109 Norfolk St. S. Simcoe, ON N3Y 2W3 - (519)426-1583

Cantelon on Cantelon

The following is a personal account by painter/historian Wm. Edgar Cantelon, reflecting on the background of how he came to paint an important collection of historical Norfolk County buildings. The article appeared in the Western Ontario Historical Notes, Vol 1, #2, March 1943

I shall endeavour to explain why and how I made the collection (of paintings) and at the same time indicate some of the difficulties encountered in collecting data concerning some three hundred objects.

In the early days, what is now Norfolk County and a part of the adjacent counties bordering upon the shores of Lake Erie opposite Long Point Island were invariably called 'The Long Point Country', as is evidenced in numerous old letters and documents. For this reason some of the subjects originated outside the present borders of Norfolk County.

Not long before the death of Mr. John Ross Robertson, founder of the Toronto Telegram, I called on that great collector and sold to him my first historical picture "1812 - 1814 War Trenches at Turkey Point". It was then that Mr. Robertson urged me to continue in the work of painting old landmarks of historical interest and portraits of the men and women who played prominent parts in the early history of the district. He declared that Norfolk and the district generally had been neglected pictorially as well as historically, adding, 'You have a rich field before you.'

It would seem that I began this interesting work at a very opportune time, about twenty-five years ago (ca. 1920, as this article was written in 1943), when many of the older landmarks dating from 1796 to 1825 were beginning to be torn down and in some cases, modernized by the addition of verandas or by replacing large old fireplaces with modern chimneys. This latter handicap I overcame by sketching only the original portion, and after an examination of the ceiling and roof, ascertaining the size of the original chimney. However, the majority of subjects were in their original shape. These comprised old court houses, churches, towers, barracks, shops, and homes - many of which have since disappeared.

I shall refer only to one of the many difficulties that were to be overcome. When I set out to secure a picture of the old Colonel Potts' schoolhouse in which the London District School was held during the years 1821-22 with Egerton Ryerson, then under twenty years of age, as assistant teacher, I learned othat the building had been moved to Vittoria many years previously. After making a sketch of its orginal location I proceeded to that village where Mr. Richard Terry, then in his eighty-eighth year, pointed out the old schoolhouse which was being used as a cow barn. 'I shall never forget the awful blue-beech gad lickings I got in there, more than seventy years ago' declared Mr. Terry.

I found the old building in a fair state of preservation, but some windows were boarded over and the chimney was removed. After restoring these - in my picture - I was able to represent the old schoolhouse standing upon its original site at the old Potts' Corners.

Books dealing with the history of pioneer times, old letters, and old newspapers furnished me with information which aided in locating my subjects. But, after all, some of the most interesting information - legends and romances that would fill a fair-sized volume - were related to me by the descendants of the pioneers as I went among them. This contact with the older people enabled me to discover portraits and likenesses of many men and women who had held a prominent poition in the early life of the country.

Some of these portraits were small and faded. Occasionally I discovered old portraits that had been painted from life, previous to the advent of photography.

Many persons have asked how I managed to paint so many soldiers of the 1812-14 and 1837 in red or blue uniforms. While a few were from old oil portraits, the majority were from daguerreotypes and old drawings showing the subjects in civilian dress, but as many of their descendants have preserved their old uniforms, swords and guns, I was enabled to dress them in their uniforms and place a sword or gun in their hands.

After it became generally known throughout the county that I was engaged in this work, many interested persons searched old trunks and garrets and secured for me forgotten daguerreotypes and portrait drawings of their ancestors. In this way I was able to produce a gallery of portraits of the first settlers.

Prominent among those who gave me their pioneer drawings and photographs was the late Mr. Wm. Horning of Simcoe, whose father, Isaac Horning, was the first professional photographer to locate, about 1846, in the village of Simcoe. Mr. Horning's pictures are unique and valuable today, owing to the fact that he devised a moveable cabin or dark room which enabled him to take views and portraits outside his gallery, the work of others being confined to indoors.

While the Horning photographs, some thirty in number, are small and often badly faded, yet they enabled me to produce portraits of notables and pictures of buildings of historical interest exactly as they appeared seventy-five to ninety-five years ago. Among the latter is the old log barracks which was erected by The Queen's Rangers under Governor Simcoe in 1795.

It is doubtful if I should have been able to afford the time and expense from my regular art work to continue this line of work had I not received substantial encouragement from the late Mr. Guthrie Y. Barber, of New York, who at various times, purchased some forty copies of pieces in the collection. These latter now occupy the Barber Room in our Eva Brook Donly Museum of Art and Antiques in Simcoe.

What is to be the final disposition or home of this gallery of painting is a question often discussed. It may be of interest to many to learn that negotiations for the purchase of the entire collection by the Public Archives of Canada were well advanced when war broke out and the matter was dropped. Personally I should very much prefer that all remain in Norfolk, even under a much less favourable arrangement for myself.

In the meantime I may be pardoned if I experience some satisfaction, if not pride, in the realization of the fact that I have in picture and story, helped to preserve in permanent form a record of the very beginning of one of the chief cradles from which evolved our beloved Dominion of Canada.

Edgar Cantelon was the long-time volunteer curator of the NHS collections (1930-50) and the first Eva Brook Donly Museum curator. True to his wishes, his 350 historical paintings remained in Simcoe and represent the heart of the NHS collections at the Eva Brook Donly Museum and Archives.

"Mr Cantelon's gallery of portraits and historical scenes is probably unique in Canada. It consists of more than three hundred pictures painted with skill and great accuracy in detail. Mr. Cantelon is a native of Norfolk County and is well acquainted with the historical background of the district. The collection is invaluable as a record of the past in the Long Point settlement." ... (From Western Ontario Historical Notes, Vol 1, #2, March, 1943.)