National Gallery of Canada / Musée des beaux-arts du Canada

Bulletin 12 (VI:2), 1968

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Robert Harris and The Fathers of Confederation

by Moncrieff Williamson

Résumé en français

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Writing to his brother Eddie on 15 May 1883, Robert Harris (fig. 1) began as follows: "I'm just going to scribble this line to tell you the picture for the Govt. is to be all right. So I shall be able to work on it at home all summer I suppose, which will be o.k. However I shall have to go up to Toronto on the 29th to attend the meeting of the Academy and then hope to skip for old P. E. I. with speed." (1) The same day he wrote to his mother giving her similar information; both letters were addressed from 656 Palace Street, Montreal. Less than a month earlier, on 21 April, Harris had written to his mother that "I found nothing definitely arranged about the big picture for Ottawa."

These letters mark the start, but by no means the conclusion, of what began as casual enough negotiations between the Department of Public Works, Ottawa, and Robert Harris for one large painting in oils on canvas (fig. 2) (2) to commemorate the gathering of Delegates of British North America who met in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, in September 1864 to discuss Maritime Union and eventually established the Confederation of the Provinces of Canada. In October 1864, an additional twelve delegates had joined the others in Quebec City, where the final points of Confederation of the Dominion of Canada were worked out. The picture was to hang in the Railway Commit tee Room of the House of Commons. The negotiations with Harris dealt with the location of the scene to be depicted - whether Charlottetown or Quebec City - and the matter of copyright.

In a letter to Sir Joseph Pope dated 25 April 1916, Harris wrote: "The price agreed on with the Govt. was four thousand dollars for painting the Charlottetown conference. This was changed later to the Quebec conference as you know, containing as well as I remember ten or twelve portraits more. Friends advised me to ask for a larger sum in consequence but I did not thinking it would seem grasping to do so being glad to get the commission and also expecting the value of the copyright to be considerable. As a matter of fact I never got from any source one cent more than the four thousand the Govt. gave me." (3)

How many artists will sympathize with Harris's statement that he did not wish to seem grasping, "being glad to get the commission!" Indeed, Harris realized that, with the solid sum of four thousand dollars, not only could he marry his beloved Bessie (4) but he would also be able to go abroad to study and live a life of modest economic independence.

"In this sum," Harris continues in his letter to Pope, "the large expenses connected with the production of the painting made a terrible hole. It involved a lot of travelling up and down and was altogether very costly. I went to see almost every one of the actors then alive and consulted relatives of those who were dead. Altogether tried to reconstruct the scene on the spot where the burnt Quebec building stood. In short I shirked no trouble about it down to the landscape they must have looked on, feeling all the time it was an opportunity to produce something which ought to be of value in the annals of Canada." (5)

An artist of great skill, and certainly the one Canadian painter to whom the government was apparently willing to entrust the recording of such an historic event, Harris was also sufficiently practical to recognize that what the Government wanted was, not a work of art, but an archive: "I hoped it might have been preserved many hundreds of years as barring an accident it was good for any time and would in future have come to be looked on as a valuable historical document" (my italics). (6)

In a way, Harris's wish was fulfilled. For, although the painting was destroyed in the fire which burned the Parliament Building on 3 February 1916, it is well known even to the present generation of Canadians. Owing to governmental indifference or laxity, the painting had been copied and reproduced without permission, discretion or accuracy. It was reproduced in school books, magazines and newspapers, and hung in classrooms. Even Government departments apparently were indifferent to copyright infringements for which the injured artist would today be awarded punitive costs.

In February 1918, less than a year before his death, (7) Harris had occasion to write to a Mr. E. J. Lemaire, Superintendent at the Post Office, who had inquired about a detail in the postage stamp issued to commemorate the Fiftieth Anniversary of Confederation. "The object you refer to," wrote Harris, "represents two maps rolled up under a stool and a light overcoat lying upon it. Used chiefly as being effective in composition and colour. Referring to the postage stamp, I think it a pity no one thought fit to consult me on the matter: I should have been able to suggest use of the picture without the sacrifice of the small group of men on the extreme right, whose descendants may not unnaturally feel aggrieved at their omission." (8)

What went wrong? Robert Harris was thirty-four years old and a founding member of the Royal Canadian Academy (9) when he undertook this commission. He must have been well-informed regarding copyright laws, especially as he made so much of his livelihood as an illustrator. At this late date we can only guess at the contents and nature of the correspondence which passed between Harris and the Department of Public Works, for here again fire intervened: in 1897 the offices of the Department of Public Works were burned to the ground and the Harris correspondence destroyed.

That Harris had been demanding copyright from the beginning is confirmed by the fact that in submitting his bill for the painting he asked that the copyright be left with him. (10) There is no record of a reply to this request, but on 5 June 1884 the Governor General approved an Order-in-Council authorizing the Government to purchase the picture. The order was first drafted in committee and then submitted to the Governor General by Sir John A. Macdonald. (11)

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