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A mystery in the chamber

David Monaghan, Curator, Curatorial Services

One of the more important activities associated with the care and management of a historical collection is research into the provenance of an object or work of art. Observation provides us with many of the key pieces of information about an object: its measurements, materials used in its fabrication, occasionally even its maker and birthdate when a signature and date are provided.

Provenance involves research, both on the object but more importantly on any documents that may shed further light upon the object’s history. Provenance provides us with an in-depth history of a work of art or an object from its very inception to the present; it is the detail that fleshes out a story in an authoritative manner. While it is important to know what an object is, knowing for certain why it was created and by whom adds just that much more depth to its character.

One case in point is that of the group of objects that have graced the Clerk’s Table in the House of Commons Chamber since 1926. Often referred to as the jewels, the group is made up of a calendar, an inkstand, a seal press, and four bookends. They were introduced into the Chamber in May 1926 and a detailed description of three of the four pieces was presented to the House by the Speaker on May 28, 1926. The description of the pieces is recorded in the Journals in the following manner:



The general lines of the stand follow closely the original one used in the House of Commons. This new one is made of iron hand wrought with a base of black walnut to match the table on which it will stand. Wrought iron is a medium requiring careful handling for proper expression. If too simple and severe, the particular article is liable to look crude. The Stand being primarily for the exhibition of the current month, day and date, must have large, plain surfaces, thus the base, corners and top were the logical place to apply the delicacy. The motive on the base and at the corners is the wild grape vine, native to Canada; its habit is to cling and climb with increasing vigor as days pass and years come and go. The calendar stand serves a like purpose, recording the days as they come and go. Surmounting the stand is a circlet emblematic of the honour of being elected to Parliament; over the circlet is the Royal Crown denoting allegiance and expressing the sovereignty of the British Commonwealth of Nations.



It is a composite of mythology and historical motives. The griffins or dragons which ancient men believed in are here shown subdued and controlled by the four square bastion decorated with shields charged with the arms of the nations from which Canada and her ideals originated and who, by christian education and advancement dispelled the myths. Mythological traditions live long and slowly die and the griffins show this by the balls which they grasp in their claws, symbols of their hold in the ancient times. The size of the balls indicates their sphere of control is getting smaller and smaller. Supporting each shield is a sprig of maple leaves, the emblem of Canada comprising all nations within its Dominions, with the historical green of the House of Commons as a background and giving emphasis to the maple leaf motive. Surmounting the bastion on which the nations are depicted is an embattlement signifying defence by Parliament of the institutions under the sovereignty of the Crown, allegiance to which is expressed by the arms of the dome upholding same.


Seal press

This being primarily a mechanical device the motive of treatment had to be of a decorative nature principally. This was accomplished by placing the monogram of the House of Commons on one side of the counter weight and on the reverse the Canadian beaver treated in character after the historical style established by our North American Indians. The beaver is a good symbol; he is a builder; thus his presence on the seal press of the House of Commons is appropriate, as well as historical. The fleur-de-lys of ancient France is also incised at the rear and the minor decorations are conventionalized treatments of Canadian flowers.

While we know what the items are, what they look like, and when they first appeared on the Table, what exactly is their history? Who designed them and why? Hansard provides us with an answer with respect to who made the three pieces, recording a tribute on May 26, 1926 in which the noted Canadian metalwork craftsman Paul Beau was credited with creating the three items. This is not surprising given the fact that Beau had been hired by John Pearson, architect of the Centre Block, in 1919 to head an ornamental ironworks that had been set up on the Hill to produce handmade ornamental materials from hinges to fireplace accoutrements for the new building.

However, continued research has indicated that, while Beau may have fabricated the pieces, the credit for their design should rest with the Chief Architect’s Office at the Department of Public Works. In the early 1990s, curatorial staff identified two technical drawings at Library and Archives Canada dating from May 1924 and another from February 1925. The first drawing to be prepared was that of the inkstand and the second, the seal press. Based on the drawings, the design was generated by the Chief Architect’s Office. The gap in the production date of the drawings suggests that they were not produced together, but separately, nor were they fabricated at the same time. This fact is further supported by a notation on the drawing of the seal press which states black walnut base to match inkstand, suggesting that the inkwell already existed by February 1925.

As to the production date of the pieces, that is another matter. While one might suggest that the inkstand was completed by 1925, the seal press is another matter. The drawing clearly shows that the body of the press had the date 1925 cast into its side. However, the actual press has the date 1926 cast on its side. Evidently, there were some delays in the actual fabrication of the pieces.

No detailed information exists regarding the design or fabrication of the calendar. Given the fact that it was the only item previously that existed on the Table, but was lost in the fire of 1916, it may well have been the first item commissioned. This was followed by the inkstand and then the seal press. Each was designed by the Chief Architect’s Office at Public Works and the design beautifully executed by Paul Beau.



The four bookends that complete the jewels were not listed among the original group and appear to have been a complete afterthought. Drawings, once again from the Chief Architect’s Office, indicate that the design was only approved in February 1927. By that date the ornamental ironworks had closed and Paul Beau had left the country, so the fabrication of the bookends needed to be arranged elsewhere. The design was given to Pritchard-Andrews Company Ltd. of Ottawa for fabrication. Records indicate that all four bookends, cast in brass, were finally delivered in 1928. The visual record also indicates that the two crouching figures on each bookend were originally provided with a miniature bow and arrow and musket, respectively. These are now missing.

Research into the provenance of the jewels has revealed some fairly clear and useful information. However, key pieces of information are missing. The most obvious are “who initiated the project and why?” We have already noted that the calendar, an essential tool in a legislative setting, needed to be replaced. The House resumed sitting in the Chamber in February 1920—why wait five or six years to find a suitable replacement calendar for the Clerk’s Table? Did the fact that the three items were unveiled ten years after the fire of 1916 have any significance?


Given the relationship of the the jewels to the Clerk’s Table, the Clerk or some procedural officer would be a logical choice as the initiator of the request to have at least the calendar designed. There is a certain irony in this assumption, given the fact that the Clerk’s Office initiated a request with Public Works in 1972, inquiring as to the origins of the items on the Table. Based on that inquiry, Procedural Services staff could not find any evidence to indicate that the project was initiated by either the office of the Clerk or the Sergeant-at-Arms. The originator remains a mystery.

These questions and with it a clear understanding of the origins of the “the jewels” remain unanswered. The detailed symbolism associated with the items suggests considerable thought was placed into their design. Were they the work of one person or the result of consultation? Like some mysteries, the answer may never be found; however, research has enriched our understanding of these fascinating heritage objects even if we cannot yet answer the important question of “why?”

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