The Art of the Grenfell Mission

The April  2000, Bowmanville Antiques and Folk Art show was a special year in that it featured the show and sale of a large collection of the work created by artisans of the Grenfell Mission of Newfoundland.  The collection of about two hundred pieces was accomplished over a twenty year period of dedicated searching by Ontario collector Robin Moore, and the sale was organized by her friend and mentor, quilt and fabric specialist Carol E. Telfer.  A beautifully illustrated, 45 page catalogue “art of the Grenfell Mission, the Robin Moore collection” accompanied the show.  The collection was offered to be sold only in its entirety.

In her opening comments Robin Moore suggests “ Michael Rowan, an old antiques buddy, has always maintained that antiques are on loan to us – we are their custodians for a period of time.  It has been my pleasure to have been the custodian of this truly marvelous legacy of the people of northern Newfoundland and Labrador, which I humbly refer to as “my Grenfell collection.” The time has come to pass it on to the next custodian – to love cherish, and preserve.  My dream?- to have my collection return to St. Anthony, Newfoundland where it all began 100 years ago. Wouldn’t that be wonderful?  Well, wonderful things do happen, as the entire collection was sold on opening night to a Newfoundland museum.  A prime example of the importance and contribution to our national heritage that a dedicated collector can make.

There is quite a bit of information about Grenfell on line.  What follows are quotes from the heritage Newfoundland and Labrador site:

“The Grenfell Mission provided some of the earliest permanent medical services in Labrador and northern Newfoundland. Before the mission opened its first hospital at Battle Harbour in 1893, almost no health-care resources existed in the area – hospitals were nonexistent. Alongside its medical endeavours, the mission sought to make other social changes, specifically in the areas of education, agriculture, and industrial development. To this end, mission workers built schools and helped establish lumber mills, community farms, co-operative stores, and a commercial handicraft industry to create alternative sources of income.

British medical missionary Wilfred Grenfell arrived at Labrador in 1892 to investigate living conditions among local fishers for the United Kingdom’s National Mission to Deep Sea Fishermen. Shocked by the area’s widespread poverty and almost complete absence of medical resources, Grenfell spent the next year raising money at St. John’s and England to establish regular health-care services in Labrador. The mission opened a hospital at Battle Harbour and began construction on another at Indian Harbour. It also acquired a second hospital boat, the Princess May, to help medical personnel service fishing stations and coastal communities.

Alongside providing medical services, the Grenfell Mission sought to improve living conditions in general for people in Labrador and northern Newfoundland. To stimulate industrial development, the mission established a series of co-operative stores near many of its medical stations. Mission workers helped to create a local handicraft industry that allowed residents to sell hooked mats, knitted goods and other items at North American retail shops.”

From Wikipedia we learn “The Grenfell Mission established a Village Industry Department prior to 1930. Artists came from abroad to support the artistic endeavors of the residents of northern Newfoundland and Labrador.

The Grenfell Mission was famous for its burlap rugs, which were sold to hospitals in the United States and Britain. Encouraged and promoted by Dr. Grenfell, the rugmakers of the mission sometimes used designs created by Mrs. Grenfell. Beginning in the early 20th century, the International Grenfell Association (IGA) hired Jessie Luther of Providence, Rhode Island, to set up and direct the Grenfell Industrial Department. Grenfell established retail shops in England and in several U.S. cities. These shops were staffed by volunteers and augmented by travelling salesmen. Following the death of Dr. Grenfell and the surge in machine-made rug production, the business gradually failed.”

Carol Telfer did an excellent job of summarizing the Grenfell history in the catalogue with her two page essay “a brief history of the Grenfell Mission”.  I suggest you buy the catalogue which is still available, but if you want to learn the complete history in precise detail you can go to http://www.grenfellassociation.org/who-we-are/history/   the international Grenfell Association site.

The dedication to the catalogue reads “Dr. Wilfred Grenfell arrived on the north shore of Newfoundland more than a century ago.  He was greeted by a shy, yet industrious people who inhabited a beautiful, but isolated land. They led a harsh existence.  This catalogue- a visual tribute- is dedicated to the men and women of northern Newfoundland and Labrador, for the incredible works of art which they produced through the Grenfell Mission.  May their legacy continue.

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Madam Tessier, and her brother

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walking in the park

In the late 1980’s when we were antique shopping in Quebec on a regular basis, we would follow up on leads for new sources that were offered to us by other dealers.  We were told about a great shop in the town of Deschambault, which is on Rt. 138 on the north shore of the St. Lawrence river between Trois Rivieres and Quebec city.  Rte. 138 was a popular tourist route back in the heyday of motoring vacations in the fifties and the sixties, but traffic dropped dramatically when the auto-route 40 opened and people’s attitude changed, and they started to just want to get from point A to B as quickly as possible.  There wasn’t much of the old “motoring” culture left along the route, but it was a gorgeous drive and every so often you would spot a handmade sign in front of a little roadside shack indicating “Souvenirs”.   Naturally we would stop and check it out.  You never know when and where you may find the next great folk artist or crafts-person. Most of these shops were a disappointment however in that they contained the St. Jean-Port-Jolie style tourist carvings, and the typical plastic commercial schlock, but once in a while we would find some crazy, old guy making something interesting, or in this case of this story, a great source of charming, original designed hand hooked rugs.

woven runners and mats

woven runners and mats

It was a fine summer morning as we rounded the bend just a few klicks from our destination of Deschambault, when we noticed several signs around an old frame house indicating “Souvenirs” “Quebec textiles”, “hand hooked rugs”, etc.  These signs had a charm all their own so we were hopeful that we may be on to something.  We went through the door indicated as “shop”, and entered into a long thin room which had an end to end run of long, thin, fabric cutting style tables, stacked with dozens of different varieties of hooked rugs and woven runners, and mats.  The back wall was covered with examples of rugs, and behind the tables stood a lovely looking elderly woman looking every bit the Victorian lady with piled up hair and white powder makeup.  Right out of central casting.  She had a radiant smile and seemed truly delighted to meet us.  She told us her name was Madam Tessier and all the textiles on sale where either made by her, or one of her three or four rug hooking neighbors.

a geometric

a geometric

Our attention moved from her to the rugs, and we were immediately taken with the charming original subjects, the vibrant colors, and the workmanship.  The expected florals and geometrics were interesting, but what caught our attention were the many depictions of rural Quebec life.  Scenes of bringing in the ducks at night, of workers stopping in the field to observe the “angelus” or moment of prayer at 6 pm, a sugaring scene in early spring, a farmer about to feed the animals, and so on.  There were also riffs on classic themes like a beaver on a log, a maple leaf. As well there were tables full of multi coloured runners. Rainbows in fabric everywhere you looked.  The prices were very reasonable considering the amount of work that went into them, and you could see that they were well made, and would wear well.  She was surprised and delighted when instead of choosing one or two, we bought a dozen or so.  We explained who we were and that we were buying for resale, and that if they should sell as we thought they would we would soon be back for more.  And so it was. They went like hotcakes and within a month we were back buying about twice as many as before.  Madam Tessier grew to look forward to us pulling up.

farmer and his yellow wagon

farmer and his yellow wagon

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farmer in the yard

After a few visits she asked us into the adjacent house for tea.  She explained that she had lived there all her life with her brother, but that he had recently passed away so she was now there on her own.  She said she didn’t mind because she had many friends in the village and was never alone for very long. It was lovely to sit in her kitchen and have tea and listen to her story.  It took me several minutes before I noticed something peculiar about the walls.  As I looked more closely at the tongue and groove wood grained boards which ran from floor to ceiling, I realized that they were not wood paneling at all, but rather a hand painted facsimile.  I couldn’t believe it.  The whole room had been meticulously grain painted by hand.  Every groove and the wood grain was done free hand, one at time. Then I realized that where there was a painting on the wall, that the painting had been done in the same hand right on the wall with a painted frame around it, as it should be. Amazing.  Can you imagine how long it would take to do something like that?  I had to ask her.  “oh that.  Yes, that was my brother’s project later in life.  He volunteered to paint the place but then he got the idea of the wood grain so it took him several years.”  He completed many rooms before he died.”  You could see she was proud of her brother’s accomplishment.

beaver on a log

beaver on a log

It’s funny what sticks with you in life.  Sitting in that room, drinking tea with Madam Tessier and coming to the realization that the entire room I was sitting in was faux painted freehand by her brother remains as vivid in my memory today as the day it occurred.  I’d imagine that the conclusion of a psychiatrist would be obsessive/ compulsive behavior, but to me it felt like an act of a deep dedication to the concept of beauty and love of environment, not to mention persistence.  I had a deep feeling of warmth come over me, and I knew I was in the presence of true inspiration.   Madam Tessier there smiling benevolently with her white powder make up and piled up Victorian hair.

farmers pausing to pray the Angelus

farmers pausing to pray – the Angelus