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.

69 Days as Prime Minister: The Legacy of Sir Charles Tupper

By Mariam Lafrenie

“[Tupper’s chief characteristic] was courage; courage which no obstacle could down, […] courage which battered and hammered, perhaps not always judiciously, but always effectively; courage which never admitted defeat and which in the midst of overwhelming disaster ever maintained the proud carriage of unconquerable defiance.” – Sir Wilfrid Laurier, House of Commons Speech (1916)

What is rarely noted about the Rt. Hon. Sir Charles Tupper is his short term in Office. To date, Tupper’s prime ministership is still the shortest in Canadian history, lasting from May 1, 1896 to July 8, 1896. Despite his brief stint as prime minister, Tupper is remembered for his role as a Father of Confederation and for his vast contributions as a statesman, a great orator and a nation builder.

Newspaper clipping showing a sketch of a man.

Daily Province clipping about Sir Charles Tupper (MIKAN 125260)

Sir Charles Tupper entered into the public sphere during the 1855 Cumberland County election, where he defeated the popular candidate, the Hon. Joseph Howe. It was this election which set Tupper’s 40-year political career on course to achieve such feats as Confederation, the signing of the Fisheries Treaty, and many ministerial appointments including, but not limited to, the Minister of Railways and Canals, the Minister of Finance, and the Prime Minister of Canada.

Poster with text outlining Sir Charles Tupper’s election platform for the Cumberland County election in Nova Scotia

Election campaign poster for Sir Charles Tupper’s run in the 1855 Cumberland County election (MIKAN 3822971)

As Premier of Nova Scotia from 1864 to1867, Tupper actively engaged with his province and always kept the needs of Nova Scotians central to his actions and policies. This is true of his resolution of the Nova Scotia School Question, in which he fought to establish a free public school system so as to make education more accessible and consistent across the province.

Image of old document tied with a string on the left side. In the middle of the page there is a typewritten title “A bill, Entitled, An Act for the better encouragement of Education” and the page is covered with handwritten marks.

An act for the better encouragement of Education (MIKAN 3823196)

While acting as Premier of Nova Scotia, Tupper also sought to unify the provinces of British North America. He attended all three of the Confederation Conferences: the first held in Charlottetown (September 1864); the second held in Quebec City (October 1864); and the third held in London, England (December 1866 – March 1867). Without Tupper’s steady leadership and consistent debunking of the Hon. Joseph Howe’s anti-confederation rhetoric, Nova Scotia would not have been one of the four founding provinces of the Dominion of Canada.

Black and white photograph of a middle-aged man wearing a suit and standing next to a table.

Hon. Charles Tupper, M.P. (Cumberland, N.S.), April 1870, Topley Studio / Library and Archives Canada (MIKAN 3497149)

To Britons and Canadians alike, Tupper has been remembered as patriotic, loyal and first and lastly, as a Nova Scotian. Beyond his sixty-nine days as prime minister, Tupper’s legacy focuses on his unwavering dedication to a united Canada.

Newspaper clipping showing a sketch of a man.

Veteran statesman who has passed away in 1915 (MIKAN 125260)

Related Resources


Mariam Lafrenie is an undergraduate student summer research fellow from Queen’s University working in the Private Archives Branch at Library and Archives Canada