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

Bulletin 20, 1972

Annual Index
Author & Subject

Click figure 1 here for an enlarged image

Click figure 2 here for an enlarged image

Click figure 3 here for an enlarged image

Portraits of a Young Hero: 
Two Versions of Robert Field's 
"Portrait of Lieutenant Provo William Parry Wallis"

by Barry Lord  

Résumé en français

Pages  1  |  2  |  3 

In 1813, the year in which he painted the National Gallery's portrait of Provo Wallis, Robert Field (c.1769-1819) was the leading portrait-painter in Halifax; he had been so since his arrival there in 1808, and would remain so until his departure in 1816.

The colonial naval base at Halifax had prospered during the Napoleonic Wars, and was even then, in 1813, prospering from the War of 1812-1814, for American expansionism had united the Haligonians behind the Royal Navy. Throughout the whole of l812 and into the early months of 1813, the war at sea had gone badly for the British. The population of Halifax was understandably overjoyed when, in June 1813 , H. M. S. Shamlon entered the harbour with the U. S. S. chesapeake in tow; the battle off Boston Bay between the two ships and their companies had ended in the Shannon's decisive victory.

Lieutenant Provo William Parry Wallis (1791-1892), a dashing, twenty-two-year-old "native son," was at the helm of H. M. S. Shannon as she sailed into Halifax harbour. Lieutenant Wallis had taken command of the Shannon after his superior officers, including Captain Sir Phillip Broke (1776-1841), had been incapacitated during the action off Boston. Wallis was to found a life-long reputation on these incidents of war; he rose to knighthood as the only Canadian-born Admiral of the Fleet in the Royal Navy , and until his death in 1892, at the age of one hundred and one, enjoyed the informal title "Father of the Royal Navy."

Nine years ago, while I was Curator of Art at the New Brunswick Museum, I began research which proved eventually that a portrait by Field (fig. I), dated 1813, in the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, and identified as a portrait of Commander John Harper (1772-1855), was in fact a portrait of the young Lieutenant Wallis painted sometime between his triumphant return to Halifax in June of 1813 and his departure for London in October of the same year. The identification of the portrait as being of Commander Harper had originally been made by Harry Piers, in his book on Field, (1) and had been accepted by the National Gallery and incorporated into its permanent collection as such. (2) Piers' s identification proved to have been based almost solely on the name on a box in which the painting had appeared in 1917; this was rendered absurd by considerations of age (Harper was forty-one in 1813), uniform (Harper was a commander in 1813, not a lieutenant), and tour of duty (Harper could not have been in Halifax in 1813). (3) The correct identification of the sitter as Provo Wallis was based on a comparison of the National Gallery's portrait with the wood-engraved portrait of Wallis (fig. 2) in a biography which appeared in 1892, (4) the year of his death. The latter portrait - allowing for reduction in size, the simplifications inherent in wood-engraving, and the limitations of the engraver, H. Fitzner Davey - was similar to both in pose, uniform, and facial features.

This was the substance of the popular account of my research which appeared in The Atlantic Advocate in 1968. (5) At that time I observed that there were still unanswered questions. I had begun my research because a portrait (fig. 3) held in the New Brunswick Museum bore a different title from the portrait in the National Gallery to which it was obviously related; (6) the portrait in the New Brunswick Museum was identical in terms of proportion to the portrait in the National Gallery, although it differed in dimensions ( 17 x 13-7/8 in. [43.2 x 35.3 cm] as opposed to 30 x 25 in. [76.2 x 63.5 cm]). But while the poses, the uniforms, the facial features, the backgrounds, and the colourings in both portraits were similar, there were a number of differences in the inclination of the head, the position of the figure on the canvas, the folds of the shirt front, and the disposition of the buttons (although these might have been explained as indications of the copyist's limitations). The most striking difference was the fact that in the copy, the sitter's left arm breaks the picture plane on the right edge rather than, as in the Ottawa portrait, in the lower right corner.

Several facts suggested that the differences were not just the result of deliberate or inadvertent changes on the part of the copyist and that there was perhaps an "original" other than the portrait in the National Gallery. Mabel G. Messer, whose background is not known, painted the New Brunswick Museum's picture in 1928, and had obviously worked from an original which was correctly identified for her as being a portrait of Provo Wallis. Her copy is, in fact, closer in many details to the wood-engraving of 1892 than it is to the portrait in the National Gallery: while it is difficult to compare the positions of the arms (because of the obscurity of the engraving), there are similarities between the depiction of the locks of hair, the form of the ear, the youthfulness of the face, and the disposition of the shirt-front. Just as suggestive is the fact that Piers himself - even while identifying as Harper the portrait which was then, in 1927, in his possession - referred to the wood-engraving of Wallis as evidence for a painting he had not been able to discover. (7) Finally, there was a description of Wallis' home some time before his death, by Dr J. G. Brighton:

The first object that attracts your attention is a portrait hanging between the two windows, which is so strikingly like that yon have seen of Sir Provo at the age of twenty-two, and which hangs in Lady Wallis's own room, that you venture to suggest it is a copy, but are informed that it is a portrait of Sir Provo's father when a young man. On comparing the two pictures you will find a difference in the pose of the head, otherwise the likeness is remarkable.

All signs, then, pointed to the existence of a second canvas - one which was either a copy or a version of the portrait in the National Gallery and from which the portrait in the New Brunswick Museum, and probably the wood-engraving in the Wallis biography, could have been copied or varied.

Next Page | Brighton's report

  |  2  |  3

Top of this page

Home | Français | Introduction | History
Annual Index | Author & Subject | Credits | Contact

This digital collection was produced under contract to Canada's Digital Collections program, Industry Canada.

"Digital Collections Program, Copyright © National Gallery of Canada 2001"