Ottawa’s Own Queen Victoria Emerges Once Again
Almost 120 years after being commissioned by the City of Ottawa, a portrait of Queen Victoria is set to re-emerge from the shadows. It is a turbulent saga.
This portrait of the sovereign who chose Ottawa as the nation’s capital was rendered in pastel and chalk. It shows her standing as she points towards Ottawa on a map of Canada. Her index finger bears a ring with her seal. The work is signed “H. Clark, 1890”.
It had first hung in the Court House, and then in the old City Hall on Elgin Street. It was rescued from the fire there on March 31, 1931, sustaining some damage to the frame. The portrait then lay forgotten in the attic of the fire station next door. At some point, it was moved down behind the garage at City Hall.
Mayor Charlotte Whitton discovered the portrait there in 1961. The National Gallery of Canada made enquiries at Buckingham Palace about the artist and the possibility that there had been a private sitting by the Queen, but found no records. Wider investigation of Clark (or Clarke) turned up little but the following.
The Ottawa Free Press of February 15, 1890, reported the portrait had been commissioned by Aldermen Bingham and Scrim on behalf of the Civic Property Committee to a rising young Ottawa artist named Herbert Clarke for $175. It was to be placed over the Magistrate’s Bench in the Police Court. Sleuthing uncovered reference to the Victoria portrait in Council minutes listing $100 to Clark for his work. Ensuing Council debate over the order and the price included whether wider consultation would have been more prudent.
The rediscovered portrait was hung at City Hall Council Chambers on Sussex Drive beside an enlarged photograph of Queen Elizabeth II in a matching frame, and the new municipal Coat of Arms. The Queen Mother unveiled the display on June 14, 1962. In the words of Mayor Whitton, this portrait of Queen Victoria “for ages yet to come, will declare to all who enter this Chamber, our proudest title – the Capital Chosen by a Queen!”
Some years later, the portrait of Queen Victoria went quietly into storage at the City Archives, to be forgotten again until very recent times.
[Photo: Serge Blondin]