Skip to main content Start of content

Preserving our Past

David Monaghan, Curator, Curatorial Services

Accessing some of the paintings in the collection is not always easy. Scaffolding was required by the conservator to remove the portrait of Sir John Thompson from the north wall of the House of Commons foyer.

The Centre Block is home to more than 200 works of art that are a key part of the over 8,000 artefacts that make up the House of Commons Heritage Collection. These works of art, comprised primarily of paintings and sculpture, are interspersed throughout the building in public and private spaces. Each of these works has a history of its own, but collectively they chronicle the history of the House of Commons and help shape our understanding of the building, the institution and the role of Parliament as the focal point of Canadian democracy.

Art has always played an important role in the life of the institution and affects all of those who experience it, politicians, staff, and the public alike. This fact was demonstrated dramatically during the fire of 1916 that destroyed the original Parliament Building. As the fire spread rapidly throughout the building on that frigid February night, staff frantically worked to save what they could. Remarkably, they concentrated on saving paintings. The well-known portrait of Queen Victoria, purchased by the Legislative Assembly of the Province of Canada in 1848, was quickly removed from its frame and carried out of the fire. Portraits of Speakers dating back to 1854 and other works were also removed from the building to ensure their safety.

The actions taken in February 1916 are the most extreme example of preserving our past. The preservation work carried on today within Centre Block and in the collection as a whole is far less dramatic but no less important. The approach is long term and is intended to reduce the risk of fire, water, vandalism, or accidental damage as well as limit the effects of the environment upon these fragile works of art.

While fire and water present their own obvious risks, environmental damage is more subtle in its effect upon paintings. Sunlight, insects, airborne dirt, dust, changes in temperature and humidity (too much or too little) all affect paintings. In contrast to museums where art work is exhibited under quite exacting environmental conditions, the art collection in the Centre Block is exhibited in what is considered ambient office temperatures. The movement of large numbers of people through the building and fluctuations in temperature, combined with the effects of both natural and artificial light, can take their toll on paintings over time. The effect of all of these factors is not always immediate, but cumulative.

This is the reason why a crucial part of our preservation program is the monitoring of the condition of paintings to identify works that require attention before major issues develop. Over the last fourteen years, regular attention has been paid to the scheduled examination of paintings and the production of detailed condition reports on art work in the collection. These photographic and written records provide a profile of the physical issues identified with each work of art and its frame. The examination of the painting collection is carried out by curatorial staff and conservators, professionals who have been trained in the treatment and care of paintings and other objects. This type of methodical approach allows the House to invest funds in the ongoing preservation of the collection more efficiently and to best effect.

During the summer of 2011, work on updating the condition reports focused on the portraits of the Prime Ministers located in the south corridor and the foyer of the House of Commons. The summer recess also provided an opportunity to undertake another aspect of our preservation activities, the physical treatment of paintings. The portraits of Sir John Thompson and Sir Charles Tupper exhibited in the foyer both required treatment and were scheduled to be sent out for conservation.

The portrait of Prime Minister Sir John Thompson was purchased by the House of Commons in June 1900. The posthumous portrait of the fourth Prime Minister of Canada is the work of John W. L. Forester. The artist completed the painting in 1897, some three years after the former Prime Minister collapsed and died at Windsor Castle following his induction into the Imperial Privy Council by Queen Victoria.

Portrait of Sir John Thompson

The left side of the portrait has been cleaned and a new layer of conservation varnish has been applied.

Artist: John Wycliffe Lowes Forster
Date: 1897
Medium: Oil on canvas
Dimensions : 143 x 106.8 cm

The portrait of Sir John Thompson survived the fire of 1916, but sustained some damage. We have no record of any specific conservation work done on the painting at that time, nor are we aware of any work performed on the painting between 1920 and 1997. A condition report on the painting was prepared in 1997 and a more detailed examination was carried out by a conservator in 2004.

It was recommended in 2004 that the painting be cleaned and the flaking on the paint surface be stabilized and repaired. The existing protective varnish covering the surface of the painting had yellowed badly with time. This gave the painting a distinct jaundiced tone and obscured details. The varnish had also been poorly applied and there were hardened drips on the paint surface. Although not easy to access, the painting was removed from the foyer and transported to a conservation studio in Ottawa. In the controlled conditions of the studio, the existing varnish was carefully removed, the paint layer consolidated and a new protective finish was applied. Some minor repairs were also done to the frame. Almost a month after its removal, the painting returned to the building and the visual effect of the conservation treatment was dramatic.

In contrast to Sir John Thompson, the 1896 portrait of Sir Charles Tupper by Victor Long is a more recent acquisition. It was acquired by the House from the National Archives in 1941. The portrait of Sir Charles Tupper was more problematic as the painting was not only faded due to the discolouration of the varnish but had also experienced paint loss on the surface. The accompanying illustration of the painting during treatment shows the contrast between the cleaned portrait on the left and the old varnish on the right side of the photo. The large spot on the former Prime Minister’s cheek is one area where original paint had peeled away and was lost. Again, the cleaned painting shows a substantial improvement in the clarity of the image, but also has allowed us to ensure that the paint surface is repaired and stabilized.

Portrait of Sir Charles Tupper

The section on the left has been cleaned.

Artist: Victor Alert Long
Date: 1896
Medium: Oil on canvas
Dimensions : 168 x 100.2 cm

This type of work is typical of the activities undertaken today to ensure that not only the 200 works of art, but all of the 8,000 objects in the collection are preserved for future generations of Canadians. As such, the House continues a long tradition of caring for these objects which not only define where we work, but also, in a very real manner, who we are.

Top of page