Guest Curator: Arlene Gehmacher

Banner for the guest curator series. CANADA 150 is in red along the left side of the banner and then the bilingual text: Canada: Who Do We Think We Are? and under that text is Guest curator series.Canada: Who Do We Think We Are? is a new exhibition by Library and Archives Canada (LAC) marking the 150th anniversary of Canadian Confederation. This exhibition is accompanied by a year-long blog series.

Join us every month during 2017 as experts, from LAC, across Canada and even farther afield, provide additional insights on items from the exhibition. Each “guest curator” discusses one item, then adds another to the exhibition—virtually.

Be sure to visit Canada: Who Do We Think We Are? at 395 Wellington Street in Ottawa between June 5, 2017, and March 1, 2018. Admission is free.


Bunch of Wildflowers by Susanna Moodie, ca. 1870

Yellow dandelion in front of blue and pink wildflowers mingled with leaves, painted on sepia card.

Bunch of Wildflowers by Susanna Moodie, ca. 1870. (MIKAN 2837436)

Susanna Moodie called Canada’s woods “the prison house.” Flower painting may have been her form of therapy. It allowed her to impose order and refinement on one small piece of nature.


Tell us about yourself

Studying the visual culture of Canada has been a pursuit of mine since first being hired to research primary archival and printed sources for an exhibition on historical art produced in Canada. I was hooked—the material satisfied both my love of fine art as well as cultural context. I feel very fortunate to have been able to make it my career.

Is there anything else about this item that you feel Canadians should know?

Watercolours, such as Bunch of Wildflowers, were for Moodie not just a pastime to create gifts for family and friends, but also a commodity that could be used for cash income or trade. With a price tag of $3 to $5, she could pay her servant. William Notman, the famed Canadian photographer, is known to have accepted—at his own suggestion—an autographed watercolour as payment for his photographs. (Moodie obliged with A Group of Crimson, White, Yellow, and Pink Roses.)

The bunch of wildflowers—including periwinkle, dandelion, and clematis—may well have been picked by Moodie herself, but her arranging them into a watercolour was part of her domestic economy.

Tell us about another related item that you would like to add to the exhibition.

Two colour plates of colourful flowers with green leaves. Left: Wild Orange Red Lily, Harebell, and Showy Lady’s Slipper. Right: Sharp-lobed Hepatica, Large-flowered Bellwort, Wood Anemone, and Spring Beauty.

Image on the left: Wild Orange Red Lily, Harebell, and Showy Lady’s Slipper (MIKAN 2905466) Image on the right: Sharp-lobed Hepatica, Large-flowered Bellwort, Wood Anemone, and Spring Beauty (MIKAN 2905471) Plates from Canadian Wild Flowers by Agnes FitzGibbon, published by John Lovell, Montréal, 1868 (AMICUS 49189)

Agnes FitzGibbon, daughter of Susanna Moodie, collaborated with her aunt Catharine Parr Traill (Susanna’s sister) on Canadian Wild Flowers, published in 1868 and praised for its scientific accuracy. Susanna Moodie’s Bunch of Wildflowers bespeaks her joy and passion in picking and aesthetically arranging flowers, and immortalizes her artistry in watercolour. In contrast, FitzGibbon’s fine illustrations are informative, her delineation precise to ensure legibility of specimen.

FitzGibbon’s project was from the start a business venture, each of the 500 copies containing 10 lithographed plates, each hand coloured (with help!), and accompanied by Parr Traill’s descriptions both poetic and naturalist. Executed over 1867 and 1868, Canadian Wild Flowers in subject and timing surely assumed a mantle of national relevance.

Biography

Colour photograph of a woman standing against a turquoise tiled wall.Arlene Gehmacher, PhD, is Curator of Canadian Paintings, Prints & Drawings at the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) in Toronto, Ontario, where she develops collections-based research and exhibits. She also teaches; her course “Collecting Canada” deals with the acquisition, interpretation and display of the ROM’s picture collection and is offered through the Art History Department of the University of Toronto. Her publications cover the 19th to 21st centuries, and include articles on Ozias Leduc (1996), Cornelius Krieghoff (2003), Naoko Matsubara (2003, 2016), Paul Kane (2010, 2014), Arthur Heming (2013), and William Blair Bruce (1999, 2014).

Related resources

Guest curator: Vasanthi Pendakur

Banner for the guest curator series. CANADA 150 is in red along the left side of the banner and then the bilingual text: Canada: Who Do We Think We Are? and under that text is Guest curator series.Canada: Who Do We Think We Are? is a new exhibition by Library and Archives Canada (LAC) marking the 150th anniversary of Canadian Confederation. This exhibition is accompanied by a year-long blog series.

Join us every month during 2017 as experts, from LAC
, across Canada and even farther afield, provide additional insights on items from the exhibition. Each “guest curator” discusses one item, then adds another to the exhibition—virtually.

Be sure to visit Canada: Who Do We Think We Are? at 395 Wellington Street in Ottawa between June 5, 2017, and March 1, 2018. Admission is free.


“Wild” woman of Canada, 1784

A colourful print of a pale woman with blond hair dressed in a yellow dress with green edging, white apron and pink tights. She is also wearing a blue necklace and blue boots.

“Wild” woman of Canada from Mœurs et coutumes des sauvages du Canada, 1784 (MIKAN 3025442)

The images of Canada published by serious travel encyclopaedias are often surprising. This woman seems more European than Indigenous… just look at her blonde hair! Continue reading

Guest curator: James Bone

Banner for the guest curator series. CANADA 150 is in red along the left side of the banner and then the bilingual text: Canada: Who Do We Think We Are? and under that text is Guest curator series.Canada: Who Do We Think We Are?

Canada: Who Do We Think We Are? is a new exhibition by Library and Archives Canada (LAC) marking the 150th anniversary of Canadian Confederation. This exhibition is accompanied by a year-long blog series.

Join us every month during 2017 as experts, from LAC, across Canada and even farther afield, provide additional insights on items from the exhibition. Each “guest curator” discusses one item, then adds another to the exhibition—virtually.

Be sure to visit Canada: Who Do We Think We Are? at 395 Wellington Street in Ottawa between June 5, 2017, and March 1, 2018. Admission is free.


A square sepia stamp. Each corner has the number three indicating the cost. A ring around the center reads, “Canada Postage Three Pence” with a crown between the top words. In the center of the circle is a beaver beside running water with a mountain and trees in the background.

The Three-Pence Beaver designed by Sir Sandford Fleming, 1851 (MIKAN 2184475) ©Canada Post.

The beaver was seen as a good stand-in for the average Canadian: industrious, tenacious… and with great building skills. This is one reason why it appears on the nation’s first postage stamp.


The Three-Pence Beaver designed by Sir Sandford Fleming, 1851

Tell us about yourself

I acquire and process philatelic archives from private, or non-governmental, sources. Although LAC holds the extremely important Post Office Department fonds containing the records of Canada Post, the study of philately is one that happens entirely in the private sphere. So to complement the official records, LAC also collects the records of stamp designers, engravers and artists along with those of printing companies, Canada’s philatelic study societies and prominent philatelic researchers and exhibitors.

I recently represented LAC at the 2016 British North America Philatelic Society Exhibition in Fredericton, New Brunswick where I sought to foster knowledge of LAC’s holdings and how to use them, while also making a pitch that members of the society could have archival records of interest to LAC’s growing collection.

I did not entirely expect to find myself at LAC. After completing my undergraduate studies in 2006, I received a full scholarship for a year to continue my studies in Chinese language at Beijing Normal University in preparation for a planned MA program in Chinese history. However, illness and a change of direction brought me into the workforce. I worked in technical support in London, Ontario and later supervised a technical support team in Montréal for several years before returning to graduate school. Continue reading

Word recognition: Governor General’s Literary Awards winners in LAC’s collection

By Sara Viinalass-Smith

The Governor General’s Literary Awards are one of Canada’s most prestigious suites of literary prizes, and the awards’ long history can shed light on the evolution of publishing, writing and reader tastes within Canada over the past eight decades. Created by the Canadian Authors Association and supported by prolific author and Governor General John Buchan, 1st Baron Tweedsmuir, the awards originated in 1937.  This year marks their 80th anniversary. At first honouring works of fiction and non-fiction, over the decades the awards have expanded to include, also, poetry, translation, drama and children’s literature in both French and English.

Since 1969 Library and Archives Canada (LAC) has been building a literary archives collection that includes the papers of many of the English- and French-language Governor General’s literary award winners, such as Robertson Davies, Marie-Claire Blais, Dionne Brand, Gabrielle Roy and Carol Shields. In examining their papers you can, for instance, track the life of an award-winning novel from the author’s original kernel of an idea, developed in notes and drafts, through heavily edited galley proofs and proposed cover art to review clippings and even the author’s invitation to the Governor General’s awards ceremony.

A yellowed black-and-white photograph of an officer in uniform.

Thomas Findley, the source of inspiration for Timothy Findley’s The Wars. (MIKAN 4933177)

The long path a work can take from idea to publication to recognition is well illustrated by Timothy Findley’s The Wars. Findley won the Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction in 1977 for his novel, which tells the story of a young Canadian soldier who enlists in the First World War. The protagonist of the novel was inspired in part by Findley’s uncle, Thomas Irving Findley. Contained within Findley’s archives is a family album of letters from the front written by Thomas Irving Findley to his relatives in Canada. The album also includes one of the few known photographs of Findley’s uncle, dressed in uniform. Findley used these records as source material for the development of the characters in The Wars. From the letters, you can trace how Findley used the thoughts, feelings and actions of his uncle to create the character of Robert Ross and his fictional, wartime experience. Findley’s research, notes, outlines and drafts show the evolution of the text, and a mock-up of the final cover art shows how the book was physically presented to its original audience. Reviews from the year of publication reveal the book’s initial reception by critics. Finally, scripts Findley wrote for radio and film adaptations of The Wars speak to the overwhelming success of the novel and show how he carried his beautifully crafted prose through to different genres.

To honour this milestone anniversary of the awards, the Canada Council for the Arts, which administers the awards, is hosting an exhibition in Ottawa entitled People – Places – Things: Reading GG Books. The exhibition celebrates the more than 700 winning titles from the awards’ history, the people who write them and the places where we read them. Archival records from LAC’s literary archives collection make up part of the exhibition. These include the photograph of Thomas Irving Findley, the first page of Gabrielle Roy’s handwritten manuscript of Ces enfants de ma vie (1977), and notes and a manuscript for the children’s book Pien (1996) by Michel Noël. The exhibition is on until February 24th.

Related resources


Sara Viinalass-Smith is a literary archivist (English language) in the Private Archives Branch at Library and Archives Canada.

Do I have the right to vote? Letters from women to the Canadian government, 1918-1919

Canadian women received the federal right to vote in three waves of legislation. It began with Prime Minister Robert Borden initiating the Military Voters Act of 1917, which enabled Canadian women on active service to vote. Borden also implemented the Wartime Elections Act that same year, which extended the vote to Canadian women who were related to men in the military forces. Lastly, on May 24, 1918, royal assent was given to a bill extending the vote to Canadian women who met the same qualifications as voting men. These quick and successive formative events caused confusion for the public.

The collection of Library and Archives Canada (LAC) holds various letters written by Canadian women that demonstrate the impact of the vote and include questions about their own personal eligibility to cast a ballot. Seeking information directly from the source, women wrote to Prime Minister Robert Borden and other government officials.

In a letter dated December 1919, Mrs. King of Colonsay, Saskatchewan inquired if she was eligible to vote as a Canadian citizen married to an American citizen. Her inquiry was forwarded to the Department of Justice, which replied that she should be eligible to vote based on her information and enclosed a copy of the Act. They also noted that her inquiry was not typically an affair for the Department.

The confusion between the Dominion Elections Act and the temporary wartime voting measures is evident in a letter dated February 17, 1919 from Mrs. Lillian Dill of Oshawa, Ontario. Mrs. Dill requested a copy of the Act in order to understand its impact and her eligibility to vote. Continue reading

Let Them Howl: 100 Years of Women’s Suffrage—An exhibition in Ottawa and Winnipeg

The year 2016 marks the 100th anniversary of women first winning the right to vote in Canada. On January 28—the date that Manitoba became the first province to pass women’s voting rights into law—Library and Archives Canada (LAC), in partnership with the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, will officially launch an outdoor exhibition titled Let Them Howl: 100 Years of Women’s Suffrage.

The exhibition will feature reproduction portraits of some of the women who fought for equality and the vote. Be sure to check out the exhibitions January 28 to February 15, 2016 on the Rideau Canal Skateway in Ottawa (presented in partnership with Winterlude) and February 12–21, 2016 at the Festival du Voyageur in Winnipeg.

The exhibition features reproduction portraits from LAC’s collection of historic figures like Nellie McClung and Agnes Mcphail to modern women who have broken gender barriers, such as Adrienne Clarkson and Beverley McLachlin.

A black-and-white photograph of Agnes Macphail in profile, reading the paper.

Agnes Macphail by Yousuf Karsh, 1934 (MIKAN 3256551)

Continue reading

Library and Archives Canada Sir John A. Macdonald treasures on display. Part 2: Shopping stories

As part of the year-long commemoration surrounding the 200th anniversary of the birth of Canada’s first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, Library and Archives Canada (LAC) is presenting an exhibition at Bellevue House, in Kingston, Ontario—Parks Canada’s official historic site dedicated to Macdonald.

The exhibition includes rare treasures such as this page from a draft of the British North America Act (BNA), thought to have been handwritten by Sir John A. Macdonald himself.

A handwritten page in faded ink.

The first page of the British North America Act (MIKAN 456819)

Lesser known, but equally intriguing, LAC holdings are also highlighted in the exhibition, including a sampling from the vast assortment of receipts Macdonald accumulated over the course of a lifetime for items that he purchased. These unassuming documents—usually handwritten, and often with elegant 19th-century flourishes—give unexpected insight into Macdonald, as a private person; the purchases they record are often both amusing and endearing.

Macdonald purchased a toboggan, for example, from renowned Montreal furrier John Henderson & Company (“Importers, Manufacturers and Dealers in Hats, Furs, Indian Moccasins, Snowshoes, &c.”) on December 23, 1862. It’s possible to speculate that this iconic Canadian sled may have been part of his family’s Christmas celebrations—perhaps chosen as a present for his young son Hugh John. Or that Macdonald himself may have succumbed to the fad for recreational tobogganing that gripped the well-to-do during the 19th century.

A handwritten receipt from Montreal furrier John Henderson & Company detailing purchases made, on various dates, by Sir John A. Macdonald. These include a toboggan, which was purchased on December 23, 1862.Historians have also speculated about the expensive ladies’ riding whip, bought from London’s exclusive Swaine Adeney, during a trip to Great Britain that Macdonald undertook as a new widower. Though travelling on official business, to promote government projects, Macdonald still found time to choose this luxurious present. The identity of the lady who received it remains an historical mystery.

On another trip to Great Britain, Macdonald—whose receipts reveal a lifelong fascination with fine clothing and smart men’s accessories—visited relatives in Scotland and stopped there to purchase himself a full kit of Macdonald clan “Highland appointments”: including a kilt, hose and the “silk-velvet Highland jacket… generally worn by Gentlemen.” The distinguished Edinburgh firm from which he purchased these items provided its Canadian buyer with instructions on how to wear everything properly, together with a suitable “air-tight coat case” for storage.

Image shows a detailed receipt for a complete kit of Macdonald clan ‘Highland appointments,’ including a kilt and a Highland jacket (MIKAN 122162)

Macdonald suffered for years from ill health due, in part, to his alcoholism. The collection is full of curious receipts for 19th-century style medicine, together with copies of personal prescriptions. This prescription, for “The Ferruginous tonic,” was based on the commonly held idea that tincture of iron could improve the functioning of the digestive tract. Macdonald was said to have suffered terribly from indigestion. He was prescribed this mixture during the final decade of his life.

Image shows an 1883 prescription from Ottawa “Chemist & Druggist” John Roberts for a tonic designed to alleviate Sir John A. Macdonald’s gastric issues.Come see Sir John A. Macdonald’s personal receipts at Bellevue House National Historic Site between May 16 and October 12, 2015.