The rumour of Memorial School’s mural

Rumours spread and infiltrate many people until they find one person willing to thrash out the truth. So, when I heard the rumour of “a large mural at Memorial (City) Elementary School that had been painted by a Group of Seven painter,” I had to investigate. I sought out the mural and aimed to assess if the rumour is true.

Getting access to the mural was a bit tricky. It took months of inquiries with the school and Hamilton Wentworth District School Board to get the curtain drawn back on the stage. I was finally received this September by Fatima Ziric, Memorial’s vice president, to view the mural. As the suede indigo curtains were swept away, an aged projector suspended by chains and stuck open blocked the majority of the image; not an optimal way to view art. Thus, I returned several days later when it was removed.

Spanning over twenty feet in length and thirty feet in height, the immersive mural is definitely impressive. A ruined European-like castle stands upon an advantageous hill in the background, surrounded by a small body of water, which places the viewer in the foreground surrounded by a trail lined by sweeping birch trees leading to a beached boat awaiting departure. Encasing this image is an optical illusion or trompe l’oeil of three painted, suspended stone like arches and wood panelling below.

Finally immersed by the mural, every part of me screamed that the mural was not authored by a Group of Seven painter, even if A.Y. Jackson did frequent Hamilton and A.J. Casson studied here. However, years in the arts and gut feelings do not always satisfy debunking a rumour, so I shared the digital image of the mural with several art professionals.

The image first went to my colleague Robert (Bob) Daniels at Earls Court Gallery, open since 1973. He too instantly agreed that the aesthetics and handling of the paint did not connote any traits of a Group of Seven painter. In fact, he initially thought of Hamilton painter Henry Nesbitt McEvoy, but he passed in 1914, and the school opened in 1919. Daniels’ second inclination and my initial reaction, was Juanita Lebarre Symington (1904-1980). It is the type of subject matter and project she would undertake, but that means the mural had to be done after 1925, as that is when she was a prominent Hamilton artist.

To support this claim, a Spectator article from October 1925 states that Memorial Hall was decorated with the bronze plaques and a painted Latin inscription border. However, still no direct reference to the stage mural. Further, in the Hamilton Public Library Archives, a 1948 Year Book illustrates a stage performance with the mural behind and no visible cracks. Thus, I suggest that the mural was done between 1925-1948.

I also distributed the image to curators Andrew Hunter (at the Art Gallery of Guelph) and Tobi Bruce (at the Art Gallery of Hamilton.) Both have extensive knowledge of the Group, Hamilton’s art history, and have witnessed the mural in person. Unaware of each other’s opinions, they too agreed that the impressive mural was not done by such prestigious authors.

So, what seems to be the consensus is that the rumour is debunked. It is more likely one of those stories that get passed down to the next generation with a few details missing. As it is shared and key words exaggerated, we end up with such a rumour. What I believe is true about the rumour is that the painter was as equally capable, and until further information surfaces, we will be at a loss of its true authorship.

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