This year marks an important anniversary in the development of Canada as a nation. In 1864, representatives from the various colonies of British North America gathered first in September in Charlottetown, PEI, and then a month later in Québec, to discuss the unification of the provinces. The Québec Conference was noteworthy because it included delegates from Newfoundland as well, and resulted in the “seventy-two resolutions” that were to form the basis of an independent Canada under the British Crown. These two conferences and the subsequent discussions in each of the provinces set the stage for the London Conference of 1866 and Confederation in 1867. The Fathers of Confederation have been represented in different ways over the last 150 years. Within the House of Commons, there have been four distinct portrayals of the subject that have graced our halls, apart from photographs.
The visual records of the Charlottetown and Québec conferences were few in number; the famous photographs of the provincial delegates are perhaps better known today than they would have been in the 1860s.
However, in 1883, the federal government commissioned Canadian artist Robert Harris (1848–1919) to paint a composite portrait of the twenty-three delegates and secretary at the Charlottetown Conference for the then princely sum of $4,000. The subject and venue of the painting were soon changed to Québec and the Québec Conference, which required the addition of ten delegates to the composition and a change in the actual setting of the group portrait.
The painting was unveiled in Montréal in 1884 and was subsequently moved to the Parliament Building in Ottawa where it was hung in the Railway Committee Room. It left the Parliament Building once more in 1910 as part of an exhibition of Canadian paintings in England. While Harris went to considerable trouble to provide an accurate portrait of the event, including interviewing many surviving delegates, it would appear that the painting itself was always considered more of a valuable historical record rather than a work of art, despite its artistic merit. After the painting was destroyed in the fire of 1916, Harris reflected that he had hoped that, with the passage of time, the painting would come to be looked upon as a valuable historical document. Certainly, the passage of time did prove Harris to be correct. The image of The Fathers of Confederation has become one of Canada’s most iconic images.
Copies of the painting cropped up as early as 1914, most notably two copies by Canadian painter Frederic Challener; a mural in the Hotel Macdonald was unveiled in 1915 and a painting for the Ontario Provincial Legislature (Queen’s Park) was installed in Toronto in 1916. Following the loss of the original painting in the fire of 1916, Harris was approached by the Government to repaint his now iconic Fathers; although given his advanced age and health issues, this was never really feasible.
However, he did agree to sell the large cartoon, or preparatory drawing, for the painting to the Government. The charcoal and red chalk drawing, dating from 1883 and measuring 362 x 160 cm, was eventually installed in the Railway Committee Room of the new Parliament Building in the 1920s. The drawing hung in the building until the 1960s. Following its removal from Centre Block, the cartoon, whose official title is Meeting of the Delegates of British North America to Settle the Terms of Confederation, Quebec, October 1864, was transferred to the care of the National Gallery of Canada, where it remains to this day.
The version of The Fathers of Confederation familiar to Canadians today was commissioned by the Confederation Life Insurance Co. of Canada in 1964. The person selected to carry out the work was the noted Canadian illustrator and graphic artist Rex Woods (1903–1987), who developed the new version of The Fathers using Robert Harris’s original cartoon and other references. Speaker McNaughton announced to the House on June 30, 1965 that a new copy of the painting would be presented to the nation and hung in the Parliament Building in advance of the country’s centennial on July 1, 1967. Completion of the 365 x 213 cm painting took longer than expected and it was not finished until 1968; it was not until February 3, 1969 that the painting was unveiled in the Centre Block.
While broadly based upon the original painting, Woods’s Fathers of Confederation depicted an altered historical record. Three additional figures were added to the composition, representing individuals who were not present at the 1864 conferences, but who did participate in the London Conference of 1865 and who had been officially and posthumously recognized as Fathers of Confederation during the Diamond Jubilee in 1927.
Woods also showed some artistic license by adding a reproduction of a self-portrait of the original artist, Robert Harris, on the right-hand side of the painting. The painting hung in the Railway Committee Room until 1977 when it was relocated to the lobby of the Wellington Building. It returned to the Parliament Building and the Railway Committee Room in 1995. The painting is scheduled to leave the building to undergo cleaning and stabilization in July 2014 in advance of the 150th anniversary of the Québec Conference in October of this year.
The fourth and final depiction of the Fathers of Confederation that has been exhibited within the Precinct also has connections with the centennial year of 1967, although it was acquired by Speaker John Bosley for the House of Commons in 1984. Following a national competition, in 1966 the Centennial Commission commissioned Canadian sculptor and painter Sylvia Lefkovitz (1924–1987) to produce a sculpture on the subject of the Fathers of Confederation. The sculpture was to serve a unique purpose as the centrepiece of a travelling exhibit that was to tour the country as part of the Confederation Train and the Confederation Caravan. Ms. Lefkovitz produced a remarkable and whimsical interpretation of the event in the form of a circular bronze sculpture containing 90 small figures, each approximately 19 cm high, located on an inner and outer circle base.
While the traditional representations of the Fathers of Confederation concentrate upon reproducing a historical event, the sculpture treats the subject in a far more artistic and thematic manner. The inner circle, containing stylized figures of men around a rectangular table, is intended to represent the Fathers of Confederation in various discussions; these were the men who set the course that would result in Confederation. The only figure that is readily identifiable is a tall figure of Sir John A. Macdonald.
The figures in the outer circle have nothing to do with the deliberations that took place in Charlottetown, Québec or London. Rather, these different figures represent the people who were brought together by those discussions. The figures in the outer circle depict women, children and people of different occupations and classes whose lives were changed by the discussions that took place around that table. It is a lovely piece of modern art that conveys a message that goes beyond that represented by the iconic painting. Whereas the paintings themselves have had a very limited physical circulation, the sculpture entitled The Fathers of Confederation traversed Canada for more than a decade and was viewed by thousands of Canadians during the centennial year and after.
When the sculpture was transferred to the House of Commons in 1984 from the Canadian Government Exposition Centre, it was decided that it too would be installed in the lobby of the Wellington Building, where it complemented Woods’s painting until the painting was moved to the Railway Committee Room in 1995. The sculpture remained in the lobby of the Wellington Building until it was closed for renovations. The sculpture is currently in storage; there are plans underway to exhibit it once more in the Precinct.
With the 150th anniversary of the Québec Conference this coming October, attention will be drawn once again to the painting of The Fathers of Confederation. History and fate has robbed us of the original work by Robert Harris, but we are fortunate that other works of art, studies, copies, and interpretations of that important meeting have survived to commemorate a peaceful gathering of individuals who had the vision to promote the creation of the country that has grown and flourished since 1867.