How Visual Art Can Help Narrate History

By Jessica R., Summer Student

As I come to the end of my summer job at the Oshawa Museum, I’m grateful I had the opportunity to apply what I have learned in university into real life research projects. I believe that the strongest take-away from my personal projects at the museum is the idea that we form our perspectives of history in relation to the evidence and research we view. I learned that there is a surprisingly strong co-dependency between literary history and visual art during each era. It seems self-explanatory for someone who is regularly involved with historic research. But for me, having this first-time experience to see the value of artefacts, architecture, and visual art was exciting. Art in any genre or style is usually focused on its aesthetic value, such as the art style, colours, or perspective. But no matter how abstract or grand the art piece is, it will always contain historical evidence of some sort.

I was assigned to work on uncovering and researching the backstory and meanings behind historical paintings and drawings by the late Canadian artist, ES Shrapnel. The process to find the history behind the paintings was fairly difficult at times. But I found through my research that combining the written information I found with my own examination of the art style and colours in the sketches added the missing pieces of information I needed to finish the background information or support the visualization of the author’s ideas. Besides being an excellent primary source of information, the prints I examined were also good examples of the trends within local artists of that time, and it showed how society was progressing in terms of art styles. I noticed that ES Shrapnel promoted his talents often in the Whitby Chronicle, saying he would hold lessons for anyone who was interested. The community was then able to create art which reflected the narrative of their own lives at the time because of artists like Shrapnel who encouraged this participation. Shrapnel’s networking abilities are still seen today using different, modern technological ways. As we draw parallels with today’s society, we can appreciate that this was one of the many ways that visual art can continue to have historic usefulness.

Whitby Chronicle, November 4, 1880, Page 03.

In general, visual art is a core aspect engrained in everyone’s culture, lifestyle, and community. I appreciate that it gives an additional view on historic communities that did not rely on written literature to depict their stories or actions. Visual art gives historians and researchers an opportunity to expand their knowledge and help us understand in our modern perspective how people co-existed with one another through history. I find the universal understanding of art in history helps expand the ideas of written language and can narrate a scene of moments that were never documented in words.

In conclusion, throughout my time at the Oshawa Museum, I felt greatly satisfied and fulfilled seeing local artists from our community contributing strong and impactful sources of information simply through visual art. With my research of the ES Shrapnel prints, it gave me a newfound appreciation for the artist and others of his time for their dedication to their passions. The beauty of visual art grows deeper than just the material used, but more with their significance in writing history. Visual art gives metaphorical colour to the incomplete paintings of society and its ideas. I hope that people in our community continue to keep making art, regardless of it pertaining to the landscape of our area, as it gives a glimpse of the artistic minds within in our community.

What Happened the Night of November 12, 1833?

By Laura Suchan, Executive Director

In Thomas Conant’s book, Upper Canada Sketches, published in 1898, he traces the Conant family’s journey from Devon England, to Massachusetts and eventually to a new life in Canada. The book contains a number of illustrations by artist E.S. Shrapnel, known for his landscape paintings and genre scenes.  This article is about the illustration appearing on page 144 entitled “World to Come to An End: Stars are Falling.” All quotations are from Upper Canada Sketches, unless otherwise noted.

In Upper Canada Sketches, Thomas Conant, recounts a mysterious incident that his father, Daniel Conant, witnessed as a young man.   On the evening of November 12, 1833 while salmon-spearing from a boat at Port Oshawa,  Daniel witnessed an astonishing sight as “globes of fire as big as goose eggs began falling all around his boat.” Unbeknownst to him, he had just witnessed a very intense Leonid Meteor Shower, which occur approximately every 33 years. This particular meteor shower was one of the most prolific of all time, with an estimated 240,000 meteors falling in nine hours.1 The storm was seen everywhere in North America east of the Rocky Mountains. So astonishing was the sight that newspapers in Europe even talked about it.  This particular storm eventually led to a theory on the origins of meteors.

Becoming increasingly frightened as the fire-balls continued to fall from the sky, Daniel decided it was a good time to take his salmon and go home.   As he reached his home (Lot 6, B.F., East Whitby), he found the whole household awake and watching the spectacle, apparently too “aroused and frightened” to be able to sleep.  In time, the meteors appeared to be slowing in intensity, so everyone “went to bed to pass a restless night after the awe-inspiring scene they had witnessed.”

 Rising well before the sun next morning, Daniel was surprised to see the sky was still filled with the shooting stars.  Quickly, “he called his hired help in the lumbering business, to come down the stairs. They needed not a second invitation.”  One man by the name of Shields was so overwhelmed he dropped to his knees and began to pray (you can see him in the illustration).  Daniel went out doors and was surprised to note the balls of fire did not burn or hurt.  Thomas Conant makes note that everyone in the household was frightened,  “Of the grandeur of the unparalleled scene my father said almost nothing, for I am led to think they were all too thoroughly frightened to think of beauty, that being a side issue.” 

Daniel decided to visit a neighbor, “a preacher of some renown in the locality.”2 Arriving at his house, Daniel found “the preacher, already awake, was seated at the table beside a tallow dip reading his Bible, with two other neighbors listening and too frightened, he said, to even bid him good morning. He sat and listened to verse after verse and still the stars fell. The preacher gave no explanation or sign.” Noticing day was about to break, Daniel left the preacher’s home and once more ventured outside. On his walk back home, Daniel searched the ground but could find no evidence that the fire balls caused any damage and “what became of the stars that fell he could not conjecture.”  A sailor, Horace Hutchinson, wrote a verse (or doggerel as Thomas calls it) about the event,

I well remembered what I see,
In eighteen hundred and thirty-three,
When from the affrighted place I stood
The stars forsook their fixed abode.

The next Leonid Meteor Shower happened in 1866-1867 at which time the Comet Tempel-Tuttle was determined to be the source of the meteors. The next occurrence of a prolific Leonid Meteor Shower is expected in 2033. 

About the Illustration

The illustrations E.S. Shrapnel (1847-1920) rendered for Upper Canada Sketches are reminiscent of his work in portraying the landscapes and stories of Canada’s wilderness.  Thomas said Shrapnel painted the picture from an actual photograph of the house. Notice how he inserted the praying figure of the hired man Shields in the doorway.  Sonya Jones, Curator of Collections at The Robert McLaughlin Gallery, sums up the whimsical nature of Stars are Falling,

This charming folk art piece by Edward Shrapnel clearly captures the awe and fear that would have accompanied a meteor shower at this time. The smoldering meteors on the foreground, the lit up night sky, the body language of the figures, all add a rich narrative to this otherwise simply executed work. Folk art is often effective in telling stories in simple but clear ways.


  1. https://leonid.arc.nasa.gov/history.html
  2. The preacher referred to in the book could possibly have been Thomas Henry. Henry was ordained as a minister in 1832 and in 1833  was living on an adjacent lot (Lot 7, B.F.) in a house located north of present day Henry House.

Student Museum Musings: Thomas Conant’s Century-Old Musings

By Adam A., Summer Student

Hello and long time no see! I’m Adam, you may remember me as the guy from last summer who exclusively blogged about transcriptions. This summer I have a rather different role, that of a researcher. Specifically, I have been tasked with gathering information about the Loyalist and Late Loyalist settlers of Oshawa for a chapter in a future museum publication.

Loyalists were those from the Thirteen Colonies who fought for or otherwise remained loyal to the British during the American Revolutionary War, after which many faced harassment and suspicion from their neighbours. Accordingly, many thousands left the embryonic United States of America to start anew in Britain’s remaining North American possessions. Late Loyalists were a later wave of migrants from the USA who came to Upper Canada and renewed their loyalty to the British Crown in pursuit of the free land on offer. In the book these two sets of early migrants from America will be contextualized as Oshawa’s third group of inhabitants following various First Nations and the French.

Researching this topic has involved a lot of reading. Since the start of this month I have powered through two articles and four books relevant to this period of Oshawa’s history. Oshawa is especially gifted with its wealth of amateur historians from the turn of the century who endeavoured to coalesce various local and oral histories of Oshawa’s pioneer days into a number of books on our early history.

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Mr. Thomas Conant’s two publications Upper Canada Sketches (1898) and Life in Canada (1903) have been particularly useful. Mr. Conant trace’s his family history in North America back to 1623 when his ancestor arrived in New England where he and his descendants proved highly successful. The Conant’s history in Canada begins with the settlement of Roger Conant in this area in 1794. Roger had been a Loyalist, in so far as he never took up arms against the crown, and migrated north to Canada as he felt unwelcome in Massachusetts.

 

img014 Roger Conant's homestead
“Roger Conants First Settlement in Darlington, Co. Durham, Upper Canada, 1778” by ES Shrapnel, as appeared in Upper Canada Sketches

With this as a starting point, Mr. Conant’s writings cover a number of subjects including family history, economic history, political history, and social history. Over the combined 40 chapters of his two books he relates: how land was cleared; the importance of trade and cordial relations with the Mississauga; the danger presented by packs of wolves; the impact of the War of 1812; tensions between those of American descent and more recent arrivals from Britain; the utility of Whitby’s port; the influence of American religious movements such as Millerism and Mormonism; the price and productivity of land; the establishment and growth of local industries; the tyranny and downfall of the Family Compact; the importance of the Grand Trunk Railway; and, much more. His writing strongly conveys the risks faced and rewards received by those would-be Americans who by choice or by circumstance ended up here in Oshawa.

img015
“World to Come to an End.  Stars Falling, 1833” by ES Shrapnel, as appeared in Upper Canada Sketches

 

Thomas Conant’s writings present a genuine treasure trove of information from Oshawa’s pioneer days, which allow one to really appreciate the legacy of the pioneers’ labours. Those who wish to learn more are encouraged to visit us at the Oshawa Museum. Additionally, prints of the titular illustrations from Upper Canada Sketches are available in our gift shop.

Around Henry House – Our Paintings in the Study

By Lisa Terech: Youth Engagement/Programs and Digitization Assistant

Throughout the summer, I have been slowly, but surely, working my way through Henry House, photographing and cataloging the artifacts on display in this heritage house.  The room being exhibited as Thomas Henry’s study was my second last room to complete, with some of my favourite artifacts on display; it is great to catalogue artifacts that you love and have great interest in.

The Henry House Study
The Henry House Study

Hanging on the walls are three pieces of artwork: portraits of Thomas Henry, Lurenda Henry, and Buena Vista.

A973.13.1 - Elder Thomas Henry
A973.13.1 – Elder Thomas Henry

Thomas and Lurenda are on opposite walls, or, as I’ll joke on tour, staring into each other’s eyes!  I love the portrait of Thomas.  He looks so stately, dignified, and, dare I say, handsome!  The portrait of Lurenda always receives strong reactions from visitors on tour.  She looks to be a very formidable woman from the image.  It was painted in Toronto by HC Meyers, and it appears to have been created based on a photograph.  When our visitors react to Lurenda, I am always careful to remind them that, firstly, it is based from a photograph, and early photograph techniques made smiling rather labour intensive.  I also remind them that Lurenda was rather sick, especially as she was older, and, last but not least, this woman was step-mother to 5 boys, who had 6 boys and 4 girls of her own!  If you had 15 children, you would look formidable as well!

70-L-140 - Lurenda Henry
70-L-140 – Lurenda Henry

I removed the portrait of Lurenda from the wall to photograph it, and when I did, I was able to get a closer look at this image that I have seen almost daily for 3 years.  I couldn’t help but notice how striking her eyes are.  Maybe it’s the work of a skilled artist, but you cannot deny there is wisdom and warmth behind those eyes.

 

Buena Vista, the Conant Homestead, by ES Shrapnel
Buena Vista, the Conant Homestead, by ES Shrapnel

The final painting we have hanging on the wall is of Buena Vista, the homestead to the Conant family.  The home was built c. 1873 by Thomas Conant, best known as the author of Life in Canada and Upper Canada Sketches, detailing the history of his family and a history of the Oshawa area.  The home was located at 1050 Simcoe Street South, the southwest corner of Wentworth and Simcoe Streets.  Premier Gordon Conant was born in this home in 1885, and Thomas Conant housed over 6,000 books in his personal library.  The house, however, was demolished in 1985 to make way for a housing complex.  The complex today is known as Conant Place.

The painting was completed by ES Shrapnel in 1899, the same artists who illustrated Thomas Conant’s Upper Canada Sketches.  Shrapnel (1847 – 1920) was born in England, and eventually settled in Canada, teaching at the Ontario Ladies’ College (Trafalgar Castle) before moving to British Columbia in the late 1880s.   While the painting is, admittedly, outside of the interpretation period of Henry House (set in the 1860s/1870s), the image is one way of honouring another prestigious home, vestiges of Oshawa’s days gone by.

 

Information from the Oshawa Community Archives, and information on Shrapnel from http://www.shrapnell.org.uk and http://www.askart.com