Bernard Genest’s excellent 109 page booklet on the four generations of the Richard family carvers, published in 1986 by the Museum of Civilization begins with a quote from the French poet Alphonse de Lamartine -“Inanimate objects do you have a soul which attaches itself to our soul and forces it to love”. A quote which applies in spades to the work of the Richard family.
The Richard family has lived in Quebec since Pierre Richard arrived from France in 1670. Six generations later Damase Richard was born in 1852. Although he lived on a farm, Damase was not interested in farming. He was interested in art, so as a young man he left home to seek work as an artist. His natural talents landed him a job painting carriages, first in Quebec city and then in the U.S., and eventually in Montreal. Then he got a job with a furniture manufacturer carving and painting decorations on the finer pieces of furniture. It was during this time, about 1871, that he met and was influenced by master carver, Louis Jobin. He continued for about ten years before buying a piece of wooded land near Saint-Ubalde de Portneuf. It was ten years before he had cleared the land and built a house. At 39, in 1891 he married Elmire Frenette, and they went on to produce seven children. As stated, Damase was not a farmer by nature so when his oldest son Wilfred became twelve he passed much of the responsibly of the day to day farm work on to Wilfred and he began to sculpt seriously. He started with pipes, sugar molds, ashtrays and other small items that he could sell easily. One of his sculpted pipes would sell for 60 cents, about ten cents more than a regular one. He did not often repeat a pattern, preferring to invent designs. He also produced toys for the children, and crucifixes and other religious articles for family members.
He used very few tools. Three gouges, two pocket knives, a plane and an axe. He was very talented and precise. After a while he became interested in sculpting the animals and birds he saw around him. He not only carved them, but unheard of at the time, painted them in polychrome colours. At this time there really wasn’t a market for these pieces, but he continued to produce them to satisfy his creative urge. Of course as is often the case, nowadays these are his most sought after and valuable pieces. He was prolific and carried on until his death at the age of seventy in 1922.
Of Damase’s seven children, three became carvers. Wilfred, Alfred and Joseph all carved animals and birds as their father had before them, but only Wilfred sold his work. Although he was smart, and quick to learn Wilfred only got about five years of schooling due to his family obligation. But he seemed to readily accept this destiny, and thereafter rarely left the family property.
Like his father, Wilfred showed a natural affinity to carving. He became his father’s apprentice at an early age and was soon producing work alongside his father during the long winter months when he was not busy with farm work. He stated that he was never really interested in commercializing his work, and would actually discourage people from coming to buy.“Me. I’m not proud. When the pride was passed out I was not there. I’ll say one thing though that pride in the work has a good place. I have always been proud of this. but to dress me up fancy, to go to a formal service, or that kind of business, I would go dressed as I am now. It would do me nothing, absolutely nothing. I’m like that. “
Wilfred married Marie Darveau, and they lived their lives together in the home Damase had built. They had fifteen children, but only six survived, and of these six, three have become carvers – Marie Jeanne, Fernand, and Maurice. Marie Jeanne married Lucien Lavallee, and they produced two sons, Paul-Emile and Dominique who also became carvers, and carry on the tradition to this day.
Wilfred Richard was born in 1894 and he died in 1996.