Ladies and gentlemen in quarantine, I have been inspired by both the outpouring of excellent free resources from museums and academic institutions as well as the creativity of my fellow human beings. I have been particularly entertained by the Getty Museum’s recent challenge to reproduce works of art from their collection with things you have available in your own home. Here is my humble attempt at reproducing “The Laundress” AKA “La Blanchisseuse” by Jean-Baptiste Greuze from 1761. Of this painting, Denis Diderot said: “This little laundress is charming, but she’s a rascal I wouldn’t trust an inch.”
The Irish-Canadian artist Paul Kane travelled to what is now Western Canada in the height of the fur trade in the 1840s, sketching and drawing Indigenous peoples at a time before the dominance of photography. He spent the Christmas of 1846 at Fort Edmonton, which at the time was the largest Hudson’s Bay Company fort in the Saskatchewan District (any post along the Saskatchewan rivers). I love his description of the day because it is so evocative.
“On Christmas-day the flag was hoisted, and all appeared in their best and gaudiest style, to do honour the holiday. Towards noon every chimney gave evidence of being in full blast, whist savoury steams of cooking pervaded the atmosphere in all directions. About two o’clock we sat down to dinner. Our party consisted of Mr. Harriett, the chief [trader or factor], and three clerks, Mr. Thebo, the Roman Catholic missionary from Manitou Lake, about thirty miles off, Mr. Rundell, the Wesleyan missionary, who resided within the pickets, and myself, the wanderer, who, though returning from the shores of the Pacific, was still the latest importation from civilised life.
The dining-hall in which we assembled was the largest room in the fort, probably about fifty by twenty-five feet, well warmed by large fires, which are scarcely ever allowed to go out. The walls and ceilings are boarded, as plastering is not used, there being no limestone within reach ; but these boards are painted in a style of the most startling barbaric gaudiness, and the ceiling filled with centre-pieces of fantastic gilt scrolls, making altogether a saloon which no white man would enter for the first time without a start, and which the Indians always looked upon with awe and wonder. . . .
No table-cloth shed its snowy whiteness over the board ; no silver candelabra or gaudy china interfered with its simple magnificence. The bright in plates and dishes reflected jolly faces, and burnished gold can give no truer zest to a feast.
Perhaps it might be interesting to some dyspeptic idler, who painfully strolls through a city park, to coax an appetite to a sufficient intensity to enable him to pick up an ortolan [a small old-world bird], if I were to describe to him the fare set before us, to appease appetites nourished by constant out-door exercise in an atmosphere ranging at 40° to 50° below zero. At the head, before Mr. Harriett, was a large dish of boiled buffalo hump ; at the foot smoked a boiled buffalo calf. Start not, gentle reader, the calf is very small, and is taken from the cow by the Caesarean operation long before it attains its full growth. This, boiled whole, is one of the most esteemed dishes amongst the epicures of the interior. My pleasing duty was to help a dish of mouffle, or dried moose nose ; the gentleman on my left distributed, with graceful impartiality, the white fish, delicately browned in buffalo marrow. The worthy priest helped the buffalo tongue, whilst Mr. Rundell cut up the beavers’ tails. Nor was the other gentleman left unemployed, as all his spare time was occupied in dissecting a roast wild goose. The centre of the table was graced with piles of potatoes, turnips, and bread conveniently placed, so that each could help himself without interrupting the labours of his companions. Such was our jolly Christmas dinner at Edmonton ; and long will it remain in my memory, although no pies, or puddings, or blanc manges, shed their fragrance over the scene.
In the evening the hall was prepared for the dance to which Mr. Harriett had invited all the inhabitants of the fort, and was early filled by the gaily dressed guests. Indians, whose chief ornament consisted in the paint on their faces, voyageurs with bright sashes and neatly ornamented moccasins, half-breeds glittering in every ornament they could lay their hands on ; whether civilized or savage, all were laughing, and jabbering in as many different languages as there were styles of dress. English, however, was little used, as none could speak it but those who sat at the dinner-table. The dancing was most picturesque, and almost all joined in it. Occasionally in among the rest, led out a young Cree [woman], who sported enough beads round her neck to have made a pedlar’s fortune, and having led her into the centre of the room, I danced round her with all the agility I was capable of exhibiting, to some highland-reel tune which the fiddler played with great vigour, whilst m partner with grave face kept jumping up and down both feet off the ground at once. . . I believe, however, that we elicited a great deal of applause from Indian [women] and children, who sat squatting around the room on the floor. Another lady with whom I sported the light fantastic toe, whose poetic name was Cun-ne-wa-bum, or “One that looks at the Stars,” was a half-breed Cree girl ; and I was so much struck by her beauty, that I prevailed upon her to promise to sit for her likeness, which she afterwards did with great patience, holding her fan, which was made of the tip end of a swan’s wing with an ornamental handle of porcupine’s quills, in a most coquettish manner.
After enjoying ourselves with such boisterous vigour for several hours, we all gladly retired to rest about twelve o’clock, with guests separating in great good humour, not only with themselves but with their entertainers.”
Aside from the fascinating description of all of the dishes at the head table (white fish in a bone marrow sauce! Moose nose! Buffalo hump! An entire bison fetus!), I would like to highlight the fact that Paul Kane was one of only a handful of people at the fort who spoke English. Cree and French were far more useful languages in the West, though because the Hudson’s Bay Company’s official documents were intended for the management in London, most of the primary sources from these posts are written in English.
On a rainy day in Normandy last month, I made an obligatory pilgrimage to see the Bayeux Tapestry. I was fairly impressed with their audio guide, which walked visitors along the narrative of the embroidery alongside medieval music. It wasn’t so busy on a weekday in April that we couldn’t go back to the start of the embroidery to revisit and more closely examine certain sections. My favourite details among many are the dwarf Tuvold holding a pair of horses and the appearance of what we now know as Haley’s Comet.
I always like to support museums through their gift shops (they often have the most meaningful souvenirs for me, a history nerd), so while there I picked up a copy of The Bayeux Tapestry: The Life Story of a Masterpiece by Carola Hicks.
This book delves into a series of fascinating anecdotes covering not only what we can actually know of how/when/why the embroidery was originally made (which includes surprisingly little solid documentary evidence, mostly assumptions based on material culture and lots of fierce debating over the centuries) but also what’s happened to it over the last 900+ years. Much of that is a series of anecdotes detailing how it was damaged or narrowly avoided being lost or destroyed. Here are some highlights from the Bayeux Tapestry’s biography:
It has survived more than one fire and centuries of moths.
It wasn’t stolen, destroyed, or damaged like most of the other church treasures by a mob that ransacked the Bayeux Cathedral on May 10th, 1562.
Maybe at some point it was longer and pieces were removed. Judging from the assumption of narrative and visual symmetry, there was likely a scene at the end depicting William the Conqueror’s coronation. It may have been removed early on in the embroidery’s history and it’s lucky more of it wasn’t sliced away.
It is said that the tapestry was nearly cut up and used as a canvas cart covering during the French Revolution and only the timely arrival of a local official rescued the textile from this ignominious fate.
After the Revolution, it could have been brought to the Louvre in Paris like so many other regional pieces of art and could have easily been damaged or stolen on the way to Paris or afterwards.
It was nearly sliced into different sections to be used in a parade.
It actually was brought to Paris to be displayed under Napoleon. An ancient “document” such as this displaying a successful French invasion of England was an excellent propaganda coup during the war. It was luckily returned to its home in Bayeux unscathed.
For at least a century it was displayed by being wound and unwound on a giant wooden spool, damaging the ends and distorting sections of the fabric. The sight of this damaging method of storage and display reportedly “outraged” English tourists.
At least one piece of the embroidery was snipped away in the 1810s by English artist and antiquarian Charles Stothard (not his wife as many believed). It was eventually returned.
The Bayeux Tapestry fell into the hands of the Germans during the Second World War and was once again used as propaganda, this time by Nazis highlighting the Germanic ancestry of the Norman invaders. Now the embroidery purported to show a successful invasion of England by German people at a time when the Third Reich was also aiming to cross the channel and take over England. It could easily have been stolen away by the Germans or destroyed by bombings, as so much European art was during the war.
Author Carola Hicks made the point that one of the most exceptional things about the Bayeux Tapestry isn’t necessarily its workmanship or the narrative it tells, but the fact that it survived. Other perhaps more magnificent examples of wall hangings from the same period may not have made it to the present day simply because they were made of gold or silver thread or more precious materials like silk. The more humbly made linen and worsted wool Bayeux Tapestry may have survived in large part because it wasn’t made of valuable materials. Now we consider it valuable beyond measure for the stories it tells: a 70m remnant of a very precise and yet in many ways still mysterious period of time.
The Bayeux Tapestry’s history is almost as long and storied as the actual embroidery itself. I personally find the stories of how it came to survive to present day almost more interesting than the context in which it was originally produced. The history of artifacts tells us a lot about changing perceptions of what people valued. Mainly, we today are often horrified by the carelessly cavalier way people in the past treated what are now beloved artifacts. In any case, whenever I visit a museum, I enjoy looking at artifacts and imagining where they were and what happened to them in the intervening years between their creation and when they ended up in a climate-controlled glass case in front of me.
The internet is a fascinating place. Many imagine historians to look rather like that historian who gets slain after the fourth wall breaks in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, more at home in the dusty archive wearing a tweed shirt than cruising around online. But honestly, there are amazing resources in the depths of the internet that are making it easier and easier for historians to save on travel costs – and wear and tear on delicate documents. Here are a few that I feel you should know. All on this list can be accessed for free, which makes them ideal for those who don’t yet (or no longer) have access to subscription-based online databases through university tuition fees. This list is by no means exhaustive, but may contain a few of the slightly less well-known free archives and collections available online.
Peel’s Prairie Provinces via the University of Alberta library and archive. A huge collection of digitized Western Canadiana. If it was published in or about Manitoba, Saskatchewan, or Alberta prior to, say, the 1950s, they probably have a copy in their full text keyword searchable database. I’ve talked about a few of their documents before – see this post on a Western Canadian Dictionary and Phrase-Book from 1912 – but the element of their collection that I have made the most use of is their postcards. Some, like the postcards of bison/cow hybrids, have been digitized: over 15,000 historical postcard entries. However, as of last year they doubled their collection, though most have not yet been described or made available online. Nevertheless, they are a hugely rich resource that is only just started to be tapped by researchers (including me for my MA research project). Peel’s Prairie Provinces also has a large collection of digitized photographs apart from their postcards and a huge set of Western Canadian newspapers – even those that only ran for a few years, or were from small towns or in unusual languages. Once again, they are entirely keyword searchable!
I have been oddly silent for the past few weeks, as most grad students tend to be at this time of year. I have been buried beneath a pile of books, peering at microfilm, or lugging texts about. Occasionally I have eaten and slept.
One of my current research projects involves a comparison of the Canadian War Memorial at Vimy Ridge in France and the “original” plasters of those statues by Walter Allward at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa.
Here are a few of my reference photographs, taken by myself this past December.
I would like to begin by showing this first image, involving greenery without any glimpse of marble, is from the Memorial Forest that surrounds this monument. In fact, the land all around it is legally Canadian soil. You may notice that it looks quite strange; those are scars from bombardments that occurred on this site during the battle for Vimy Ridge in 1917 as well as failed military manoeuvres before and after the Canadians took the ridge in April of that year. When they began work on the site in 1922, it took them two and a half years to remove the majority of the dangerous unexploded bombs, shells, and undiscovered bodies, but even today visitors are not permitted to walk beneath the trees because it was impossible to remove everything.
Here is the memorial itself. The two pylons were meant to represent Canada and France, and the sacrifices they made during the war. The base and the pylons are covered with allegorical figures representing such things as Charity, Peace, Knowledge, the Spirit of Sacrifice, etc. However, the most prominent of these figures is set aside from the rest. She is the one featured in two of these photographs: Canada Bereft, mourning her fallen sons. She overlooks the Douai Plain. Visiting the site, you can immediately grasp the strategic value of commanding the ridge. However, in this case, Canada looks out over a landscape in mourning.
I will, of course, go on at length in my research paper on the intended symbolism of the architect of the monument, Walter Allward. I hope that you can get a sense of the scale from these photographs (taken in amazingly opportune lighting due to the weather: bright sunlight directly above, but with storm clouds in the distance). From the fourth photograph in particular, I feel that one can get a sense of the importance of place for this site; it would not have nearly the same effect, say, in downtown Toronto. The monument is dependent upon its location upon the highest point of the Battle of Vimy Ridge, for which so many Canadians and others gave their lives.
I will also be examining the Allward plasters, which were used to construct these massive marble statues; the latter are more than twice the size of real human beings, giving them a grave, intimidating status. Seventeen of the twenty plasters are on display in Regeneration Hall, a specially constructed room at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa. Most notably, the plaster for Canada Bereft is absent. Instead, the figure of Hope takes pride of place, though many of the other figures stand shoulder to shoulder in a line, relatively equal and approachable.
These plaster casts of the original clay statues sculpted by Allward himself were used as a reference tool for the Italian carvers at Vimy Ridge. They are covered in small pencil markings and even pegs, used to double the ratio from life-size to larger than life in the final product. They were never intended for display but make for a quite interesting one regardless.
I am struggling to compare these two spaces and displays of the “same” sculptures. The Vimy Memorial in France is designed around the landscape, as a testament to the sacrifice that occurred in that locale. Regeneration Hall was designed to house these sculptures, and contains its own, modified symbolism. It is a lofty room, almost reminiscent of Gothic cathedrals in atmosphere, though the asymmetrical walls are constructed of rough metal. An eerie, artificial sound of wind (recorded in the room before windows were put in, capturing a fluke of design) permeates the hall. At one end, there is a tall, triangular window facing East, towards Parliament Hill. If one stands on the loft, facing the allegorical figure of Hope, one can barely make out the Peace Tower, but only if one stands in precisely the right spot: a metaphor for the straight and narrow path that one must not deviate from to achieve peace.
In design, these two spaces and displays are quite different. However, how have the memorialisation and symbolism of the Allward statues changed in this new space? These are the ideas that I am currently grappling with. There may in fact be more continuity than I had originally believed. Breaking with tradition of the time, Allward seemed to have designed his memorial at Vimy not to commemorate the great victory that occurred there, but to memorialise the dead and give the living a sense of hope.