In the Spotlight: Conserving A Meeting of the School Trustees by Robert Harris

Robert Harris, A Meeting of the School Trustees (1885), oil on canvas, 102.2 x 126.5 cm, NGC. After treatment

A Meeting of the School Trustees is an iconic and familiar painting to many Canadians, in part due to a 1992 Heritage Minute feature by Historica Canada. In the feature, a dramatic and revelatory moment is constructed, likely based on anecdote, but Harris’ original title for the painting, Meeting of Trustees of a Back Settlement School — The teacher, talking them over, leaves this open to interpretation. 

The painting is set in a one-room schoolhouse on Prince Edward Island (PEI). The issue at hand could be any one of a number of problems, with the added zest that the principal protagonist is a woman, whom Harris described in a letter to his mother as “towny” meaning “not from around here.” The tensions here will be familiar to all of us, but have particular resonance for me. This feels exactly like the type of local drama that Islanders love to propagate; I know this from firsthand experience, as I was born and raised on PEI.

NGC Assistant Conservator of Paintings, Tasia Bulger, removing varnish during the treatment of Robert Harris, A Meeting of the School Trustees (1885)

In preparation for the launch of the new Canadian and Indigenous Galleries in June 2017, the role of NGC’s Restoration and Conservation Laboratory (RCL) has been to focus conservation treatments on select works of art by Canadian artists in the NGC national collection. This process has provided us with an opportunity to focus on paintings that we can never ordinarily take off the walls, since a visit to the Gallery would be incomplete without them. Some paintings have had no major treatment for nearly a century — as is the case with Harris’ painting.

Born in Wales in 1849, Robert Harris’ family moved to Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island in 1856, where he was raised. He studied painting in Boston, London, and Paris, and spent most of his adult life working as a portrait artist in Montreal. Following the successful reception of his large-scale group portrait, The Fathers of Confederation (1883), Harris became interested in creating a painting for the newly founded National Gallery of Canada, which had just begun purchasing works of art for its collection.

In the fall of 1885, Harris painted A Meeting of the School Trustees. It depicts a confrontational meeting of a rural schoolteacher with local trustees who appear reluctant to cooperate with her. It was suggested in Moncrieff Williamson’s book, Island Painter: The Life of Robert Harris (1849–1919), that the subject matter was based on an actual conversation in August 1885 between Harris and Long Creek schoolteacher, Kate Henderson, during a visit by Harris to his family in PEI.

The name “Kate Henderson” is written on a booklet on the desk, along with “Pine Creek School” — a fictional school based on the one-room schoolhouse in Long Creek, PEI. However, a deeper look into PEI’s Annual Public School and Education Reports and census data from the 1880s reveals that no women taught in Long Creek at that time, and the sole Catherine Henderson teaching in PEI was only recorded as active between 1876 and 1883, in Alma, Crapaud, Little York, and Poplar Grove.

Remarkably, this Catherine Henderson was born in Lot 31, a portion of which is now North Wiltshire, PEI — the same township in which I was raised! My connection with PEI was one of the reasons I wanted to work on this painting, along with my previous experience conserving Harris’ portrait of his wife, Elizabeth Putnam (1885), in 2014.

Maritime coincidences aside, the list of Henderson’s teaching positions do not precisely match up with Williamson’s telling of the story. It is more likely that Harris created the interaction, basing the scene on difficulties faced by women teaching in rural schools at the time. Harris had his wife pose as the schoolteacher, and used sketches of his uncle Joseph Stretch, a farmer and school trustee in Long Creek, for the central male figure. In terms of subject choice and the structured, academic treatment, the painting was in part painted to catch the eye of the recently founded National Gallery of Canada.

Robert Harris, A Meeting of the School Trustees (1885), during treatment, showing partial removal of varnish

The painting was purchased by the NGC in 1886 and was frequently exhibited, traveling extensively during the first half of the 20th century. The painting was restored early in its life, prompted by multiple tears in the canvas caused by handling damages.

In 1923, freelance picture restorer Frederick W. Colley treated the painting by cleaning the surface and attaching an additional canvas to the back to reinforce the tears. Colley also cleaned the surface of the painting using solvents that disrupted Harris’ original subtle glazing in several areas, in addition to damaging paint surrounding the tears. Colley painted generously over the damaged areas, and applied a thick, natural resin varnish.

Over time, these materials aged and discoloured, becoming prominent and distracting: the teacher’s hair appeared to have a large, grey streaks where a tear had been heavily overpainted, and the varnish had become very yellow, and partly opaque, creating a darker, more sombre appearance to the painting, and distorting the spatial relationships between some of the sitters, and within the room’s layout.

Robert Harris, A Meeting of the School Trustees (1885): detail during varnish removal of overpaint material on head (left) and detail after treatment (right)

The RCL treatment removed the thick, discoloured varnish layer, restoring the overall colour and tone of the paint surface to a closer representation of the work as it had appeared in 1885. Varnish removal also revealed an inscription on the slate, which had not been visible since before Colley’s restoration. The inscription reads: “ool Trustees” (likely “School Trustees”) “Meeting” and “day next.” This discovery prompted RCL to ensure that the inscription would still be legible after treatment, and minimal varnish was applied in that location.

Removal of the darkened varnish also restored the painting’s spatial depth, increasing the visibility of the background — particularly the desk and the doorway. Stabilizing damage to the paint and removing discolored overpaints from Colley’s treatment were followed with reintegration of the paint layer over the tears and restoring the disrupted artist’s glazes.

Robert Harris, A Meeting of the School Trustees (1885), detail of inscription on slate during treatment

This restoration has, in a very real sense, brought the painting closer to its original appearance, turning back the clock to a period when a reluctance to join Confederation was still relatively fresh in the minds of Islanders. Although Harris left the details of the meeting’s conversation to speculation, we can be certain that the trustees’ response represented an overall unease towards change; whether the changes occurred in government, on the homestead, or in a one-room schoolhouse. In that sense, even today we still have a lot in common with the characters portrayed here. The full title of the painting includes the notion that the teacher is “talking them over,” by which Harris means that she is convincing them, and that positive changes will happen.

The newly restored painting will be installed very soon, and will continue to play its role in telling the story of Canada. Now that it has returned to its original, brighter tone and can be seen clearly, what it tells us and how it tells us has more impact — its lesson is somehow more relevant. Make sure you take the time to see the changes yourself this summer at the National Gallery of Canada.

The newly restored A Meeting of the School Trustees by Robert Harris will be on view in the Canadian and Indigenous Galleries at the NGC, opening on June 15, 2017.

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