Artwork by Robert Harris,  The Unruly Guest (Portraits of Children of G. Stethem, Esq.), 1880

Robert Harris
The Unruly Guest (Portraits of Children of G. Stethem, Esq.), 1880

oil on canvas
signed lower right; signed and titled on a label on the stretcher on the reverse
36 x 48 ins ( 91.4 x 121.9 cms )

Auction Estimate: $30,000.00$20,000.00 - $30,000.00

Price Realized $31,200.00
Sale date: December 6th 2023

Commissioned by George Stethem, Peterborough, Ontario, January 1880
By descent to Lieutenant-Colonel A.J.R. Stethem, Montreal
Walter Klinkhoff Gallery, Montreal
Acquired by the present Private Collection, September 1987
“Canadian Academy of Arts, First Annual Exhibition”, Ottawa, 1880, no. 112
“Robert Harris (1849‒1919)”, Confederation Art Gallery and Museum, Charlottetown; travelling to National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa;
Sir George Williams University, Montreal; Norman Mackenzie Art Gallery, Regina; Winnipeg Art Gallery; Edmonton Art Gallery, 1 July 1973‒30 April 1974, no. 19 as “The Stethem Children”
“The Work of Art: Six Artists”, Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto; travelling to Kitchener‒Waterloo Art Gallery; Art Gallery of Windsor; Rodman Hall Arts Centre, St Catharines; Confederation Centre Art Gallery and Museum, Charlottetown, Beaverbrook Art Gallery, Fredericton; Glenbow‒Alberta Institute, Calgary; Laurentian University Museum and Arts Centre, Sudbury, 4 November 1978‒21 October 1979, no. 20 as “The Stethem Children”
“Collector's Canada: Selections from a Toronto Private Collection”, Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto; travelling to Musée du Québec, Quebec City; Vancouver Art Gallery; Mendel Art Gallery, Saskatoon, 14 May 1988‒7 May 1989, no. 25
“Hommage to Walter Klinkhoff,” Galerie Walter Klinkhoff, Montreal, 12‒26 September 1998, no. 14
“Canadian Art: A Child's World”, Galerie Eric Klinkhoff, Montreal, 28 October‒11 November 2017
“Our Children: Reflections on Childhood in Historical Canadian Art”, Varley Art Gallery, Markham, 13 April‒23 June 2019
‘Opening of the Canadian Academy of Arts at Ottawa. His Excellency Declaring the Exhibition Open’, “Canadian Illustrated News 21” (20 March 1880), visible in cover illustration
Moncrieff Williamson, “Robert Harris 1849‒1919: An Unconventional Biography”, Toronto, 1970, page 64, reproduced plate 23 as “The Peterborough Group”
Moncrieff Williamson, “Robert Harris (1849‒1919)”, Ottawa, 1973, pages 51‒53
Dennis Reid, “Collector's Canada: Selections from a Toronto Private Collection”, Toronto, 1978, no. 25, page 12, reproduced page 35
Reissa Schrager, “The Work of Art: Six Artists”, Toronto, 1978, pages 13‒14, reproduced page 15
Moncrieff Williamson, “Island Painter: The Life of Robert Harris (1849‒1919)”, Charlottetown, 1983, pages 71‒72
“Confederation Centre Art Gallery and Museum, Permanent Collection”, Charlottetown, 1986, pages 117, 119
Joan Murray, “Home Truths”, Toronto, 1997, plate 105, pages 128‒133, reproduced page 133
Loren Lerner, ‘Canadian Art: A Child's World’, in “Canadian Art: A Child's World”, Galerie Eric Klinkhoff, 2017, reproduced page 4
In 1878 Robert Harris returned to his home town of Charlottetown after several months of study in London and Paris. On the advice of Lucius O’Brien, who assured him that Toronto was “the best art centre in Canada” (14 August 1879), he moved to that city and soon established himself as a leading figure painter and portraitist. His reputation developed so quickly that in January 1880, little more than a year after arriving in Toronto, he was commissioned by George Stethem, a Peterborough hardware merchant, to paint a group portrait of his family’s four children. This was Harris’s first major commission and much depended on it, although he knew it would be a challenge. “As the youngsters are aged one, two, four and six,” he wrote, “you can imagine what steady models I have.”

Harris had already proved himself a sensitive, unsentimental children’s portraitist in paintings such as “The News Boy”, 1879 (Art Gallery of Ontario). His biographer, Moncrieff Williamson, records that Harris adored children, who in turn were fascinated by him. However, prior to 1880 he had focused on street youth, whereas the Stethem children came from a financially successful family, and for their tea‒party portrait were elaborately dressed in their best clothes, complete with lace collars and cuffs, the boy on the left wearing velvet and the girl on the right in heavy ribbed silk. Two surviving preparatory works—a graphite‒on‒paper drawing and a slightly more detailed oil sketch (both, Confederation Centre Art Gallery)—differ from the final composition only in minor details. The CCAG also owns studies for each of the three oldest children: Catherine Beatrice (1874‒90; the girl on the far right), George Archibald (1876‒1963; admonishing the dog for breaking a plate), and Winifred Gertrude (1877‒96; next to Catherine). Beside Winifred is one‒year‒old William Gilbert (b.1878), for whom no preliminary studies are known.

Harris described “The Unruly Guest” as “a kind of fancy piece”—i.e., a picture enlivening daily life with an engaging narrative: the dog’s interruption of the tea party. The scene takes place in what must have been the children’s nursery or play room, the rear wall of which is decorated with three paper illustrations, one of them an indistinctly captioned representation of Blunderbore the Giant from the fairy tale Jack the Giant Killer. The visual relationship between George Archibald and the dog is uncannily echoed in an illustration seen in what appears to be a children’s magazine titled “The Boys [sic] Friend”, open on the ground at George’s feet, while a second portfolio lies near Catherine’s chair. The portfolios, reproductions, tea service and sumptuous clothing all signal George Stethem’s vision of his family’s social status, as does the fact that Robert Harris, a fast‒rising star on the Canadian art scene, was commissioned to make the painting.

Although Harris’s images of young people were much admired, he lamented that children were in general “awful sitters” and that the amount of time involved in coaxing them to hold their poses made paintings like “The Unruly Guest” unprofitable for him. Those difficulties aside, “The Unruly Guest” successfully balances accurate portraiture with narrative interest, all in an understated composition that sets the verticality and physical dynamism of George Stethem and the dog against the more sedate horizontal placement of his three siblings, with Catherine Stethem, the eldest, directly engaging the viewer and also physically closing the horizontal line on the right. The painting gained public recognition outside the family circle when it was featured in 1880 in the first annual exhibition of the Canadian Academy of Arts (renamed the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts later that year) in Ottawa. Soon thereafter, J.T.M. Burnside, one of Toronto’s leading citizens, commissioned Harris to make a group portrait of the four Burnside children (1881; Confederation Centre Art Gallery). What Harris wrote about his goals for that painting are equally applicable to his achievement in “The Unruly Guest”: “It will be a picture, quite irrespective of the portraits. I mean that, though they are portraits, it won’t depend for its content on that only.”

We extend our thanks to Brian Foss, Carleton University Chancellor’s Professor of Art & Architectural History, and co‒curator of “1920s Modernism in Montreal: The Beaver Hall Group” for his assistance in researching this artwork and for contributing the preceding essay.

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Robert Harris
(1849 - 1919) OSA, PRCA

Born in the Vale of Conway, North Wales, he arrived in Charlottetown, P.E.I. with his parents during 1856. His mother encouraged him in his artistic development. He attended Prince of Wales College and at the age of 14 left school to fill a job in the office of a land developer and surveyor, Henry Cundall. Harris also had musical talents and he played the violin in an orchestra performing at a banquet in honour of the “Fathers of Confederation”. He was to travel throughout Canada almost 20 years later, in search of details for their collective portraits. He visited England and Wales when he was 18 and not yet a a professional painter. He met his cousin Thomas Metcalfe who was an artist and he also visited Brown’s Museum in London. It as probably during this trip to England that he decided to become a full time painter. He returned to Canada in 1868. Although Harris hadn’t taken formal training at this point he was commissioned by the Executive Council of Prince Edward Island, to paint portraits of all the Speakers of the House of Assembly back to the time of the House’s first establishment of responsible government. In 1872 he went to Halifax where he either taught or studied drawing at a museum run by Dr. Honeyman. He moved to Boston in 1873 where he studied anatomy under Dr. Rimmers and painting from life under a Mr. Dewing.

He began to experience trouble with his eyes (which were to trouble him throughout his life). And he was forced to take a rest for six months. He sailed for England in 1876 where he took further study at the Slade Fine Art Course, University College, London, under Alphonse Legros and copied works at the National Gallery. After studying in Paris under Leon Bonnet, he was back at Charlottetown in 1878. He moved to Toronto in 1879 where he opened a studio at Six Leader Street off King Street East. There he spent the next two years or so, doing portraits, exhibiting with the Ontario Society of Artists of which he became Vice President in 1880, and became a founder-member of the Royal Canadian Academy. It was in 1800 too, that Harris was given the assignment by the Toronto ‘Globe’ to sketch the principal parties involved in the mass murder of the Donnelly family. Rapid sketches had been one of Harris’ special developments. During this period Harris did illustrations of his home province (P.E.I.) for the publication ‘Picturesque Canada’. Harris was back in Paris by 1881; in Rome in 1882; Florence and Venice, Italy, 1883 and in England where one of his paintings was chosen for an exhibit in the Royal Academy show.

He returned to Canada in 1883 and at Ottawa was commissioned by the Dominion Government to paint “Fathers of Confederation”. The original commission was to be of the men who attended the Charlottetown Conference (1864) but he was then asked by the Government to change the scene to the Quebec Conference which included ten or so additional delegates. The Quebec Conference had taken place about 40 days after the Charlottetown Conference. Jean M. Auld explained “…The artist travelled over the whole of Canada, making personal studies of those of the statesmen who were still alive, and visiting the relatives of those who were dead.” The Quebec Parliament buildings, were the conference was held, had been burned and additional research had to be done by Harris in the reconstruction of the Quebec Conference chamber. The painting was exhibited at the R.C.A. exhibit of 1884 and the same year handed over to Sir Hector Langevin, Minister of Public Works, at Ottawa and placed in the Parliament Buildings. When the painting was lost in the fire that destroyed the Parliament Buildings in Ottawa, Harris was asked by the Government to do another like it but he declined because of his failing eyesight and age.

In Montreal Harris taught classes at the Art Association of Montreal and married Elizabeth Putman in 1885. Harris travelled extensively in Europe afterwards with his wife. He died in Montreal at the age of 70. In 1965 the Harris collection was transferred to the curatorial custody of of Confederation Art Gallery in Charlottetown. A retrospective exhibition was held there in 1967 under the sponsorship of the Centennial Commission, Ottawa.

Source: "A Dictionary of Canadian Artists, Volume II”, compiled by Colin S. MacDonald, Canadian Paperbacks Publishing Ltd, Ottawa, 1979