National Gallery: Prized P.E.I. painting restored to its original island glory

Robert Harris’s Meeting of the School Trustees is the iconic painting of Prince Edward Island, that tiniest of provinces that exports potatoes, shellfish and art conservators. The National Gallery’s Tasia Bulger, from North Wiltshire, P.E.I., has recently spent “about 150 hours” restoring the painting, and has revealed something not seen in almost a century.

When Bulger removed old varnish that had been applied during a restoration in 1923, words appeared on a slate in the bottom left corner. Harris had teasingly painted only “ool trustees” — which Bulger reasonably posits is part of “school trustees,” though I want to believe it’s “fool trustees,” given the scene’s obvious tension between the young female teacher and her older male overseers.

The painting is familiar to many Canadians since it was celebrated by CBC in a 1992 Heritage Minute, which brought the scene to life with an actress who chastised the dubious men and forced one to admit that he couldn’t read.

The Heritage Minute wasn’t precisely accurate. The webpage of Historica Canada, the group that funded most of the historical vignettes — states as fact that “On an August day in 1885, Prince Edward Island painter Robert Harris paid a call on Kate Henderson, the teacher of the one-room school at Long Creek, P.E.I.”

Bulger says Harris did meet with a young teacher named Kate Henderson who “told him she had to lay down the law” with trustees, but that research shows no Kate Henderson worked at the time in Long Creek — the real inspiration for the fictional “Pine Creek” identified in the painting. Indeed, there were no women teaching there at all.

“There was only men teaching there,” says Bulger, whose birthplace is only 18 kilometres from Long Creek, though in P.E.I. that’s considered a fair hike. “There was only one Katherine Henderson and she was teaching in multiple areas of the island but not in Long Creek, and she only worked from the ’70s to ’83,” she says. She adds that a woman by that name and born in North Wiltshire later died in Western Canada.

Harris wrote to his mother that the painting “is a meeting of the school trustees of the county district, and (the) teacher, a more townie looking young woman, is talking them over to her view of the question before them.”

His original title was Meeting of Trustees of a Back Settlement School, the Teacher Talking Them Over, and he wrote in the painting, “Pine Creek School, teacher Kate Henderson.” Bulger says, “Everything else is left up to the viewers’ interpretation.”

Harris was born in Wales and grew up in Charlottetown. His mother was a Stretch from Long Creek — the area still has more Stretches than a rubber-band factory — and he spent much time on his uncle Joe’s farm.

(Now for an unnecessary but charming declaration of conflict: As a young woman my dear departed mother spent a year teaching school in Long Creek or thereabouts, and like Kate Henderson she wouldn’t have taken any guff from entitled men, nor from anyone else. As a young girl she once punched an angry dog in the face.)

In 1885 Harris married Elizabeth Putnam, who was known as Bessie, one hopes before that nickname became a favourite for cows. They spent the summer in Europe, and Bulger suggests Harris was “seeing people embrace modern or new changes, and then he goes back to P.E.I. and it’s the same old thing, as it always is on P.E.I., everyone’s reluctant to change.”

He was also painting with the idea it would be purchased by the nascent National Gallery, and “he wanted to depict something a little more dramatic, or controversial or contemporary. . .”

The teacher in the painting is evidently modern in arguing her position on whatever it is, and she’s not intimidated by the men before her. They look askance at her, but she wisely extends her hand in a diplomatic gesture.

Putnam posed as the teacher, Bulger says, and Harris’s uncle Joe Stretch was the model for the dominant male figure. Bulger believes uncle Joe was also the model for the figure at left, and that Harris simply “added a beard,” a suggestion that seems hardly a stretch at all.

Meeting of the School Trustees will soon be rehung in the gallery’s revamped Canadian galleries, in time for this summer’s Canada 150 celebrations.

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Peter Simpson, a native of Prince Edward Island, was arts editor and arts editor at large for the Ottawa Citizen for 15 years, with a focus on the visual arts. He lives in downtown Ottawa with one wife, two cats and more than 100 paintings, drawings and sculptures.