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The Fathers of Confederation

David Monaghan, Curator, Curatorial Services

The Fathers of Confederation

One of the major works of art lost in the fire of 1916 was Robert Harris’ well-known historical piece, entitled The Fathers of Confederation. Originally commissioned in 1883 to illustrate the Charlottetown Conference of 1864, the painting was later expanded to represent also the Quebec Conference of 1864. These two meetings formed the basis for Confederation in 1867. The final painting featured 33 “Fathers” and the secretary, Hewitt Bernard. The painting was installed in the original Parliament Building in 1884.

After the painting was destroyed by fire in 1916, the Government approached Harris to reproduce the work, but he refused, due to his advanced age. In 1964, the Confederation Life Assurance Co. hired Canadian artist Rex Woods to reproduce the painting as a gift to the nation to mark the Centenary of Confederation which was in 1967.

The new painting was not an exact replica of Harris’ original. Over 3.5 metres long and 2 metres high, it features 37 figures; three additional subjects were added to the painting along with a portrait of Robert Harris as a tribute to the earlier work. Rex Woods’ The Fathers of Confederation was officially unveiled in the Centre Block on February 3, 1969, fifty-three years after the original was lost in the fire. The painting was displayed in the Railway Committee Room in the Centre Block until 1977 when it was then exhibited in the Wellington Building. It returned to the Centre Block in 1997.

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