Important Late 18th Century Paintings - News & Events - Library and Archives Canada
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Library and Archives Canada and Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec Purchase Important Late 18th Century Paintings

On Friday, October 31, Library and Archives Canada and the Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec finalized arrangements to purchase 13 watercolours depicting rare early views of Canada painted by the Royal Engineers officer and British artist Benjamin Fisher. The purchase, which was negotiated by international fine art auctioneers Bonhams, was made possible in part by the financial assistance of the Department of Canadian Heritage.

"These late 18th century watercolours are among the earliest documentary representations of Quebec, Montréal and other parts of eastern Canada," said Ian E. Wilson, National Archivist, speaking for Library and Archives Canada (LAC). "Their acquisition will complement the limited number of works executed by other British military artists and surveyors held by LAC or by other Canadian institutions, and we are delighted to have been able to save them for all Canadians."

"The Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec's team is willing to make the necessary effort to build and showcase an exemplary national collection," stated the museum's director, John R. Porter. "These major acquisitions will fill a hole in our collection of 18th century drawings and will very soon find their place in our new permanent exhibition rooms, one of which is dedicated to Quebec."

"This acquisition is an example of effective collaboration between federal and provincial institutions in areas of mutual cultural interest, and we are delighted to be working together to ensure the preservation of this important collection for Canada," said Canadian Heritage Minister Sheila Copps.

Andrew Graham, Master of Balliol College, where the watercolours were discovered, commented: "We are delighted with the outcome and impressed by the initiative shown by the archivists both in Balliol and LAC. Balliol is especially pleased that the whole collection is going to Canada… where it will be available to all."

LAC and the Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec purchased the Benjamin Fisher collection in a private sale prior to the November 4 auction in which the watercolours were to be sold. At the request of Bonhams, and to respect their bidding process, details of the purchase are not immediately available.

Following the acquisition of the paintings, LAC and the Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec will continue their collaboration and eventually present the collection as a whole to the Canadian public.

The paintings were found in a package among a decayed heap of papers discovered by college staff working to clear cellars beneath the Oxford college. Dr. John Jones, Vice Master and Archivist, said the papers were mostly uninteresting printed material. However, "in the middle of it was a parcel with the legend 'Drawings by Genl Fisher etc' in a familiar early 19th century hand on the outside". He continued: "The parcel was filthy but secure. It had probably not been opened since it was sewn up around 1850. I was immediately able to connect it with Sir John Conroy 3rd Bt, a Fellow of Balliol who died in 1900, because I had worked on his papers 30 years ago and I remembered he had a great grandfather called Fisher who had served in Canada." After carefully cutting away the wrappings, Dr. Jones found the package contained over thirty drawings and watercolours including a dozen magnificent Canadian views. The 13 watercolours represented an effort to capture the nature of life along the St. Lawrence River corridor in both a topographically correct and artistically advanced manner.

Financial assistance from Canadian Heritage will be available under the terms of Canada's Cultural Property Export and Import Act whose provisions encourage the protection and preservation in Canada of important examples of Canadian heritage.

For further information:

Thu-Hoa Bui
Public Relations Officer
Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec
Champs-de-Bataille Park, Québec, QC
G1R 5H3
Telephone: (418) 644-6460 ext. 5523
Fax: (418) 646-3330

Louisa Coates
Media Relations Officer
Library and Archives Canada
Fax: (613) 995-0919