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Saving Mr. Mowat: An Art History Mystery

When the opportunity arose to play one of my predecessors in my favourite TV drama, I seized the moment. In the The Ghost of Queen's Park episode of the CBC's Murdoch Mysteries, I was cast as one of my viceregal predecessors, eighth Lieutenant Governor of Ontario the Hon. Sir Oliver Mowat.

To tell the truth, the star of the show was actually the magnificent 1893 Legislative Assembly building, which served as a magnificent period set for the Victorian-era drama.

During the filming, I was fully made up with mutton-chop whiskers, granny glasses, and black suit appropriate for the era, all to resemble Sir Oliver. Prior to filming my short scene in the legislature's lobby, I posed for a souvenir photo beneath Mowat's official portrait, just one of the dozens of my predecessors' portraits gracing the walls of the Lieutenant Governor's Suite.

As much as I wanted the photo as a keepsake, I knew the likelihood of a quality picture was iffy at best due to the badly deteriorated condition of the portrait. Despite being barely 110 years old, its cracked surface made it look as if Sir Oliver had been painted on crocodile skin!

The photographer concurred and we had to settle for a photo taken from several feet away (and at an extreme angle) so as to hide the obvious imperfections. I'd known about the portrait's poor condition for my entire term of office, but now had the impetus to do something about it.

Had Sir Oliver simply been a relatively minor statesman, I might have not pursued things further. But Mowat was one of the great Canadian politicians of the 19th century.

A Father of Confederation, Premier of Ontario from 1872 to 1896, winner of six consecutive majority governments, Senator, and then Lieutenant Governor until his death in 1903, Mowat was a giant of his time. Yet his portrait seemed on the brink of no return.

I wanted to save Mr. Mowat.

So after the filming of Murdoch Mysteries, I contacted the Archives of Ontario, the office that maintains the Government of Ontario Art Collection.

Article continues below video.

As Lieutenant Governor, I have enjoyed a wonderful working relationship with the Archives. Early in my term, I asked then curator Gillian Reddyhoff exactly how many official portraits of Ontario's 42 Lieutenant Governors we actually had in the official collection.

Thanks to one of my predecessors from the 1800s, Ontario has the most complete collection in Canada of viceregal representatives and administrators (essentially acting Lieutenant Governors).

That the collection is so complete is due to the Hon. John Beverley Robinson, Lieutenant Governor from 1880 to 1887. When appointed, Robinson saw that there were very few official portraits of his predecessors, including our first Lieutenant Governor, John Graves Simcoe, and the hero of Queenston Heights, Sir Isaac Brock.

A patron of the arts, Robinson commissioned one of the great portrait artists of the day, George Théodore Berthon, to start a collection of portraits of Lieutenant Governors of Upper Canada,ending with his own official portrait for the new Government House, which had been built at the corner of King and Simcoe Streets.

Working from engravings, miniatures, oils, and watercolours, Berthon produced twenty paintings, all of which hang today in the Legislative Assembly building and within the Lieutenant Governor's Suite. In one prodigious production of art, most of the viceregal office holders from 1792 to 1887 were now on display. Importantly, it established a tradition where all subsequent Lieutenant Governors have an official portrait done.

His commission was later extended to include portraits of the Governors General of the Province of Canada, who were the forerunners to the Lieutenant Governors of Upper Canada.

The Vienna-born Berthon had become the most popular portrait artist in Upper Canada by the 1850s. He was the son of French painter, René-Théodore Berthon, who has been one of Napoleon's court painters. Berthon père had been a student of neo-classical painter, Jacques Louis David , and several of his historical paintings still hang in Versailles.

But back to Mowat. Archives curator Lani Wilson's team inspected the painting and, realizing that the damage was much worse than initially thought, arranged for a priority restoration. The restoration process was meticulous.But as soon as it had begun, a mystery worthy of an artistic Murdoch unfolded.

Visible deterioration of the portrait.

The official record showed that the portrait had been done by artist J. W. L. Forster, and the canvas itself had been folded to fit into its frame. Once removed for the restoration, the painting was revealed to be a number of inches larger and to the surprise of everyone, in the upper left hand corner, it bore the signature of another artist entirely: A. D. Patterson!

Further investigation led to the discovery of a written inscription to Sir Oliver by Patterson on the back of the canvas:

His Honour

Sir Oliver Mowat, G.C.M.G.

by A. D. Patterson, R.C.A.

Toronto 1902/3.

Given the date, it is one of the "newer" paintings from the 19th century portion of the Lieutenant Governor collection of portraits. And yet, the Berthon portraits from two decades earlier are still in fine condition.

Why Sir Oliver Mowat's portrait was attributed to the wrong artist, or indeed why it aged so badly, are mysteries that may never be solved. But I am happy to have played a role, however small, in ensuring that the correct artist received due credit and his work was restored to its former glory. The re-invigorated and re-attributed portrait was officially unveiled yesterday in the company of some of Sir Oliver's descendants at a ceremony in the Lieutenant Governor's Suite.

We owe a debt of gratitude to the Archives of Ontario, whose dedicated and talented staff preserve this important part of our heritage.

The entire collection of viceregal portraits is on public display in the halls of the Legislative Assembly and in the Lieutenant Governor's Suite. They belong to the people of Ontario.

Justin Mowat, grandson of author Farley Mowat (great grand-nephew of Sir Oliver Mowat) speaks about how the portrait's story piqued his interest in the Mowats' contributions to Canada.

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