Henry Ash and why internet connections are still underwater

By Vasanthi Pendakur

North and south map of the world showing telegraph lines across the Atlantic and overland.

Polar projections showing submarine cables and principal telegraph lines, 1883. Lines are shown in red. (e011211770)

Much of the world’s internet is still underwater. Despite satellite communications, despite wireless technology, the base connections for the internet are still undersea cables. Long cables crisscross the oceans and the continents to transmit the signals that bring internet to our devices. Telecommunication companies laid most of the existing cables, but recently tech giants have been building their own lines.

Undersea cables are expensive to build, and slow to plan, but they are still cheaper than satellites. Planning the laying of cables takes time. Routes are charted to avoid obstacles, tidal patterns, unstable formations and, for the actual laying, inclement weather. The cables are made on special machines that maintain tension. Building starts with a small wire, which is then wrapped in layers of copper, plastic, steel or tar for protection. The cables must be able to withstand damage from earthquakes, ships, and sea life. Sharks eating the internet is known to happen… and ships can accidentally cut cables.

Cables are then slowly loaded onto specially made ships; precautions are taken to ensure cables do not kink. Cables are then slowly laid down along the cable route. It can take weeks to lay a full length of cable properly, especially if there is bad weather.

The first experiments with submarine cables took place in the 1850s. Inventors, including Samuel Morse and Charles Wheatstone (pioneers in the invention of the electric telegraph), and Michael Faraday (a pioneer in the field of electromagnetism), were experimenting to find the best way of submerging wires (or cables) onto the seabed.

A formula of copper wires encased in layers of iron, india rubber, and gutta-percha (sap that served as thermoplastic insulation) was determined to be the best method. Confident in their experiments, Morse, Cyrus West Field, a financier, and Matthew Maury, an oceanographer, joined together to form the Atlantic Telegraph Company, with the goal of ordering and laying a cable across the Atlantic ocean. A test involving laying cables from Nova Scotia to Newfoundland in 1856 was successful.

The next attempt was the longer cable across the Atlantic, from Telegraph Field, Ireland, to Heart’s Content, Newfoundland. Problems with storms and breaking cables delayed the project, but the cable was finally connected in August 1858. An official message from Queen Victoria congratulating the company took 16 hours to arrive, but that still vastly reduced the delivery time in that period: ten days on a ship. The cable broke three weeks later, probably from improper handling and storage. A cable was successfully laid in 1866 by the SS Great Eastern.

Large ship seen from shore.

SS Great Eastern completing the laying of the second transatlantic telegraph cable, 1866. (c004484)

Cover of a souvenir book of the 1894 Mackay-Bennett Atlantic Cable.

Cover of a souvenir book depicting an 1894 cable expedition. (e004414208)

Many more cable expeditions followed, and the success of the 1866 expeditions led to the production of souvenir items depicting these events. LAC holds examples of this type of art in the Henry Ash Collection. Henry Ash was an amateur artist as well as a draftsman and designer from London, England, who also served as a general engineer assistant for the crew of the CS Faraday on occasion. He produced numerous pencil sketches of the voyages he took part in, some of which were turned into the souvenir book above. LAC holds Ash’s artwork from some of his expeditions.

Sketch of Bull Rock and Bull Rock Lighthouse, located off the southwest coast of Ireland, with boats fishing for mackerel.

View of the coast of Ireland at the start of the expedition. (e004414185)

Ash’s sketches are well shaded, detailed, and precisely labelled with the location and expedition. The landscape along the ocean coastline is shown in detailed greyscale. His drawings depict roads, coastlines, and the deep sea throughout the voyage, often showing the ship in the middle of the sea, surrounded by natural features. Ash turned his sketches from a later expedition into a souvenir book for the public. LAC’s collection shows the early history of the internet, as well as a process (cable laying) that, while lower-tech, is not much changed today.

Visit the Flickr album for more images of Henry Ash’s sketches.

Sketch of the entrance to St. John’s Harbour.

View of the entrance to St. John’s Harbour. (e004414154)

Other resources:

Submarine communications cable

How the Internet Travels Across Oceans

History of the Atlantic Cable & Undersea Communications


Vasanthi Pendakur is a project manager in the Online Content team at Library and Archives Canada.

Molly Lamb Bobak, Canada’s first female official war artist overseas: A Co-Lab challenge

By Krista Cooke

Black-and-white photograph taken from the side showing a smiling woman in uniform sitting on a pier with a drawing tablet and pencil in hand. In the background, a young blond child is standing, and sailboats are docked nearby

War artist Lieutenant Molly Lamb, Canadian Women’s Army Corps, sketching at Volendam, Netherlands, September 1945 (a115762)

Molly Lamb Bobak, the first female official war artist overseas, is arguably the Second World War painter who best captured Canadian women’s experiences of military life. In 1942, Molly Lamb (later Bobak) was fresh out of art school in Vancouver. The talented young painter promptly joined the Canadian Women’s Army Corps (CWAC) as a draftswoman—dreaming of one day becoming an official war artist.

Canada’s war art program, established during the First World War, resulted in a vast collection of artworks. Molly Lamb Bobak, who contributed to the Canadian War Records of the Second World War, was exceptional. She was Canada’s first female official war artist overseas. Works from her lifetime of painting and drawing are held at numerous institutions across Canada, including Library and Archives Canada (LAC), where a large collection of her works resides. One of the most compelling pieces, her wartime diary, is now more accessible: it has been digitized and can be transcribed through the collaboration tool Co-Lab.

Shortly after enlisting, Molly Lamb Bobak began writing a unique diary, which provides an invaluable record of the CWAC’s role in the war effort. Titled simply W110278, after her service number, it is a personal and insightful handwritten account of the everyday events of army life, accompanied by her drawings. Covering the period from November 1942 to June 1945, the diary contains 226 illustrated pages and almost 50 single sheet sketches interleaved among its pages.

A hand-drawn newspaper-style page with a column of text and illustrations of a woman in a military uniform and a diner scene. The titles “W110278” (Molly Lamb Bobak’s service number) and “Girl Takes Drastic Step!” are written at the top

Molly Lamb Bobak’s handwritten diary, amplified with colourful sketches (e006078933)

A hand-drawn page with text and illustrations of two women in military uniforms, women posing for images, women eating at a restaurant, a small pink pig, and women marching. The title reads, “Life Begins as Second Lieutenant!”

Another example from Molly Lamb Bobak’s handwritten diary (e011161136)

The diary’s first page (top) captures the humorous tone and unique approach of the diary, which is written in newspaper style, with the pages resembling big-city broadsheets. The first headline reads “Girl Takes Drastic Step! ‘You’re in the Army now’ as Medical Test Okayed.” What follows are handwritten news bulletins with amusing anecdotes and vibrant illustrations, revealing women’s experiences in Second World War army life. These comprise a personal daily record of Lamb Bobak’s time in the CWAC. She worked serving in canteens before being sent on basic training in Alberta, eventually being promoted to Lieutenant in the Canadian Army Historical Section, in 1945. Throughout her years of service in Canada, she captured the world around her, later using many of these sketches as studies for her paintings.

Three years after enlisting, Molly Lamb Bobak achieved her ultimate goal when she became the first woman to be sent overseas as an official war artist. She recorded her excitement in her diary, writing “Lamb’s Fate Revealed…To Be First Woman War Artist!” Despite her talent, Lamb Bobak’s appointment as an official war artist was far from a foregone conclusion. Women’s perspectives had not been a priority for the program. As she later recalled, “[B]eing the first female war artist, with 9 men [in my group] . . . was sort of a great thing to have happened to me . . . because I know the Army didn’t want women [artists], in those days.” She credited family friend and Group of Seven painter A.Y. Jackson with her success. Indeed, he had written on her behalf to the director of the National Gallery of Canada, who was involved in the war art program, stating “If she had half a chance, she could go places.” And go places she did!

A black-and-white photograph, taken from the side, of a woman painting at an easel, holding a paintbrush and palette

Molly Lamb Bobak paints #1 Static Base Laundry (shown completed below) (a188549)

A colourful painting depicting a building and women (some in uniform) in a line, with rolling hills and trees in the background. This painting is the completed version of the painting on which Bobak is working in the photograph above

#1 Static Base Laundry, a painting now in the collections of the Canadian War Museum Canadian War Museum 19710261-1617

After the ceasefire in 1945, the military sent Molly Lamb Bobak to England, the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany. As one of almost 30 Canadian official war artists working during the Second World War, Lamb Bobak created works that are unique because of their focus on servicewomen. Roughly 50,000 Canadian women enlisted in the military during the Second World War, but their experiences were not generally of interest to male war artists or administrators of the war art program, who tended to focus on battlefield scenes and servicemen. As a CWAC herself, Molly Lamb Bobak had unparalleled access to her subjects and was able to capture the daily experiences of being a servicewoman. She later explained that “[T]he whole structure of army life is agreeable to a painter… and everywhere you turn there is something terrific to paint…. one could spend hours … drawing the C.W.A.C.s checking in and out, the new recruits, the fatigue girls in their overalls, the orderly officer.” During her time overseas, she produced dozens of paintings that today are part of the Beaverbrook Collection of War Art at the Canadian War Museum. Together with the material at Library and Archives Canada, it is possible to build a rich portrait of Molly Lamb Bobak’s military experiences and of her life as a painter. Following the war, she married fellow official war artist Bruno Bobak. Their assignment to a shared studio space in London, U.K., began a romance that lasted until their deaths (Molly Lamb Bobak died in 2014, and Bruno Bobak died in 2012). Their shared archival collection is housed at Library and Archives Canada.

We invite you to use our Co-Lab tool to transcribe, tag, translate and describe digitized records from our collection, such as Molly Lamb Bobak’s wartime diary.


Krista Cooke is a curator with the Exhibitions team at Library and Archives Canada. This blog post draws from an earlier version written by Carolyn Cook, formerly of LAC.

How the death of one prime minister inspired Canadian art on an unusually grand scale

A head and shoulders portrait of former Canadian prime minister Sir John Sparrow Thompson

Sir John Sparrow David Thompson by Bonne de Bock, c. 1895 (e000000122)

Canadians were shocked and saddened when Canada’s fourth prime minister, Sir John Sparrow David Thompson (1845–1894), died suddenly during a formal lunch in the United Kingdom, at Windsor Castle. They were honoured when Queen Victoria laid the funerary wreath upon “her dead premier’s” casket with her own hands.

This was a period of shared national mourning. The unexpected nature of the death, combined with the extended, high-profile pomp and splendour of the funerary proceedings—on both sides of the Atlantic—made it the major Canadian news story of the day. Much of the coverage took on an imperial-nationalistic tone.

Head and shoulders photograph of Frederic Marlett Bell-Smith

Portraits of Artists from Archives Of American Art, Smithsonian Institution

One Canadian artist, Frederic Marlett Bell-Smith (1846–1923) was inspired to capture the sentiment through a timely and ambitious program of commemorative public art.

Bell-Smith planned and prepared a series of three monumental canvases, which he intended to sell to the Canadian government. Ultimately, Bell-Smith hoped the series would be displayed in perpetuity, either at the National Gallery of Canada or on Parliament Hill.

In each of the three paintings that make up the series, the artist chose to portray one important homage to the dead prime minister. The first, Queen Victoria’s Tribute to Her Dead Canadian Premier, which is known as “The Tribute,” is set at Windsor Castle and centres around Queen Victoria’s official act of laying the wreath on Thompson’s casket.

A portrait of those attending the mass held at Windsor Castle for former prime minister Sir John Thompson. Queen Victoria lays a wreath on Thompson’s casket while prominent guests and members of her court look on

Queen Victoria’s Tribute to her Dead Canadian Premier, by Frederic Marlett Bell-Smith, 1896, (c141808k)

The second, The Arrival of the Blenheim at Halifax, known as “The Arrival,” portrays solemnities held on the deck of Queen Victoria’s “fastest warship,” the HMS Blenheim. The Blenheim was chosen to convey Thompson’s body back to Canada, with highest honours. The ship’s sides were painted black and its gangway draped in black cloth.

A photograph of an original oil painting which shows the deck of the HMS Blenheim upon its arrival in Halifax with former prime minister Thompson’s remains.

The Arrival of the Blenheim at Halifax, photograph of the original 1895 painting, c. 1902, by Cunningham Studios, (e011213232)

Unfortunately, the only remaining record of this painting is a black and white photograph. The original was destroyed in the Parliament Hill fire of 1916.

The third, and final, painting in the series, The State Funeral of Sir John Thompson at Halifax, known as “The State Funeral,” portrays Thompson’s Canadian state funeral, which was held in Halifax, Nova Scotia, on January 3, 1896.

A painting of the state funeral of Sir John Thompson, in Halifax, Nova Scotia, featuring portraits of many of those attending

The State Funeral of Sir John Thompson at Halifax, by Frederic Marlett Bell-Smith, 1897, Library and Archives Canada (c147277k)

Bell-Smith’s paintings don’t portray Thompson himself: instead they provide accurate portraits of the former prime minister’s most prominent mourners. While these include British royalty (Queen Victoria granted Bell-Smith a life sitting) and court personalities (the queen’s “loyal Indian servant,” Mohammed Abdul Karim (1863–1909), often referred to as “Abdul,” features prominently in the first canvas), the cast is primarily made up of politicians and prominent citizens in Halifax and Ottawa—those with the power to eventually buy the works for the people of Canada.

Detail shows Mohammed Abdul Karim

Detail of “Abdul,” from “The Tribute” (c141808k)

 

Detail shows politicians and prominent citizens of the day

Detail of mourners , from “The State Funeral”, (c141808k)

Unfortunately, Bell Smith’s very attempts to connect the paintings to potential patrons may have led to the failure of his commemoration.

By the time the works were finished, the government had changed hands. As Eva Major-Marothy, former chief curator and senior art archivist at Library and Archives Canada, has written in her important study on the series: “The new Liberal government was not interested in acquiring portraits of its opponents or paintings of activities that glorified them.”

The aesthetic quality of the works may also have been a determining factor. The composition of “the State Funeral” appears especially clunky and forced, perhaps due to Bell-Smith’s overzealous attempts to include every important sitter. In some cases, the size of the figures is exaggerated. In most cases the positions are as unnatural as if the portraits had been cut and pasted from another source. At the time, the then-curator of the National Gallery of Canada felt “unable to recommend their purchase….”

In the end, the entire series fell into obscurity, and two of the paintings were presumed lost for a number of years. But what really happened to each of Bell-Smith’s monumental canvases?

“The Tribute” was purchased by the Women’s Canadian Historical Society of Toronto in about 1914 and donated to the then National Archives sometime before 1931. It was lost in the archives and discovered again much later, during an inventory of large rolled up items. The canvas had been badly damaged, but Library and Archives Canada’s team of conservators was able to restore it expertly… it remains an example of an extraordinary conservation effort.

“The Arrival” was purchased by a senator whose portrait figures prominently in it. After his death, his widow donated the work to the National Gallery, but it was transferred to the Railway Room, on Parliament Hill, where it was destroyed in the fire.

“The State Funeral,” the third and last painting in Bell-Smith’s series, was never sold and remained in the artist’s family. It was donated to Library and Archives Canada by the artist’s descendants in 1997.

Today, the two remaining paintings—reunited in Library and Archives Canada’s collection—provide us with a fascinating insight into the history of public commemoration in Canada.

For further information, see Eva Major-Marothy, The Wrong Commemoration: Frederic Marlett Bell-Smith’s Paintings of the State Funeral of Sir John Thompson, in Public Art in Canada, Toronto (2009).

The Group of Seven and me: A few degrees of separation

By Ellen Bond

The bus trip from Barrie to Kleinburg, Ontario, in 1972 did not take long. We arrived at the McMichael Gallery, home to the McMichael Canadian Art Collection, on a sunny spring day. I remember a wide, open space with long pathways from the parking lot that were lined with small trees leading to a cool-looking wooden building with massive stone pillars.

At that time in my life, my family would spend parts of our summers on Georgian Bay (Lake Huron) at Wymbolwood Beach and on the north shore of Lake Superior in Terrace Bay. Walking into the McMichael Gallery was like looking through the lens of my summer: paintings of the places that provided me with so much joy and happiness. I was instantly drawn to the colours, lines, thick brush strokes, and how the paintings captured the rocks, the windswept trees and the majestic landscape.

A watercolour painting of people in a red canoe with colourful trees and windswept trees in the background.

The Red Canoe, painted by J.E.H. MacDonald, 1915 (e003894355)

One hundred years ago, on May 7, 1920, the Group of Seven mounted their first formal exhibition at the Art Gallery of Toronto (now known as the Art Gallery of Ontario). It was the first time that the public had the chance to see over 120 of their paintings in a single location. At that first exhibition, according to the McMichael website, only six paintings sold. One of those paintings today would be worth much more than the total amount originally paid for all six.

In 1920, the Group of Seven consisted of Franklin Carmichael, Lawren Harris, A.Y. Jackson, Frank Johnston, Arthur Lismer, J.E.H. MacDonald and Frederick Varley. Johnston left the group in 1920 and moved to Winnipeg, and in 1926, A.J. Casson was invited to join. Two other members, Edwin Holgate and L.L. FitzGerald, joined in 1930 and 1932 respectively. Although Tom Thompson is sometimes mistakenly considered a founding member, he died tragically in 1917 before the group was even formed.

A black-and-white photo of a group of men in suits seated around a table during a meal.

Group at the Arts and Letters Club, Toronto. Pictured: Bertram Booker, A.Y. Jackson, Merrill Denison, J.E.H. MacDonald, Lawren Harris, Frederick B. Housser and an unidentified man. (PA-196166)

The Group of Seven are famous across Canada. In schools, libraries and art schools, their paintings are used as examples, and students are often taught to paint landscapes in their style. I remember my niece Emma painting a group-like painting at school. It hung on the wall of her house by the stairs and looked very professional. The Group of Seven are easily “googled,” and you can find some of their paintings regularly displayed, or even for sale, from coast to coast in Canada. Recently, while visiting the Thompson Landry Gallery in the Distillery District in Toronto, I actually saw a Group of Seven painting for sale. It was my first time, and I stood and stared at it, wishing I had an extra $133,000 to buy it right then and there. I was in awe!

According to the theory of six degrees of separation, any person can be connected to any other person through six or fewer social connections. Two of my friends have close connections (two or fewer) to Group of Seven members Arthur Lismer and A.Y. Jackson.

I first met Ronna Mogelon through a friend and was amazed at her cake-decorating skills. When I found out she lived in the historic log cabin that I admired every time I drove by, I was even more excited to know her. Then I found out about her connection to Lismer. Here is her story:

My mum and dad were very artsy and involved in the art community in Montréal in the ’60s. They hosted art shows in their home, before artists could find galleries to represent them. My mother, Lila, was from Saint John, New Brunswick, and was very close with painter Fred Ross, who was her teacher at art school. (Several of his works are hanging in the National Gallery of Canada, in Ottawa, Ontario.) Before he had a regular gallery, he showed his artwork at our house.

As well, my father, Alex, wrote the monthly art column in The Montrealer, a magazine from the ’60s and ’70s. Mum usually interviewed the artists, and Dad wrote the story from her reel-to-reel recordings. A real tag team! So our family was very involved with the arts.

Anyhow, my parents wanted us to have a good background in art, and so they sent us to the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts on Saturday mornings to take art classes with Arthur Lismer. Most kids went to nursery school. We went to Arthur Lismer school.

A black-and-white photo of a man standing with his left hand on his hip and a pipe in his hand.

Portrait of Arthur Lismer, photographed in Quebec by Basil Zarov in 1953 (e011000857)

Because I was so young, my recollections are rather scattered. I remember how tall he was, but then again, being only six years old, I was pretty short at the time. I seem to recall he smoked a pipe. I remember how I felt like a real artist because we got to stand at an easel and paint. My older sister, Marcia, who took the class a few years previous to me, remembers the big art show at the end of the year, where all the artists’ paintings were on display and she got to dress up in her best outfit. My cousin Richard remembers the licorice pipes that we got at the end of the class on our way home.

I’m not sure if his classes had an effect on me, but I suppose they might have. Years later, I chose art as my field of endeavour and graduated from Concordia University, Montréal, with a Bachelor of Fine Arts. Maybe some of his teaching rubbed off after all!

As I mentioned earlier, I have spent many of my summers partially on Lake Superior. My parents were both born and raised in the northwestern Ontario area, I was born in Terrace Bay, and for me it seems like home. One of my sister’s friends, Johanna Rowe, was born and raised in Wawa, Ontario. We have visited and even stayed at Johanna’s camp on the mouth of the Michipicoten River where it meets Lake Superior. It is one of the most beautiful places that I have ever been. White sand beaches, incredible rocks to hop on, a huge sand spit—at the mouth of the river—that sometimes disappears after a storm, giant driftwood logs from unknown forests …  truly spectacular!

A black-and-white photo of a man in a military uniform.

A.Y. Jackson, 1915, in his First World War uniform. (e002712910) Take a look at Jackson’s military record (PDF).

Johanna, a local Wawa historian and member of the Canadian Association of Heritage Professionals, has a special relationship with this area where A.Y. Jackson chose to create his art. Here is her story:

I grew up listening to my grandmother’s stories about how a member of the Group of Seven had a cottage in Wawa and regularly took trips with local boat owners to explore and paint along the Superior shoreline.

During a special Glenn Gould and Group of Seven training event in 2015, I was introduced to Ken Ross, son of Harry and Jennie Ross, friends of A.Y. Jackson who co-purchased a cottage together on Sandy Beach in 1955.

Between 1955 and 1966, Jackson ventured by foot and by boat from his tiny Sandy Beach cabin. Accompanied by friends and fellow explorers, he created hundreds of sketches and paintings depicting the Lake Superior landscape from Batchawana Bay to Pukaskwa. Many of Jackson’s Wawa sketches were painted in the vicinity of Sandy Beach.

At the end of Jackson’s Wawa paint trips, he and the Ross family would invite friends and neighbours to a social and bonfire on the beach. Jackson would have all his sketches on display leaning against large pieces of driftwood or tacked to the logs on the outside of his cabin. Folks could purchase one of his creations for $30 to $50, or commission Jackson to make a larger version over the winter back in his studio for $300-plus. Apparently, those he did not sell would sometimes end up as fuel in the bonfire. Jackson was also very generous with his sketches and often gifted them to locals who provided transportation out on Superior, invited him to their homes for dinner, or simply let him sit and paint the view in front of their property.

During my research, I discovered there is no complete inventory of his creations. These sketches are now turning up at fine-art auctions across the continent. In the past five years, there have been at least 30 paintings pop out of the woodwork which we know Jackson painted in the Wawa area. He often wrote Wawa or Michipicoten on the back of the painting. And for those of us who have a first-hand knowledge of the landscape, the roll of the hills, the dent in the shoreline, we are able to pick out the exact spot where Jackson sat and painted. It is the ultimate Canadian scavenger hunt … discovering the site where a member of the Group of Seven was inspired to sit and let the creative spirit flow through their paintbrush to a blank canvas. Still gives me a tingle up my spine each time. …

A black-and-white photo of a man rowing a wooden boat.

A.Y. Jackson in a boat, 1959 (e011177131)

The times I have spent on Georgian Bay and Lake Superior have burned memories in my mind so bright, I can still feel the wind of the Great Lakes blowing in my hair, the waves crashing and pounding in my ears, and the brilliant blue of the water dancing in my eyes. I am thankful for my experiences there, and also thankful that Canada’s most well-known artists were able to capture those feelings in their paintings. I look forward to connecting again on my next trip.

For more images, visit the Flickr album!


Ellen Bond is a Project Assistant in the Online Content team at Library and Archives Canada.

John Colin Forbes and Kenneth Keith Forbes, a lineage of official portraitists!

By Geneviève Couture

The careers of painters John Colin Forbes (1846–1925) and his son Kenneth Keith Forbes (1892–1980) clearly illustrate how particular prime ministers were their muses and patrons. Between them, the two portraitists painted seven Canadian prime ministers, two governors general, five chief justices of the Supreme Court, 11 speakers of the House of Commons and 14 speakers of the Senate. These artists also painted a king and queen of England on behalf of the Canadian government. Over a period of more than 90 years, the Forbeses helped to build an artistic and visual heritage depicting the executive, legislative and judicial branches of the Canadian government.

John Colin Forbes

John Colin Forbes was born in Toronto in 1846. In the 1860s, he studied painting in Paris and London before returning to Canada. He was a founding member of the Ontario Society of Artists (1872) and the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts (1880).

Forbes was quickly recognized as a portraitist and received numerous commissions. He painted Lord Dufferin and the Marquess of Lansdowne, both governors general of Canada. Between 1878 and 1893, he created portraits of Sir John A. Macdonald, Alexander Mackenzie, Sir Charles Tupper and Wilfrid Laurier. None of these were official portraits, but Tupper’s is in the Parliament of Canada, while Macdonald’s and one of Laurier’s are in the National Gallery of Canada. Forbes was also commissioned to produce four official portraits of speakers of the House of Commons and six official portraits of speakers of the Senate.

The artist had a special relationship with Sir Wilfrid Laurier, who called Forbes a “friend.” He painted Laurier for the first time in 1885, based on a photo taken around 1882 by William Topley’s studio in Ottawa.

Black-and-white photo of a seated man in a suit.

Wilfrid Laurier, MP. Topley Studio, 1882. (a013133-v8)

The second painting of Laurier by Forbes was presented to the Prime Minister by his friends and Liberal Party supporters on May 15, 1902. In his speech to the House of Commons, Laurier stated, “It is with a very sincere heart indeed that both in my own name and in the name of my wife, I accept from the unknown friends […] this memento which is the work of a great Canadian artist.”

Lamenting that Forbes was at the time practicing his art in the United States, Laurier added:

Unfortunately Canada, which is still a young country, has not afforded to artists all the help it might have given in the past. I trust that in the future Canadian artists and talents will receive more encouragement from the Canadian people that they received hitherto. For my part, it is with some regret, I acknowledge that perhaps the Government might have done more than it has for the encouragement of native, artistic talent.

Finally, regretting not having children to whom he could bequeath the painting, Laurier made this wish: “Someday I hope it will be in a national museum, not with a view of remembering me to posterity, but for the glory of Mr. Forbes, the artist who painted it.” A few years later, in 1906, Laurier himself gave the painting to the National Gallery of Canada.

A royal commission

His special relationship with Prime Minister Laurier earned Forbes his most prestigious commission: a painting of King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra. He was the first Canadian painter to have a sitting with a British monarch, and official portraits of Edward VII would adorn the House of Commons.

The correspondence between Forbes and Laurier on this matter, which is part of the Sir Wilfrid Laurier fonds at Library and Archives Canada, indicates that Forbes had requested the commission from Laurier, with whom he had previously discussed it.

Black-and-white photo of a typed page.

Letter from John Colin Forbes to Wilfrid Laurier dated April 14, 1904, requesting the commission to paint the King and Queen on behalf of the Canadian government. (Wilfrid Laurier fonds, MG26 G 1(A), Vol. 312, page 84516, microfilm C-810)

Laurier agreed after he received a petition in support that was signed by 92 of the 214 members of Parliament.

A black-and-white image of a scanned page from microfilm.

The first of three pages of the petition, from members of the House of Commons to Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier, to commission painter John Colin Forbes to paint a portrait of the King for the House of Commons. (Wilfrid Laurier fonds, MG26 G 1(A), Vol. 312, page 84518, microfilm C-810)

Laurier forwarded the request to the Governor General, Lord Minto, who helped arrange access to the royals for Forbes.

A black-and-white image of a scanned page from microfilm.

Letter from Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier to Governor General Lord Minto, recommending that John Colin Forbes be commissioned to do the painting, and that steps be taken to that effect with the King. (Wilfrid Laurier Fonds, MG26 G 1(A), Vol. 326, page 87632, microfilm C-813)

The sitting was granted, and Forbes travelled to England to paint the portraits. Unfortunately, the paintings were destroyed in the Parliament fire in 1916, less than 12 years after their creation. Forbes’s four official portraits of the speakers of the House of Commons and six official portraits of the speakers of the Senate survived the fire.

Black-and-white photo of a burning building.

The eastern part of Centre Block in flames, Ottawa, 1916. (a052822-v8)

Sir John A. Macdonald and Sir Wilfrid Laurier: inspiring portraits

Two portraits of prime ministers painted by Forbes inspired their successors. In a Winnipeg Free Press article published on March 20, 1965, journalist Peter C. Newman reported that, depending on their political allegiance, new prime ministers had either Sir John A. Macdonald’s or Sir Wilfrid Laurier’s portrait installed in their East Block office in Ottawa. This practice changed under Lester B. Pearson, when the Prime Minister asked for both paintings in his office.

Photographs taken by Duncan Cameron (recently discussed in a blog post about news photographers and prime ministers) confirm that John Diefenbaker, Lester B. Pearson and Pierre Elliott Trudeau had paintings by Forbes in their offices. Paul Martin’s office was decorated with the first painting of Laurier by Forbes from 1885.

Black-and-white photo of a man taking a photograph of a photographer who is photographing him.

Pierre Elliott Trudeau taking a photograph with news journalist Duncan Cameron’s camera, June 28, 1968. Photo: Duncan Cameron (a175919)

Kenneth Keith Forbes

The son of John Colin Forbes, Kenneth Keith Forbes, also became a famous portraitist. Born in Toronto in 1892, he began drawing at the age of four under his father’s tutelage. Between 1908 and 1913, he studied art in England and Scotland. When the First World War started in 1914, the younger Forbes joined the British army as an ordinary soldier. He fought in France, where he was injured and gassed. Forbes was promoted to captain, and in 1918 he was transferred to the Canadian Army (specifically, the Canadian War Records Office) as a war artist. He painted scenes of battles as well as portraits of Canadian officers, including Brigadier General D. Draper.

Library and Archives Canada holds the recently digitized military file of Kenneth Keith Forbes.

Oil painting by Kenneth Keith Forbes from 1918. The scene shows the defence of Sanctuary Wood by the Canadian military near Ypres, Belgium, in 1916.

The Defence of Sanctuary Wood (1916), by Kenneth Keith Forbes, 1918. (e010751163-v8)

Official portraitist

A few years later, Forbes returned to Toronto; continuing in the family tradition, he focused mainly on portraits.

Among other things, he painted the official portraits of seven speakers of the House of Commons, eight speakers of the Senate and five chief justices of the Supreme Court.

Forbes also painted the portraits of prime ministers Robert Borden, R.B. Bennett and John Diefenbaker. The first portrait of R.B. Bennett painted in 1938 by Forbes was offered to the Prime Minister by members of Parliament, senators and Conservative Party members upon his retirement from politics. It is now in the New Brunswick Museum, where Bennett bequeathed it.

Forbes then painted the official portrait of Sir Robert Borden for the House of Commons. The painting was commissioned by the Speaker of the House, Gaspard Fauteux, whose portrait Forbes had painted the previous year. The aim was to complete the collection of official portraits representing Canada’s prime ministers in the House of Commons. This painting was unveiled in Parliament on June 11, 1947, 10 years after Borden’s death, along with a portrait of William Lyon Mackenzie King, with President Harry Truman of the United States in attendance.

In his diary, Mackenzie King explains why he suggested that his portrait and that of Borden, both prime ministers in the major wars, be unveiled at the same ceremony.

A black-and-white image of a typewritten page of William Lyon Mackenzie King’s diary dated May 19, 1947.

Excerpt from the May 19, 1947, entry in William Lyon Mackenzie King’s diary, explaining how he came to suggest that his portrait and that of Borden, both prime ministers in the major wars, be unveiled at the same ceremony. (William Lyon Mackenzie King fonds, MG26 J 13, May 19, 1947)

A decade later, Forbes painted two portraits of John Diefenbaker. The first was given to Diefenbaker by members of his Cabinet and hung in the prime minister’s official residence at 24 Sussex Drive, and later in Stornoway, the official residence of the leader of the opposition. The second portrait of Diefenbaker was commissioned by freemasons from Washington and is now in Arlington, Virginia.

In 1962, Forbes painted the official portrait of R.B. Bennett for the House of Commons. The commission came close to 25 years after his earlier painting, and 15 years after Bennett’s death. It was requested by Prime Minister John Diefenbaker and the Speaker of the House of Commons, Roland Michener. Once again, the aim was to fill in gaps in the collection of official portraits of Canada’s prime ministers in the House of Commons.

Conclusion

The careers of portraitists John Colin Forbes and Kenneth Keith Forbes reveal the sometimes unsuspected links between the arts and politics. The father and son clearly benefited from their good relationships with parliamentarians, particularly prime ministers, receiving many highly prestigious commissions.

Prime ministers also benefited from the work of artists like the Forbeses, whose paintings helped to commemorate and glorify the men who held the country’s highest political positions and inspired their successors. As we have seen, political affiliation was not at issue in requests to the father-and-son artists to contribute to this commemorative undertaking by painting portraits of prime ministers in office and their predecessors. The Forbes portraitists helped to establish the role of prime ministers in the country’s political memory.

Moreover, the talent for painting portraits did not end with John Colin Forbes and Kenneth Keith Forbes. The latter married Jean Mary Edgell, who was also a painter, and their daughter, Laura June McCormack (1921–1961), painted some portraits now in the Legislative Assembly of Ontario, notably one of Louis-Hippolyte La Fontaine.

For additional information about portraits of prime ministers, read Andrew Kear’s thesis, Governing Likenesses: The Production History of the Official Portraits of Canadian Prime Ministers, 1889–2002.


Geneviève Couture is an archivist with the Prime Minister Papers project in the Science and Governance Private Archives Division at Library and Archives Canada.

Portraiture and the H. Sarah Howard Album (1874)

By Hilary Dow

In the past, photographic albums were used not only as mementos of loved ones and treasured events. They also declared the social identity and status of their owners, and they were forms of artistic expression. Sarah Howard’s 42-page album includes 123 photographs and was created in 1874. The H. Sarah Howard Album is an example of how women in that era used photocollage to express and represent their personal and social identities. An album does not deliver a conventional portrait, but this one reveals much about Howard and her life. It communicates dimensions of her personality and identity that could not be captured through traditional painted or photographic portraits.

An album page with photographs of three men and a woman, surrounded by coloured maple leaves

A page from the H. Sarah Howard Album, 1874 (e011201205)

Sarah Howard (1843–1911)

The words “H. Sarah Howard” are imprinted in gold embossing on the cover of the brown leather volume. This inscription refers to Hannah Sarah Howard, a Canadian woman born in Buffalo, New York, on December 25, 1843, to parents Marianne (née Wallbridge) and Hiram E. Howard. In 1861, Sarah Howard began studying science at the Buffalo Female Academy. Later, in Canada, she was involved with the Ottawa Agricultural Society and The Canadian Horticulturist, publishing articles and giving lectures on floriculture. In addition to her scientific pursuits, Howard was involved in the arts. She was trained as an amateur pianist and performed during the years that she lived in Buffalo. Howard also wrote and published poetry throughout her life, and she was regarded as a talented “sketcher” in Ottawa newspaper reports from the period.

Despite these accomplishments, Howard’s primary duty was to her family and domestic life, during a period when the social mobility of women was restricted. Following the death of her parents, Howard and her younger siblings Frances, Caroline, Henrica and Lewis immigrated to Belleville, Ontario, in 1868. They resided in the “Wallbridge White House” with their uncle Lewis Wallbridge, who was the last Speaker of the Legislative Assembly of the Province of Canada. In her early years in Canada under her uncle’s influence, Howard had access to elite social circles. She regularly attended upper-class functions and balls in Ottawa, such as Governor General Lord Dufferin’s Fancy Dress Ball of 1876. Three years after moving to Canada, Sarah purchased a home on John Street in Belleville for herself and her siblings; as the eldest of the Howard children, she was their legal guardian. During the time she lived there, from 1871 to 1878, she was the sole head of the household and acted as such. As an extension of her domestic duties at this time, she produced two decorative photo albums documenting her family life and social connections.

The H. Sarah Howard Album (1874)

Album-making was a common activity for upper-class and upper-middle-class women of the period. The craft was seen as an extension of domestic duty and reaffirmed women’s dominion over the family realm. Like other Victorian albums, the pages of Howard’s scrapbook contain photographic prints of the owner’s family and friends, which are surrounded by colourful paintings and drawings. The types of imagery used in the photocollages in Howard’s album include designs of flowers, animals and plant life, copies of European artworks, and comedic caricatures. The use of photocollage, a technique that creates a composite picture by assembling fragments of photographs in combination with other artistic and natural materials, results in compositions that are comical and imaginative. One page, for example, features caricatures holding picture frames, likely drawn from comedic stock characters illustrated in the British periodical Punch.

An album page of coloured images that include a man beating a drum, a man holding a poster, a man sitting in a chair reading a newspaper and a man blowing a horn with a banner attached. There are four photographs, embedded in the drum, poster, newspaper and banner.

A page from the H. Sarah Howard Album, 1874 (e011201205)

An album page with a large photograph of a man in the centre, surrounded by six smaller photographs of women and men. There are also coloured drawings of flowers, birds and a squirrel.

A page from the H. Sarah Howard Album, 1874 (e011201205)

Photocollage albums, which are often referred to as “scrap albums” by photo historians, initially became popular in Europe with the invention of the carte-de-visite by the French photographer André-Adolphe-Eugène Disdéri in 1854. Sometimes referred to as cabinet cards, these types of photographs were small 54-mm by 89-mm paper prints mounted on cabinet card backings and easily reproduced, shared and collected. Cartes-de-visite were sold in Canadian photographic studios by photographers such as William Notman and William James Topley. Howard had her portrait taken by Topley on numerous occasions, and several of his works appear in her albums. Most of the photographs in the album are portraits of Howard’s siblings, parents, schoolteachers, fellow students, cousins and friends. The photographs are sourced from Buffalo and Belleville. Photographs of her husband and children do not appear in it, so the album represents her life as a young woman until 1874, prior to her marriage to the Honourable Octavius Lambart in 1878.

Howard’s album can be interpreted as a portrait that shows her family life and how she wanted to be seen in society. Given her interest in maintaining her public appearance, it is likely that Howard used her album to uphold her public image and class status, factors central to her identity. It was standard practice for albums to be displayed in the parlour room of homes; they functioned as tools of social performance that told outsiders who the owner was and what he or she represented. Several pages in the album feature Howard’s portrait prominently.

An album page with a photograph of the album’s owner, Sarah Howard, in the centre of the photocollage. Her image is surrounded by paintings of morning glory flowers, and an individual and two group portraits of people who are likely Howard’s family and friends.

A page from the H. Sarah Howard Album, 1874 (e011201205)

Howard is typically pictured in profile view with a stern expression, and her clothing and jewellery are emphasized. These are features of the solemn Victorian portrait that was believed to represent one’s virtue, status and moral character. While Howard’s album, on one hand, shows her public image, it also conceals her private sentiments and feelings about specific moments in her life. A good example of this is a memorial page dedicated to Sarah’s parents. In the collage, the portraits of Hiram and Marianne Howard are placed inside a forget-me-not plant.

An album page with photographs of a man and a woman in the middle of two green leaves and surrounded by purple flowers.

A page from the H. Sarah Howard Album, 1874: a memorial page to Sarah’s parents, Hiram and Marianne Howard (e011201205)

Flowers had distinctive symbolic meanings in the Victorian era. Throughout the album, paintings of flora are used to visually communicate emotions and experiences attached to specific individuals and photographs. The album, though not a typical portrait, thereby expresses public, intimate and personal aspects of Sarah Howard’s identity.

 Collaborative albums: portraits of women by women

The H. Sarah Howard Album not only functions as a self-portrait, but also serves as a portrait of Sarah Howard by a professional woman artist. It may appear at first glance that Howard is the sole creator of her album; however, the Howard album bears a remarkable resemblance to the C.W. Bell Album, illustrated by Caroline Walker in 1875 and now in the Art Gallery of Ontario’s collection. Select pages of both albums have exactly the same photographs of sitters (Howard and Bell were relatives), and the same design templates and styles of paintings are used.

An album page with photographs of eight men and women in the middle of green leaves and surrounded by white flowers.

A page from the H. Sarah Howard Album, 1874 (e011201205)

Caroline Walker (1827–1904) was a professional artist who exhibited watercolours and ink sketches at the Upper Canada provincial exhibitions between 1859 and 1865. Walker made albums for other influential settler families in Ontario during this time, including the lawyer Charles W. Bell, Sarah Howard’s cousin.

It may seem peculiar to contemporary viewers that something as mundane as a family photo album could have been a commissioned work produced by an artist. However, albums represent cultural values and signifiers, as do conventional portraits. A portrait’s ability to represent power, status and social class is central to how art historians have defined this genre of art. Owning a family album in the 1870s was a marker of one’s social status, just as having one’s portrait made indicated one’s social importance. With the advent of photography in Europe and North America, gone were the days when portraits were confined to the medium of painting. While the development of the cartes-de-visite enabled the mass circulation of photographs, with lower prices and greater accessibility for the middle class, handmade albums containing hundreds of photographs were expensive and signified elevated individual and familial social rank.

Despite the album’s similarity to the artistic style of Caroline Walker, the album is mostly likely a product of collaboration between Howard and Walker. The album includes two distinct painting styles, and the photographs selected were evidently selections from Howard’s photograph collection. Regardless of the album’s attribution, the H. Sarah Howard Album represents biographical elements of Howard’s life and displays characteristics of portraiture such as identity, social status and self-representation.

The H. Sarah Howard Album is a Victorian photocollage album created in Belleville, Ontario, in 1874. The album comprises 42 pages and contains 123 photographs in total. It is in Library and Archives Canada’s holdings as part of the Lambart family collection.

© Hilary Dow


Hilary Dow is a young professional and emerging scholar and curator based in Ottawa. She recently graduated with an MA in Art History and a Graduate Diploma in Curatorial Studies from Carleton University.

Images of Fashion Plates now on Flickr 

A black-and-white drawing of a woman wearing a gown with a plain skirt edged with five rows of velvet along the hem and a pleated bodice draped like an apron over the front. She is wearing a hat with feathers and carrying an umbrella.

The Charneville Toilette from “Le Moniteur de la Mode” (C-115935k)

Fashion plates, or prints of popular clothing trends, have been available for a long time. However, they really became popular in the 19th century due to advances in printing, increased literacy, and the rise in magazine. Fashion magazines for both women and men discussed etiquette, literature, and new style trends. An ever-growing list of magazines produced their own plates or borrowed from other magazines. Some even included sewing patterns. The plates in this album were taken from magazines published in England (The Lady’s Cabinet), France (Le Bon Ton : Journal des Modes, Journal des Dames et des Modes, Le Moniteur de la Mode, and Le Follet : Courrier des Salons), and the United States (The Season, and Peterson’s Magazine).

A colour plate of a woman in a pink dinner dress with a pleated off-the-shoulder bodice and ruffles along the hem. She is wearing a pearl hair net, and holding a fan in her gloved hand.

“Dinner Dress” from “Ladies’ Cabinet of Fashion, Music and Romance” (e010863096)

The plates are works of art in their own right. They represent changes in art throughout the century from romanticism to art deco. Producing plates for magazines often involved an artist to draw the image and an engraver to print the plate. Popular magazines were able to hire some of the best illustrators of the day. Some prints were black and white, while the more high quality examples were hand coloured after printing. Printing changed too with the colours becoming more vibrant and the lines more crisp as the technology improved.

A colour plate of a seated women wearing a long cream skirt and a green shirt patterned with cream ovals. The shirt is belted with a red scarf. She is also wearing green high heel shoes, a long pearl necklace, and rings on her fingers.

“Robe d’intérieur” [Indoor dress] from “Journal des Dames et des Modes” (C-115396k)

Many plates were separated from their magazines and are now sold separately to art collectors or other interested buyers. This is probably how they ended up in our collection. Most were found in individual art collections, or in a costume designer’s collection.

A colour plate of two women standing in a living room. One is wearing a blue dress with ruffles at the sleeves and hem. The other is wearing a striped black and grey dress with a long bustle and ruffles at the hem.

Illustrirte Frauen-Zeitung [Women’s fashion illustration] (C-115400k)

Visit the Flickr album now!


 

Images of Hand Tools now on Flickr

Black-and-white photograph of a woman using a traditional wooden broad plank snow shovel to build an igloo.

Inuit girl with a broad plank snow shovel, Stefansson-Anderson Arctic Expedition, Coronation Gulf, Nunavut [PA-165738]

A hand tool is any tool that is controlled by the human hand alone. Stone Age tools fashioned from stone (sometimes wood) were used for hammering, cutting or digging.

Black-and-white photograph of a woman standing on a dirt road holding a basket full of fern leaves and a shovel on her left shoulder.

Edna Boyd with a basket of ferns and a shovel, Bala, Ontario [PA-070891]

As societies entered the Bronze Age, tools were made by casting copper and tin alloys together. These tools were sharper and harder than those made of stone.

Black-and-white photograph of a man leaning forward and swinging an ice axe to break ice.

A man using an ice axe, British Columbia [e011175725]

Black-and-white photograph of a girl holding a sledgehammer that rests on her right shoulder.

A girl with a sledgehammer [e003895283]

Iron replaced bronze during the Iron Age. These tools were even stronger and durable than their bronze counterparts. Many tools developed during this period resemble tools produced today. A small number of craftspeople manufactured these tools, which limited their spread and use by many people.
The industrial revolution enabled tools to be manufactured in factories. Greater numbers of tools could be produced using heavy machinery. This made them more accessible to the general population, lowered their price, and became more common in households.

Visit the Flickr album now!

Images of Icebergs now on Flickr 

National Film Board photographers setting up by an iceberg (e011175885)

Icebergs are large pieces of ice that break off glaciers and float into the surrounding ocean. They can be pure white or streaked with blue and brown. Blue streaks come from melt water freezing in the cracks of the original glaciers. Brown streaks come from dust landing on the ice or erosion from the original glacier scraping the ground.

Iceberg in Hudson Strait (a045191)

The shape and size of icebergs depends on their breakage and melt patterns, as well as waves, temperature, and the ice pack around them. Common shapes include tabular, blocky, wedge, pinnacle, domed, and drydock.

An album page with five black-and-white close up shots of different types of icebergs and a shot of the ocean at sunset. The captions read, left to right, “Sunset, Baffin Bay” and “Taken at sea – Off Scott Inlet, Baffin Island.”

Views of icebergs taken at sea, off Scott Inlet, Baffin Island (e010863534)

Tabular, or flat pieces of shelf ice that break off to form ice islands, are stable enough to use as mobile research platforms, while the more irregular shapes can break apart without warning. According to the Iceberg Finder, the largest iceberg ever recorded in the Arctic was recorded in 1882 near Baffin Island

Six small sketches of different types of icebergs in pale colours with the caption: “Vanille, fraise, framboise – boum, servez froid!” [Vanilla, strawberry, raspberry—boom, serve cold!]

Vanille, fraise, framboise – boum, servez froid! [Vanilla, strawberry, raspberry—boom, serve cold!] (e008444012)

Visit the Flickr album now!


 

Images of Indigenous Pipes now on Flickr

Close up portrait of a man smoking a pipe, and wearing a flat cap and round glasses.

Portrait of an Inuit man, Angmarlik, a respected leader at Qikiqtat (Kekerten) (PA-166470)

Pipe smoking was practiced by both Indigenous men and women.

Woman smoking a pipe and wearing a dress, shawl, and headwrap. She is holding the reins of a horse pulling a Red River cart.

Camp scene of a Red River cart and an Indigenous woman (e011156555)

Pipe bowls were made from ceramics or carved from hard materials such as pipestone, soapstone, wood, or corncobs. The stem was usually made of a hollowed out tube of wood. Pipes were used recreationally to smoke tobacco, or blends of aromatic plants or barks. Pipes were also used on political and ceremonial occasions. Unique metal-forged axe pipes were gifted to Indigenous chiefs and leaders.

A birch bark basket embroidered in the centre with a First Nations figure smoking a pipe, and white, red, and blue flowers on each side.

Birch bark basket with embroidered First Nations figure and pipe (e010948522)

Pipe smoking has dwindled, but the practice and symbolism still carries on as some of these pictures show.

Portrait of a woman wearing a plaid shawl and smoking a pipe.

Inuit woman wearing plaid shawl and smoking a pipe (e010692540)

Visit the Flickr album now!