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At Library and Archives Canada (LAC), the documentary art related to Sir John A. Macdonald ranges from stately oil portraits to political cartoons and campaign posters. These works of art are all the more valuable to LAC because photography was a new technology during Macdonald's lifetime and its use was limited. As well as depicting people and events, these various art forms and illustrations reveal the attitudes of artists and the general public to history in the making.
A political cartoon, for example, uses exaggeration and distortion to show the point of view of the artist in relation to public figures and political events. Among the most prominent cartoonists of Macdonald's time was John Wilson Bengough, who founded the satirical magazine Grip. Bengough created a lighthearted image of Macdonald as a misbehaving and gangly figure. Much as they still do today, Bengough's cartoons provided editorial comment on current events with images that were amusing and informative to every level of reader-even the illiterate. This art form was especially important during Macdonald's day, when literacy rates were much lower. People who could not read about the Pacific Scandal could still learn from Bengough's illustrations that Macdonald had been involved in grand political mischief.
Among its collection of more than four million paintings, prints, drawings, sculptures, photographs, films and caricatures, LAC holds a number of the most famous works of art featuring Macdonald. The earliest painting of John A. Macdonald, by an unknown artist, dates back to the 1840s and depicts the future prime minister as a dapper young redhead. Two other paintings, of his first wife Isabella and their son, Hugh John, were reproduced and set into the reverse side of a gold locket that also contains the first known photographic image of Macdonald. Etchings of Macdonald are featured on postage stamps to mark special anniversaries. One such stamp reproduces Robert Harris's famous painting of the 1864 Québec Conference, where Macdonald and his colleagues urged the Maritime provinces to join Confederation.
Every artistic medium presents unique challenges to LAC conservators. Like photographs, art is stored or displayed away from direct light, in climate-controlled environments. These precautions ensure that colours do not fade and that heat and cold do not cause the materials to expand or contract. To prevent damage from oil or salt carried on hands, cotton gloves are worn by anyone who handles works of art.
In addition to the works depicting Sir John and his family, a surprising and lovely feature of the Macdonald collection are the watercolours painted by Agnes, Macdonald's second wife. Whether of wooded walkways around Ottawa or water scenes at the family's summer home near Rivière-du-Loup in Quebec, these paintings offer a glimpse of Macdonald's private world, which was as fascinating as his public life.
Visit the Gallery of Art to see more from the LAC collection.