bridge quite precisely.

With the help of a friend whom we've recently engaged as a part-time Research Assistant, we've contacted the Grey County Historical Society. President Janet Iles very kindly provided us a scan of some old photos, showing what the Mill looked like.

Courtesy of Grey County Historical Society
Comparing it to Bertha's sketches, there are some general similarities between those photos and the building she depicted, but the Mill did not have the chimneys at the ends of the roof ridge that appear in the paintings.

I did make a tantalizing discovery, though.  Google's streetview includes views from the modern-day bridge. Looking northwards (downstream), there is a glimpse of what might be an old house, which does have a chimney at the end of the roof ridge. It's just conceivable that it could be the building in the paintings  --  but I mustn't get carried away ...

Janet Iles tells us that the main Wright's Mill building was damaged by a storm in 1912 and was likely destroyed soon afterwards, so there's no trace of it now. But I believe there might still be a dam or similar feature at or near that point in the river. Our RA is going to visit Owen Sound for us in the near future, mainly to look for information in such places as the Library, museum archives, and newspaper offices. She's going to make a trip to that bit of the river, too, and get a better look at what might still be there. We're excited to learn what she will find.

Meanwhile, the two small canvases have been cleaned and re-varnished, once again by the conservator for St Germain Gallery. They, like others, had acquired an obscuring bluish haze, this time mainly from environmental effects and properties of the paint. They now look wonderful, rough sketches though they are, and it's possible now to confirm ( I actually had a minor doubt) that they were both done by Bertha, using the same palette of colours, the same techniques.

Somewhere there may well be a more refined, finished painting of this scene, for which these two sketches were preliminary studies. We'd love to see it!

Monday, 29 April 2013

Women at Work - Labours of Love

We've been back to the conservator, in the past few months. The results are deeply gratifying.

A notable case is the painting of a woman sitting and working at a spinning wheel, and wearing wooden clogs. It's painted in oils on heavy canvas, and had never been mounted or framed. It's a work we have associated with Bertha's visit to Québec in 1907, though we haven't been able to establish that with certainty.

The surface was obscured in many places by a bluish haze, ostensibly similar to the moisture-related discolouration we'd seen on other paintings. Our good friends at St Germain Gallery were pleased to pass it along to their conservator. To their more experienced eyes, the problem appeared to have a different cause, but the expert would find out for sure.

Their intuitions were correct, as things turned out. The conservator found that the obscuring effects were due to micro-cracking of the paint and varnish. Happily, a thorough cleaning and re-varnishing cured the problem entirely. As we have seen many times before, the transformation was astonishing. Suddenly we were were able to see a wonderful work of art, revealed anew after decades in hiding.

Not to have the painting mounted and framed was unthinkable. Young Kim, owner of the St Germain Gallery, immediately showed us the frame he thought would work best. He told us that he had known since his first glimpse of the painting, even in its pre-rescued obscurity, which frame would look best. His instinct was entirely correct. The new frame suits the work perfectly.

My sister observed that, along with the spinning wheel paintings, there are a number of works, probably from around that general time period, that share an interesting theme. They all depict women engaged in a variety of creative activities:  spinning, knitting or sewing, playing (or preparing to play) music, painting. They are in a range of styles, different in many ways, but to me they have a common underlying character. They all capture the serenity and dignity of the activities portrayed, the repose and quiet concentration that come after long hours of dedicated practice and commitment to something worthwhile.