Hardly a week goes by without finding an interesting object even though our our collection is relatively small compared to many museums. One such object is an “emergency” ration used by Canadian and British troops during the South African War – also known as the 2nd Boer War – 1899-1901.
Generally produced by the Bovrill company in England, these cylindrical lead “tins” were about 14 cm (5.5″) long and 5 cm (2″) in diameter, were actually two separate tins joined together by a metal strip with a pull tab that could be used to separate the tins. The whole piece was wrapped with a paper label that instructed “Only to be used with permission of an officer.” Each section also had its own lid on which were glued instructions on how to prepare them for eating.
They usually consisted of 4 ounces of concentrated beef (Pemmican) in one end, and 4 ounces of cocoa paste in the other. Ideally both were to be used with water – the beef to be soaked for 15 or so minutes in water to create a sort of beef soup – but in theory either could be eaten from the can if necessary. They were said to be able to sustain a soldier for 36 hours if consumed in small quantities!
Normally a mobile “field kitchen” would provide at least one hot meal a day but there were occasions when this was not practical. For instance during the Battle of Paardeberg, troops were pinned down for much of a day and night.
Certainly rations have come a long way since 1899!
During some recent research, an original letter relating to the Battle of Ridgeway was “rediscovered”, it provides some good insight into the conduct of the battle by someone who would have been well aware of the events and is the subject of this Artifact Spotlight.
At the time the Queen’s Own were called to active service to fight the Fenians in June of 1866 the Commanding Officer, LCol Durie, was assigned to staff duties at the headquarters in Toronto and Maj Charles T Gillmor was acting CO. Col Booker of the 13th Regiment of Volunteers was in command of the force but Maj Gillmor commanded the 450 men of the Queen’s Own who were in the front line fighting the Fenians for much of the brief engagement. Four days after the battle while the Regiment was still on active duty in Stratford he submitted a report to Col Lourie who was with the 47th Regiment of Foot of the British Army.
Gillmor praises the conduct of all the Volunteers at the engagement and credits the partially trained and ill-equipped soldiers with a cool determination not normally found in Militia soldiers. He pinpoints the critical turning point in the battle as the moment the Volunteers mistakenly identify the advancing left flank of the red-coated 13th Battalion Volunteers as British regulars under Col Peacock who they had been expecting to relieve them, at which point the Volunteers turned and began withdrawing from the field.
The original letter is in the possession of the Queen’s Own Rifles Museum and can be viewed at the links at the bottom of the page. Here is the document transcribed with minor corrections for better understanding:
June 6 1866
I have the honor to report that on the 2nd Inst [of the current month] I left Port Colborne with about 450 men of the Queen’s Own also the 13th Battalion of Hamilton Volunteers and the York & Caledonia Rifles all under command of Lt Col Booker. We proceeded by train to Ridgeway Station and then marched towards Stevensville where we were ordered to meet Col Peacock at 9 to 9.30 am.
About 7 am the advanced guard of the Queen’s Own signalled the enemy as in sight, I extended three Companies with supports and advanced. The enemy were posted behind rail fences and after a few rounds retired, one officer of Queen’s Own was killed and two or three wounded. At this time a telegram was forwarded to Col Booker from Col Peacock to say that he (Col Peacock) could not leave at 5 o’clock as in his order of instruction of the night previous he had arranged to do but would do so at 7. The situation of the Volunteers was thereby rendered most critical as it seemed improbable we could hold our position for the two hours we were thus left unsupported. However, I conceived an advance and repulse of the enemy our only chance and sending out flanking parties necessary in consequence of the enemy being seen in woods right and left we advanced still driving the enemy for a mile or more having relieved Skirmishers with supports and the entire of the Queen’s Own having been engaged (some companies twice over). I asked Col Booker to relieve me with his right wing which was promptly done and his men advanced gallantly as my Skirmishers were coming in. Col Booker gave me the command to prepare for Cavalry which I obeyed but failing to see Cavalry I reformed Column and ordered the two leading companies of the Queen’s Own to extend and drive back the enemy then fearfully near us, this was done in splendid style. I had then necessarily to retire the rest of column consisting of Hamilton Volunteers and one or two companies of Queen’s Own. While retiring they observed the left wing of the Hamilton Volunteers advancing and imagining it the advance of the 16th and 47th [Regiments of Foot British Army] cheered on which the wing turned and ran and a scene of confusion ensued. I endeavoured to get the men into order aided by many officers of 13th of whom I could recognize Major Skinner and Mr. Routh the later fell close beside me while earnestly urging his men to rally. We then had to retire our ammunition being almost exhausted and, keeping the enemy in check, retired by Ridgeway to Port Colborne.
I annex list of killed, wounded and missing.
As I had never seen a shot fired before in action my opinion can be only taken for what it is worth but I do not believe ever men went into action more coolly and fought more gallantly than did the Officers and men of Queen’s Own that day. In many instances they had to advance from fence to fence one or two hundred yards under a galling fire and this was done with quiet and steady determination and I have the honor to say that I consider the conduct of all the officers and men as beyond all praise quite up to and beyond what I could have expected when like myself not a man had been in action before. So many acts of individual gallantry came under my observation that I cannot attempt a selection of names but I must mention to you the cool and gallant demeanor of Mr. Lockie who in the uniform of the London Scottish Volunteers joined us as we left Toronto and whose cool steady and unflinching bravery was the admiration of the Regiment.
The object I have chosen as an artifact of interest is this photo (above) of the Sergeant’s Mess in 1886. It is a composite photo meaning photos of individuals are cut-out and stuck on a watercolour or charcoal sketched background and then re-photographed (much like Photoshop).
It was chosen because it shows the sergeants at a time when at least 30 of them had just recently returned from the rigours of the North West Rebellion 1885, (NW Canada campaign), it has five serving or future Sergeant Majors and a number of other interesting details. The date is likely 1886 as both Sgt Major Cunningham and Sgt Major Crean are present and the sergeants are wearing their North-West Rebellion medals.
From left to right the Sergeant Majors are:
Warring G. Kennedywas Sergeant Major from 1891-92 and served as a corporal during the NW Canada campaign.
George Creightonserved as Sergeant Major from at least 1912-15 and served as a Pte during the NW Canada campaign.
Samuel Corrigan McKell served as Color Sergeant during the NW Canada Campaign and was mentioned for saving a wounded soldier while under fire. He was appointed as Sergeant Major in 1889 but unfortunately died the next year. He is buried in St James Cemetery in Toronto and has a large tombstone erected by his comrades.
John F.M. Crean was Sergeant Major from 1886-89 and served as Color Sgt during the NW Canada campaign. After his time as Sgt Major he received his commission, then left the QOR and joined the West Africa Frontier Force. He died in Toronto at 47 years of age after 6 years in Africa.
Patrick Cunningham (formerly of the 16th Foot) was Sergeant Major from 1877 to 1885, including as Sergeant Major during the NW Canada campaign.
Charles Swift was Bugle Major from 1876-1923 and is the only one in the picture that served at both Ridgeway and the NW Canada Campaign. He is the regiment’s longest serving Bugle Major.
Other interesting information:
There are 28 Sergeants, 15 Color Sergeants, 13 Staff Sergeants including 2 Sergeants Major, 1 dog, and 1 unknown Sergeant (name being cut-off in the picture);
Color Sergeants are what we now call Company Sergeants Major although the Companies were less than half the size of a modern day 120 soldier Company. In 1886 a Company normally had around 50 soldiers, two Officers and two or three Sergeants. The regiment at the time consisted of at least 10 companies;
Sergeants Major, Quarter Master Sergeants, Armoury Sergeants, Hospital Sergeants were all appointments that a Staff Sergeant could be assigned. As staff, they weren’t part of the Companies but may have paraded at their local armoury with them. Note that all the Staff Sgts are carrying swords as well as the sergeant’s cane. The Hospital Sergeant, Staff Sergeant Hall, can be seen seated in the bottom right of the shot, if you look closely you may see the red cross armband;
30 sergeants have NW Canada 1885 medals;
4 Sergeants fought at Ridgeway but would not be awarded medals until 1899;
Note the two Sergeants in the rear facing away from the camera, they are equipped with the long sword-bayonet normally worn by duty staff and are likely sentries;
The gun emplacements are facing the shipping channel and are quite likely at the south end of Fort York, as the water was much further in-land in those days;
It is unknown who owned the dog in the lower left of the photo however, the menu from the reunion dinner for the veterans of the North-West Field Force that took place in October 1885 had a picture of a similar dog and its name was “Poundmaker”.
This is the first of an ongoing series of articles in which museum volunteers were asked to share information about an interesting artifact they have come across in our collection – some of which may be on exhibit but others may be in storage. We start with Curator John Stephens.
So what artifact have you chosen to spotlight for us today?
One of my personal favourite items in our collection is not from the museum side but from our archives. It’s a bound ledger of nominal rolls by company beginning in March 1866 – just three months before the Fenian Raids – and pretty much annually through to 1882.
Why do you find this so interesting?
The history of the regiment is usually considered in terms of battles and campaigns and weapons and uniforms and training and deployments – but ultimately at its most basic level, it’s about people. And generally when we think of people in the regiment we know the stories of commanding officers, other officers and senior NCO’s but these rolls list everyone who served from the youngest bugler to the Surgeon Major.
Over the various years, these contain a varying amount of information on each person listed but they do allow us to follow the progression through the ranks of many of our regiments earliest members.
I’m also into family history research and there is no question the March 1866 roll is probably the most valuable for genealogists as it includes country of birth, religion, age and occupation.
Obviously it would be handwritten – is it legible?
Surprisingly yes it is for the most part. The ink for the June 1866 roll is very faded but generally the handwriting is legible – there are certainly some exceptions of course.
What condition is it in?
Surprisingly good condition considering its almost 150 years old and it was actually in active use for 16 years. The cover and spine are holding up well and while there page are somewhat brittle, they really aren’t too bad.
Just recently we received a donation to cover the cost of a new metal cabinet with doors in which we are now storing our highest at-risk items. Hopefully this will provide some better protection for items like this ledger.
Anything else you’d like to share about this object?
With the 150th anniversary of the Fenian Raids and the Battle of Ridgeway coming up in June 2016, there seems to be increasing interest in the information that we have in our collection related to that period from researchers and descendants of those who fought.
We’ve digitized this ledger and posted it on our website Archives page. This provides people access to the information while still protecting the artifact itself from damage caused by handling. You can check it out here.
We’re also going to use the 1866 rolls to do some analysis of the regiment’s make up and how reflective it was or wasn’t of Toronto at that time.
The practices throughout the history of the Regiment come and go, and over time you see reference to “Lance” rank but only used in the Regiment as an Acting Corporal. During the Second World War you see the use of Lance Corporal on parade states and promotion list but you will not see a photo of the wearing of a one chevron on the uniforms of any QOR Rifleman. Simply they just wore the rank of Corporal since it is an Acting Corporal rank in a Rifle Regiment. Below is a write up of a Memo that was written for the Regiment in 1942 but rewritten in 1954.
MEMO: RE: LANCE CORPORALS
ARMY HISTORICAL RESEARCH, VOLUME V, 1926
This book contains quite a lengthy and comprehensive article entitled “The Lancespessade and the History of Lance Rank” in the British Army, and covers a period of several hundred years, giving quotations from many authoritative sources on the subject.
The following are several quotations taken from the article:
“The term lance as a qualifying prefix to non-commissioned ranks, is peculiar to the British Army today, and is an interesting link with that period which the Military Organization of the Middle Ages was being transferred into that which, in its essentials, is still current: that is to say, with the end of the 15th, and the beginning of the 16th centuries. The word is derived from the italian lancia spezzata, literally a broken or shattered lance, Lance Corporal usually defined as the title of that rank which was granted to the lowest officer that “hath any commandment” and “signifies Deputie Corporal.”
“By the beginning of the 17th century, in England at least, the Lancespessade had become and Infantryman only, and almost exactly the equivalent of the Lance Corporal of present day.”
“Lance the Corporal of the Cavalry unit is to supply and do all duties of the Corporals and Lancespessades of the Foote.” The definition of a Lancespessade is given as “he that commands over ten soldiers, the lowest officer in a foot company.”
The article makes it quite clear that the rank of Lance Corporal was peculiar to the Infantry alone in the British Army, until long after the organization of Rifle Regiments, and it contains no reference to this rank ever having been introduced into Rifle Regiments.
REGULATIONS FOR RIFLE CORPS.
These Regulations were originally issued in 1800, by Colonel Coote Manningham, who is usually referred to as the originator of rifle regiments, and has become the first Commanding Officer of the Rifle Corps, now the Rifle Brigade. They are reprinted in a book bearing the same title, published in 1890, with certain amendments added.
Article 11 dealing with the Formation of the Corps, in so far as it relates to Sergeants and Corporals states as follows:
“The four Sergeants are to command a half platoon or squad each. The senior Corporal of each company is to act as Sergeant in the first squad.
The four Corporals are to be divided to the four half platoons. One soldier of peculiar merit is to act in each company as Corporals, and to belong to the third squad.
The Acting Sergeant and Acting Corporal are to be the only non-commissioned officers transferable from squad to squad.
In every half platoon one soldier of merit will be selected and upon him the charge of the squad devolves in the absence of both non-commissioned officers of it. As from these four Chosen Men (As they are called) all Corporals and Acting Corporals are to be appointed, the best men alone are to be selected for this distinction.
The graduation of rank and responsibility, from the Colonel of the Regiment to the Chosen Man of a squad, has how been detailed, and on no instance to be varied by whatever officer may command it.”
STANDING ORDERS OF THE RIFLE BRIGADE
These Standing Orders issued in 1911, make no mention of Lance rank, wither in the text or in the various sample forms of parade states, reports, etc., in the back of the book. Acting Corporals are shown.
Article 11 – Formation of the Regiment, section 18 states:
“Corporals and Acting Corporals are responsible to the Sergeants of their respective sections.”
A copy of the Standing orders referred to above was received by me from the O.C. The Rifle Brigade in 1925, and he states at that time that they were the last published Standing Orders, and that no material changes or amendments had been made since date of issue.
THE KING’S ROYAL RIFLE CORPS
In several volumes of the above covering a period of from 1820 up to some time in the 1890’s. There are a number of parade states, casualty lists, awards of various kinds such as good conduct badges, marksmen’s badges, etc., I could not find in these volumes any reference to Lance rank, but Acting Corporals are mentioned.
THE QUEEN’S OWN RIFLES OF CANADA
RE: LANCE RANK
Regimental Orders are complete from the first R.O. Issued in 1860 until the present date, and are on file in the records of the Regiment.
From the first R.O. Issued in April 26, 1860 until 1866, there is no mention of Lance rank in any form whatever. There were, however, appointments made as Acting Corporals.
R.O. May 19, 1865 states “The proper regulation chevrons for NCO’s of the QOR are as follows and will be worn on both arms:
For Corporals – 2 black stripes on a red ground.”
There is no mention of Lance Corporals, or the chevrons that they would wear.
In R.O. January 22, 1866, the promotion of a private to the rank of Lance Corporal appears for the first time. Further promotions to that rank appear in subsequent orders up to the year 1874, when they cease, and from that year on appointments to be Acting Corporals appear again, and continue to the present time. There has not been an appointment to Lance rank since 1874, a period of 68 years.
No R.O. Appears in 1865, 1866 or any subsequent year authorizing Lance rank, nor does any R.O. Appear in 1874 or subsequent years abolishing them.
NOMINAL ROLLS FOR ANNUAL MUSTER
The nominal rolls of all companies and units of the Regiment for the Annual Muster parade each year are complete from 1860 until the present time, and are on file in the records.
On these Muster Rolls Acting Corporals appear from 1860 until 1865 inclusive. In the years 1866 to 1874 Lance Corporals appear, and commencing with the year 1875 until the present time Acting Corporals are shown, but no Lance Corporals.
REGIMENTAL STANDING ORDERS
Regimental Standing Orders were issued only in the years 1862, 1872, 1880, 1883, and 1925. Copies of all these are on file in the records.
There is no mention in any of these Standing Orders of Lance rank, not even in those issued in 1872, a year in which some Lance Corporals existed in the Regiment. The lowest rank mentioned is that or Corporal, and the lowest rank badges provided for this is of Corporal.
Lance rank originated in the Foot Regiments, later Infantry, of the British Army, and was peculiar to that branch of the service for several hundred years. During the 19th century it was adopted by some other red-coated regiments of other branches of the service, but not by Rifle Regiments.
Lance rank was not in force in The Rifle Brigade in 1925, as will be seen by their Standing Orders issued in 1911, and the statement of the [Officer Commanding] that unit in 1925, and it is extremely unlikely that it now exists in that regiment.
Lance rank was not in force in The King’s Royal Rifle Corps as will be seen from their chronicle up to the South African War.
The Queen’s Own Rifles, when authorized as a rifle regiment, on organization in 1860, undoubtedly adopted the “Regulations for Rifle Corps” as was practised at the time by The Rifle Brigade and The King’s Royal Rifle Corps.
The deviation from Regulations for Rifle Corps and the Standing orders of the Regiment, in The Queen’s Own Rifles from 1866 to 1874 is hard to account for now.
It is possible that the Officer Commanding in 1866, through carelessness or otherwise, permitted this unauthorized deviation from the Regulations to creep in. It is quite clear, however, that he did not provide for the change in Regimental Orders, nor did he change the Standing Orders to provide for it.
By 1872, another Officer Commanding was in command of the Regiment. He revised Standing Orders in 1872, but again no provision was made for Lance rank.
By 1874, the late General Sir William Otter has assumed Command of the Regiment, and was, as is well known, a great stickler for regulations of the service and tradition. It is quite evident that it was he who abolished the unauthorized Lance rank in the Regiment no doubt to conform with the standing Orders of the Regiment which were based upon the “Regulations for Rifle Corps.”
He did not issue an order abolishing Lance rank, probably because there had never been a regimental order authorizing it, but just let it fade out.
With the exception, therefore, of the short period 1866-1874, when Lance rank was entirely unauthorized in The Queen’s Own Rifles, it has not existed in the Regiment. Nor has there been at any time during the Regiment’s 82 years of existence, and order authorizing it in the Regimental Standing orders.
It is quite clear from the foregoing, that The Queen’s Own Rifles, in having Acting Corporals instead of lance Corporals, is following not only a Regimental custom, but a Rifle custom which was duly authorized on the organization of Rifle regiments in the British Service, and is still the practice in two of the best known Rifle regiments in the British Army.
I hope you enjoyed this article as it shows reflection into the history and traditions of The Queen’s Own Rifles of Canada and our sister regiment’s in England. Throughout my research and studying of photos of The Queen’s Own Rifles throughout the history I have only found one photo (pictured below) that shows the wearing of one chevron and this photo was taken when the Regiment was deployed to Korea in 1955. After the above article was written you will see in photos the addition of a QOR Collar Dog above the Corporal Chevron (pictured below) which would be the present “Master Corporal” or meaning the Section Commander.
As Colonel in Chief of The Queen’s Own Rifles of Canada, The Duchess of Cornwall met veterans and serving members of the regiment on Thursday June 5 and toured the Juno Beach Centre.
Former QOR Commanding Officer Lieutenant Colonel John Fotheringham is a Director of the Juno Beach Centre and recently passed on a request from them. They asked if it might be possible for us to make available some artifacts that related to D-Day and the Queen’s Own that the Duchess could see during her visit.
We checked around our collection and decided that items which had belonged to Lance Corporal Rolph Jackson might fit the bill. They had to be fairly small and easy for John to pack in his luggage when he headed to Normandy so we settled on six items.
A French “invasion” 5 franc note
A new testament
A bundle of pay books
A separate pay book
A letter written to his girlfriend (and eventual wife) just before D-Day
Lately we have featured a number of historic photo albums from our collection and today we have another one. In 1914 the officers of the regiment (which then consisted of two battalions and an RHQ) presented the Colonel Sir Henry Pellatt with a beautiful leather covered photograph album of officers in the regiment. Most of the 21 pages have three or four photographs on them and they are shown in order based on the date of their commission and are beautifully presented with colourful calligraphy.
Once again our volunteer photography Capt (Ret) Larry Hicks, has skillfully photographed each of the album pages but has also edited each photo individually as well.
December isn’t over yet but we want to provide both an update and to ask for you support before we all get wrapped up in the holiday hustle and bustle.
Cleaning and Cataloging Photos
Two volunteers – former Regular Force Rifleman Clay Downes and his wife Nancy of Georgetown, Ontario – have been busy over the last several weeks, cleaning and cataloging framed photographs in the museums collection. Cleaning off several layers of dust is pretty self explanatory but cataloging requires recording detailed information about each photo including a description of the photos content, and as much about the people included, location, date, occasion, photographer or studio, dimensions, framing, etc. that we can determine. All of this information is being entered into our new collections management software and will help us with taking future inventories, sourcing photos for future exhibitions, and providing resources for research projects. Between them they have provided 61 hours of volunteer service and deserve a large thanks!
Today Curator Major John Stephens, Assistant Curator CWO Shaun Kelly and Clay, removed some older shelving that had been built with whatever materials had been at hand and installed new metal shelving (see photos at right). These new shelves will provide much better storage for all our photos, now well organized by their object number. The team was very pleased with the results and once the cataloged photos were moved into the new shelving, Nancy had room to continue the very large project!
RENEWING OUR PAST: Supporting the Regimental Museum
The Regimental Museum is undertaking our RENEWING OUR PAST Campaign which consists of two parts:
Preserving Our Past includes efforts to protect and preserve our artifacts to ensure they will continue to be with us for a long time. Installing new storage, purchasing necessary but expensive archival materials, and creating a detailed collections database are all unglamorous but important parts of this phase.
Connecting with the Present includes re-imagining our exhibits, reaching out with social media, creating a volunteer program and providing museum activities and resources. We’ll shortly be creating a new “Soldiers of the Queen’s Own” exhibit in the Tower room which will start with a new coat of paint!
Elements are underway in both phases and with that comes numerous additional costs beyond our usual operating expenses. The Regimental Museum is governed, operated and supported financially by the Queen’s Own Rifles of Canada Regimental Trust Fund. You can help support the Museum and its RENEWING OUR PAST campaign by donating to the Trust through the CanadaHelps.org website. Under Fund/Designation select “Museum Fund” to ensure that your donation can be properly directed to our campaign. Donations received before the end of December, will be issued a 2012 charitable income tax receipt.
Thank you for your support and we wish you all a very happy holiday!
Firstly, who is this J.W.L. Forster? The Ontario Heritage Trust prepared the following research in preparation for the dedication of a historical plaque recognizing Forster in 2003:
John Wycliffe Lowes Forster (usually J.W.L. Forster) was born on December 31, 1850 in Norval, Ontario. His grandparents had immigrated to Canada from England in 1828 with six children, including Forster’s father Thomas who married Martha Wilkinson in 1847. Martha, who was reputedly descended from John Wycliffe, named her second son after the English philosopher.
By the age of two, Forster began to demonstrate artistic abilities by skilfully shaping the letters of the alphabet. As he grew older, he began sketching the faces of teachers and classmates on chalkboard with careful accuracy. Eventually, Forster passed the county teachers examination. He did not begin teaching but enrolled in Brampton Grammar School. Unfortunately, the daily eight-mile walk to school took its toll. He suffered a physical breakdown, which curtailed his plans for university.
Studio days With the encouragement of his parents, the 19-year-old Forster went to Toronto to develop his artistic talent. He became the apprentice of Toronto painter John Wesley Bridgman, noted for his professional crayon portraits, copies of historical paintings and portrait photographs. In 1871, Forster won first prize in the amateur class at the annual fair of the Upper Canada Agricultural Society for his portrait of Bridgman.
The following year, Forster and Bridgman began collaborating on portraits. Their work included a portrait of Mohawk chief Joseph Brant, painted for Lord Dufferin, and others displayed in the first exhibition of the Ontario Society of Artists. Forster made his first trip to New York City later that year, visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art and other collections. Forster formed a partnership with Bridgman that lasted from 1874 to 1878.
In 1876, Forster stepped onto the international stage, showing his work at the Philadelphia Sesquicentennial Exhibition alongside other Canadian artists including his partner, Bridgman. After the exhibition, Bridgman stayed in Philadelphia, giving Forster the opportunity to “work out portrait problems on my own.” One of the portraits he completed during this period depicts prominent Toronto businessman William Gooderham Sr. and his son William Jr.
Studying abroad By the age of 29, Forster had saved enough money to study abroad for three years. His first stop was London, England where he spent a few months with Canadian landscape painter Charles Stuart Millard who was teaching at the South Kensington Art School. Then Forster was off to Paris where he studied at the Académie Julian under Gustave Boulanger and Jules-Joseph Lefevre in 1879, under William Adolph Bouguereau and his associate Tony Robert-Fleury between 1880 and 1882, and under Carolus-Duran in 1882.
By 1881, two of Forster’s portraits had been admitted to the prestigious spring Salon in Paris. That same year, he sketched landscapes in the Barbizon region southeast of Paris with fellow Canadian painter William Blair Bruce, and for a time also shared a studio with Edwin S. Calvert, an Irish/Scottish landscapist. J.W.L. boasted at the time he had sold three pictures (probably landscapes) to collectors in Australia and received several portrait commissions in France.
Speaking of his Paris studies, Forster said, “my dream and ambition through the years had been to paint historical pictures, but comment was persistent by both masters and fellow-students on my mental and temperamental adaptation for portraiture.” His teacher Robert-Fleury declared. “C’est votre métier; et je vous conseille de le suivre. Vous êtes portraitists, vraiment.” [This is your vocation and I advise you to follow it. You are a portraitist, truly.]
Professional career Having completed his formal training, Forster returned to Toronto in 1883 to open a portrait studio of his own. A portrait of Dr. William Caven for Knox College was among his first commissions. Forster also taught students including J.W. Beatty, Curtis Williamson and Frank Armington, and was an examiner in fine arts at Hamilton Ladies College and Brantford Ladies College. Forster was also a major promoter for the establishment of an art school in Toronto.
He was elected a member of the Ontario Society of Artists in 1883 and regularly contributed to annual O.S.A. exhibitions between 1884 and 1925. In 1884, he was admitted as an Associate of the Royal Canadian Academy and began exhibiting during its annual shows. He also exhibited at the Art Association of Montreal (later the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts) from 1889 to 1914, and in various Provincial Industrial Exhibitions and the Canadian National Exhibition from 1902 to 1931.
By the mid 1890s, Forster was obtaining important commissions from the Ontario government. Forster painted retired Lieutenant-Governor The Honourable John Beverley Robinson in 1895, beginning the tradition which continues today of painting Ontario lieutenant-governors. Another early Ontario government commission, the portrait of The Honourable Christopher Finlay Fraser, is considered to be one of Forster’s finest works.
History paintings When the Ontario Legislative Building opened in 1893, “a series of historical sketches were made [by Forster] and submitted to officers of state as an appeal for the decoration of state buildings.” During the next decade, under successive provincial governments, Forster completed four historical portraits – Major-General Sir Isaac Brock, Major-General James Wolfe, Major-General Aeneas Shaw and Colonel John Graves Simcoe.
Forster thoroughly researched his historical subjects, travelling in 1897 to Brock’s home in St. Peter Port, Guernsey, England, to study the hero of the War of 1812. With an introduction from John Beverley Robinson, he visited the Miss Tuppers, nieces and heirs to the General. Using as a model a watercolour and pastel portrait of Brock (attributed to William Berczy) owned by the Tuppers, Forster made a preliminary sketch (now in the collection of the National Archives of Canada) and a painting that is displayed in the Royal Court House, St. Peter Port. Another painting of Brock in the Ontario government’s collection is displayed in the Ontario Legislative Building. The Tupper sisters also owned the General’s uniform that was “perforated by the musket balls which terminated his spectacular career,” as well as the letter which Brock wrote to Sir George Prevost the night before the Battle of Queenston Heights. Forster featured both the uniform and the letter in this famous portrait.
While in England, Forster took the opportunity to research a portrait of James Wolfe who led British forces at the Battle of the Plains of Abraham in 1759. He based his sketch on a portrait of Wolfe by Joseph Highmore that depicts him as a young lieutenant. Not completely satisfied with this image, Forster did further research in the Imperial War Records Office in London in order to make a more accurate rendering of the type of uniform Wolfe would have worn during his time in Canada.
Forster’s portrait of William Lyon Mackenzie was acquired by Premier Ross at the behest of citizens who recommended that it be hung in the Legislative Building “in respect to his place in history.” Premier Whitney then ordered a portrait of The Honourable Robert Baldwin, Mackenzie’s cohort in the struggle for responsible government. Forster also painted a portrait of Sir John A. Macdonald, a Conservative, as a counterpoint to an earlier portrait of Liberal George Brown.
Forster also proposed a series of murals depicting Ontario’s heritage for the walls of the new Legislative Building. Although a commission for Forster was not forthcoming, he did complete several notable history paintings during his career including The Departure of Canada’s First Contingent for South Africa 1899 and Welcome by the Parliament of Canada to the Members of the Colonial Conference at Ottawa 1894. While Forster was busy in England researching his portraits of Brock and Wolfe, he was able to obtain royal permission to sketch Queen Victoria and her household in June 1897 during the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. The resulting painting, Thanksgiving Service in St. George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle for Queen Victoria and Household, is one of Forster’s finest historical tableaux.
During this period, Forster also painted historical portraits of the Methodist James Wesley, his brother Charles and their mother Suzannah. The three works are in the collection of Victoria University, Toronto – the institution that houses the largest number of Forster works. Commissioned by the Social Union of the Methodist Church of Canada, he travelled to numerous locations in England to research images during 1900.
“Big-wigs” Forster also wrote prolifically on art, history, ethics and education – including an autobiography entitled Under the Studio Light, Leaves from a Portrait Painter’s Sketch Book. In this book, he discussed the subjects of his paintings – prominent men and women from around the world who he affectionately called “big-wigs.” Forster categorized his subjects by profession. His “Public Men” included the Canadian Governor Generals Earl Grey and Lord Aberdeen, several Prime Ministers of Canada such as Sir J.S. Thompson, Sir Wilfrid Laurier and The Right Honourable William Lyon Mackenzie King, and provincial premiers from across Canada.
The “Eminent Collegians” that Forster painted included: Reverend Dr. Egerton Ryerson, the founder of Ontario’s educational system; Nathaniel Burwash, Chancellor of Victoria University; Reverend Dr. Charles Jas Stewart Bethune, Head Master of Trinity College School in Port Hope; and Dr. Willet Green Miller, first Provincial Geologist of Ontario.
Forster’s “Men of Affairs” included: farm equipment tycoon Hart Massey; department store mogul Timothy Eaton; Canada’s tobacco king Sir William MacDonald; and Ottawa lumber baron and founder of the Canada Atlantic Railway, John R. Booth. Forster also painted “Men of Imperial Minds” including Sir Sandford Fleming, inventor of standard time, and the military theorist Colonel Fred C. Dension, one of Forster’s “Knights of Old Chivalry.”
Among the notable women painted by Forster as “Guardian Spirits of our Race” were: Ellen Axson Wilson, the first wife of American President Woodrow Wilson; Mary L. McDonnell, the first President of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union; Emily Murphy, known as “Janey Canuck,” Canada’s first police magistrate and a leader of the Orange Order; and members of high society.
Forster painted dozens of portraits of missionaries, which he termed “Modern Crusaders”, including General William Booth, founder of the Salvation Army. He also painted many portraits of “Prelates, Priests, and Preachers” and “Artists in Prose and Verse”.
The Emperor and Empress of Japan Forster was the first foreign artist to be granted the privilege of painting the Emperor and Empress of Japan. The opportunity arose during the Eighth World’s Sunday School Convention in 1920 when convention organizers commissioned him to paint Their Imperial Highnesses.
Forster set up a studio in Tokyo’s luxurious Imperial Hotel. Because Their Imperial Majesties never sat for portrait painters, Forster was provided with photographs of his subjects and also given the Emperor’s uniform, medals, sword and regalia. He was also given the Empress’s ermine and velvet trimmed gown and court jewels. The only glimpse Forster caught of the imperial couple was when they were boarding a train at Tokyo’s Ueno Station. Nevertheless, after six weeks’ work, the portraits were completed. They were unveiled during the convention and subsequently presented to the Imperial Household. The paintings are in the collection of the Imperial Palace in Tokyo.
National Portrait Gallery On April 25, 1938, J.W.L. Forster died at the age of 87 following an automobile collision. His friend The Right Honourable William Lyon Mackenzie King attended the funeral.
Forster’s lifelong dream was to establish a portrait gallery of “historic and eminent Canadians”. Upon his death, he bequeathed 15 of his portraits to form the nucleus of a national portrait gallery and $10,000 for its creation. The Forster collection includes the artist’s self-portrait as well as portraits of his wife and mother. His financial bequest was to be used to expand the collection once the gallery was realized.
Although the Corporation of the National Portrait Gallery was patented in 1939, the Second World War slowed its development. In 1955, a plan was negotiated to exhibit Forster’s collection in universities and elsewhere to promote awareness of the National Portrait Gallery. One exhibition was held in 1956 at the McIntosh Gallery of the University of Western Ontario in London. The members of the board of the National Portrait Gallery transferred its paintings and the administration of Forster’s donation to the Royal Ontario Museum.
Conclusion Forster made important contributions to portrait and history painting in Ontario. He was a major proponent of art and art education in Ontario and the Government of Ontario Art Collection holds 28 of his paintings. Several of Forster’s works, including Sir Isaac Brock, are prominently displayed in the Ontario Legislative Building. He was one of Canada’s most outstanding portrait painters and his reputation extended around the world. He painted Queen Victoria, the Emperor and Empress of Japan and others. During his career, Forster created over 500 portraits and historical tableaux that represent a visual dictionary of the great personalities of his time and reflect the prolificacy, vision and talent of this internationally renowned painter.
Forster and the Queen’s Own Rifles So we know that Forster was one of the preeminent portrait artist of the country during his lifetime but you may still be wondering about his connection to the Queen’s Own. Those of you who have ever been in the Officer’s Mess in Toronto however should know the answer.
Forster painted large (generally 30″ x 40″) oil portraits of the first seven Queen’s Own Rifles’ Commanding Officers and of the first Honorary Colonel, Field Marshal the Right Honorable Earl Roberts of Kandahar, Pretoria and Waterford. These fine portraits in elaborate gilt frames line the walls of the Mess and provide a powerful sense of history and connection in the Officer’s Mess.
With the exception of Roberts which is believed to have been painted in 1902, we don’t know when these portraits were actually painted. Below you can see photographs of each of the portraits taken in June 2010 by Christopher Lawson at the request of the Queen’s Own Trust.