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.

A greater sisterhood: the Women’s Rights struggle in Canada

“Women are going to form a chain, a greater sisterhood than the world has ever known.” Nellie McClung, 1916

The year 2016 marks an important commemorative milestone for women’s rights: the 100th Anniversary of Women first obtaining the right to vote in Canada. To highlight this egalitarian achievement and many other barriers overcome by Canadian women over the past century, Library and Archives Canada (LAC), working in partnership with Canadian Heritage, will launch an outdoor exhibition titled A Greater Sisterhood: The Women’s Rights Struggle in Canada.

Following on from LAC‘s Let Them Howl: 100 Years of Women’s Suffragea display of portraits  this past winter on the Rideau Canal in Ottawa and at Fort Gibraltar in Winnipeg—this new exhibition features reproductions of portraits and documentary photographs of significant and influential persons and groups of women. The women featured in this exhibit broke through barriers to achieve full participation in the economic, political, and social life of Canada, helping to make it a more inclusive and democratic country.

A black-and-white photograph showing a group of nursing sisters waiting in line to cast their votes at an outdoor polling station. Four male officers oversee the proceedings while one sister casts her vote behind a screen. In the background are encampment tents.

Canada’s Nursing Sisters at a Canadian hospital casting their votes in the Canadian federal election, December 1917 (MIKAN 3194224)

During the First World War, more than 2,000 nurses, supervised by matron-in-chief Margaret Macdonald, served overseas as members of the Canadian Army. The Military Voters Act, 1917, gave all military personnel, including nurses, the right to vote in federal elections, paving the way to the expansion of women’s voting rights in 1918.

Madeleine Parent, a Quebec labour union activist and a founding member of the Confederation of Canadian Unions, led efforts to achieve better working conditions for women in the textile industry. As a co-founder of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women, Parent also supported Aboriginal women’s rights.

A black-and-white photograph showing a woman walking down a street; behind, there is a man with a sign that says “L’union fait la force” [Unity makes strength]

Madeleine Parent walking in the May Day Parade in Valleyfield, Quebec, ca. 1949 (MIKAN 3257043)

Throughout her fifty-year career as a singer-songwriter, Buffy Sainte-Marie has focused on issues facing Indigenous peoples. She has won recognition and countless awards for her music and her work as an activist and educator. In 1997, she founded the Cradleboard Teaching Project, which helps create core teaching curricula based on Indigenous perspectives.

A black-and-white photo portrait of a woman with long dark hair looking directly at the photographer.

Buffy Sainte-Marie. Photograph taken by Robert Taillefer, 1975 ©Robert Taillefer (MIKAN 4167090)

Be sure to visit the outdoor exhibition, A Greater Sisterhood: The Women’s Rights Struggle in Canada, on display on Plaza Bridge, directly opposite the Hotel Château Laurier on Rideau Street in Ottawa, which runs until Thanksgiving weekend.

Learn more about Women First Obtaining the Right to Vote in Canada or read about our other blog articles on the topic.

Hiding in Plain Sight: Discovering the Métis Nation in the Collection of Library and Archives Canada

Who Are the Métis?

The Métis Nation emerged as a distinct people during the course of the 18th and 19th centuries. They are the second largest of the three Aboriginal peoples of Canada and are the descendants of First Nations peoples and Europeans involved in the fur trade.

Métis communities are found widely in Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, and the Northwest Territories, with a smaller number in British Columbia, Ontario, Minnesota, Montana and North Dakota.

Library and Archives Canada (LAC) has a great variety of archival documents pertaining to the Métis Nation (including textual records, photographs, artwork, maps, stamps and sound recordings); however, finding these records can be a challenge.

Challenges in Researching Métis Content in the Art and Photographic Collections

While there are easily identifiable portraits of well-known leaders and politicians, including these portraits of Louis Riel and Gabriel Dumont, images depicting less famous Métis are difficult to find. Original titles betray historical weaknesses when it comes to describing Métis content.

In many cases, the Métis have gone unrecognized or were mistaken for European or First Nations groups—such as the people in this photograph entitled “Chippewa Indians with Red River Carts at Dufferin.”

Black and white photograph of a man, on the left, wearing European clothing and standing in front of a Red River cart, and a group of First Nations men, women and children wearing First Nations-style clothing and standing in front of another Red River cart, on the right.

Chippewa Indians with Red River Carts at [Fort] Dufferin” Manitoba, 1873 (MIKAN 3368366)

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“The Complete Set”: Some fascinating examples in Library and Archives Canada’s portrait collection

The Library and Archives Canada (LAC) holdings include one-of-a-kind historical artifacts that relate directly to specific portraits in the collection.

In some cases, items that were separated over the years were reunited at LAC. In others, LAC was fortunate to take over the custodianship of a carefully preserved ‘set.’ In all cases, these somewhat unexpected holdings provide invaluable context for better understanding the portraits they are associated with.

Copper plate image showing Captain George Cartwright checking his fox traps during the winter in Labrador. He wears snowshoes, carries a gun over one shoulder and has a dog on a leash, tethered to his belt.

Captain Cartwright visiting his fox traps (MIKAN 3986048)

This copper plate, for example, was created as a means of ‘publishing’ the evocative oil portrait of Captain George Cartwright (1739–1819), a retired army officer who set up trade as a trapper and fur trader in Labrador.

Oil painting showing Captain George Cartwright checking his fox traps during the winter in Labrador. He wears snowshoes, carries a gun over one shoulder and has a dog on a leash, tethered to his belt.

Captain Cartwright visiting his fox traps (MIKAN 3964571)

It illustrates one process that was used, before the development of photography, to “translate” paintings into a printable format, so that they could appear in books. The painted portrait was created specifically to provide a frontispiece image for Cartwright’s important Memoir, A journal of transactions and events, during a residence of nearly sixteen years on the coast of Labrador… (1792).

The same image as above, except in printed form, published in a first edition of the 1792 book.

Frontispiece from Captain George Cartwright’s Memoir (AMICUS 4728079)

Special Notes on the Frontispiece, compiled by Cartwright, underline the significance he attached to every one of the painting’s details. Like the Memoir, the painting reads like a primer for would-be adventurers—including innovative, Aboriginal-inspired solutions for survival, such as wearing snowshoes when checking traplines in winter.

Copper is a soft metal that allowed engravers to faithfully reproduce these details, as well as something of the feel of the original oil painting. Here, for example, the soft-edged atmospheric landscape of winter was created by protecting some areas of the plate with wax, while allowing acid to wash over other exposed areas.

It’s rare for any institution to hold a painting, its copper plate and a first-edition copy of the resulting book, but LAC’s collection includes all of these items.

Another example: LAC’s collection includes this pendant and earrings.

Colour photograph of two gold earrings with a stylized spiral pattern and a matching pendant.

Marie-Louise Aurélie Girard’s earrings and pendant (MIKAN 3994256)

This was the actual jewellery that Marie-Louise Aurélie Girard (ca. 1868–?) wore when she sat to have her portrait painted by the distinguished Montreal artist, Alfred Boisseau (1823–1901):

Oil painting showing a woman in a black dress looking straight at the viewer. She is wearing the same pendant and earrings as shown in the previous photograph.

Marie-Louise Aurélie Girard (MIKAN 3993116)

These precious items remind us of the human process behind historical portrait painting. Prominent and wealthy sitters would often deliberate over which items to wear or include in a portrait, not only for sentimental reasons, but also to convey social status. In this case, the sitter was the wife of a former Premier of Manitoba.

Library and Archives Canada’s “false” portraits

A false portrait is an imaginary portrait, usually of a well-known or famous person. The portrait is usually not based on a true likeness and is often created long after the person’s death.

Extremely significant historical figures often did not sit for portraits during their lifetimes. Yet, there has always been a demand for “true” portraits of them.

False portraits were not necessarily attempting to trick or fool people—in many cases, those who created or promoted them did so for very public-spirited reasons. From the 19th century onwards, this famous false portrait of Samuel de Champlain, the founder of Quebec City, served an important commemorative and educational role.

Lithograph attributed to Louis-César-Joseph Ducornet, 1854. It shows an image of a man facing slightly away from the viewer. He wears a black doublet with sleeves that reveal a white shirt underneath. In the background is a view of Quebec City.

False portrait of Samuel de Champlain (MIKAN 2919672)

A false portrait often tells us a lot more about the society that created it than about the historical figure that it is meant to represent. It has been suggested that this pious-looking image made the perfect frontispiece to 19th-century histories of New France, developed by historian-churchmen. It doesn’t seem to have mattered that the portrait is actually copied from a 17th-century engraving of a French civil servant, whose morality was dubious (in French only).

Library and Archives Canada (LAC) holds other intriguing false portraits in its collections. For example, LAC acquired this rare miniature wax portrait, one of very few portraits in this fragile medium to survive.

Wax miniature, by an anonymous artist, early 19th century. This rather generic wax miniature shows a man in profile wearing a red British coat embellished with gold trimming, a white cravat and a blue waistcoat. He has long white hair, tied back. The miniature is quite sculptural.

Wax portrait of General James Wolfe (MIKAN 3793977)

Though labelled a portrait of General James Wolfe, famous for his role during the decisive Battle of Quebec (1759), the miniature does not reproduce any of Wolfe’s known physical features. Yet several near identical wax miniatures exist in other collections—each of these also labelled, in the past, as Wolfe portraits. It’s possible to speculate that many casts of this portrait must have been made, for so many fragile examples to have survived.

Wax was cheap and easy to produce in multiple copies. The portrait was likely created as a kind of mass-produced celebrity image, in response to a vast appetite for portraits of “Wolfe the Hero” that arose among the general public during the 19th century. Probably created long after Wolfe’s death by an anonymous entrepreneur, it presents an idealized and heroic-looking profile view of a young officer—exactly the kind of image guaranteed to satisfy the public imagination.

Library and Archives Canada Announces the Opening of Two Exhibitions

Library and Archives Canada continues to display the richness and diversity of its collections with the opening of two exhibitions.

In Saskatchewan, the Mendel Art Gallery in Saskatoon is hosting the I Know You by Heart: Portrait Miniatures exhibition until June 2, 2013. The exhibition highlights the intimate, personal nature of portrait miniatures, and the reasons that such images are commissioned and created. Find out more about the conservation of these portraits on Library and Archives Canada’s YouTube video.

In Quebec, the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Gatineau is presenting the exhibition Double Take: Portraits of Intriguing Canadians until October 14, 2013. Discover portraits of Canadians who have left—and are still leaving—their mark on our country and our culture. Tune in to Library and Archives Canada’s podcast for an overview of the featured works and the stories behind them.

By presenting exhibitions such as these, Library and Archives Canada is able to make original works of documentary heritage accessible in galleries, museums and other community venues to Canadians across the country.

Keep following this blog to stay informed about upcoming events.

Library and Archives Canada’s Travelling Exhibitions

Library and Archives Canada (LAC) is on the road! With four travelling exhibitions on display in different venues across Canada, including one in the
National Capital Region, LAC is showcasing the richness and diversity of its collections. This is an excellent example of LAC’s commitment to making the
country’s heritage and history accessible to all Canadians—regardless of where they live.

The Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, in British Columbia, is hosting the exhibition Beyond Likeness: Contemporary Works from Library and Archives Canada until January 6, 2013. Through the works of 23 contemporary artists, the exhibition explores the evolving concept of portraiture from more traditional representations of likeness to works that challenge the conventions of the genre.

The New Brunswick Museum in Saint John is presenting the exhibition I Know You by Heart: Portrait Miniatures until December 31, 2012. Showcasing 35 recently restored portraits, the exhibition highlights the intimate, personal nature of portrait miniatures, and the reasons that such images are commissioned, created and carried. In March 2013, the exhibition will make its way to the Mendel Art Gallery in Saskatoon.
Find out more about the conservation of these portraits in LAC’s YouTube video.

The McMichael Art Gallery in Kleinburg, Ontario, is showcasing LAC’s most recent exhibition Double Take: Portraits of Intriguing Canadians until January 20, 2013.Double Take presents 50 Canadians who have left—and are leaving—their mark on our country and our culture. Tune in to LAC’s podcast for an overview of the featured works and the stories behind them.

Finally, the exhibition Faces of 1812 is on display at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa until January 6, 2013. A commemorative exhibition, Faces of 1812 presents some of the men and women who experienced the War of 1812. LAC’s curatorial YouTube video and Faces of 1812 podcast will introduce you to the selected
works that document this significant historical event.

Keep following this blog to find out where these exhibitions will travel next. It could be your hometown!

Questions or comments? We would love to hear from you!