Art at its heart – right from the start


And years to get this far – junior officers quarters – Fort York (Top photo)

This long weekend in early August is one of the sweetest miniature vacations of the summer – and we have had absolutely lovely weather for it.

To many – millions of American visitors especially, it has come to be known as Caribana weekend – for the huge and extraordinarily well attended Caribbean carnival event. A musical high-point for many jammers, too! (so many cool musicians in town all at once, and in a party mood).

For older folks and history keeners – it is of course Simcoe day – and I have posted about John Graves Simcoe a couple of times before – a truly excellent character on the scale of such things (at least in the context of his Canadian service to the crown). Also an unusually good fit for a modern exuberant black culture celebration, especially for a classic ‘old dead white guy.’

After much strenuous service (that is, knowing and having proved his worth) he told the British Parliament that his condition for accepting another post – the founding governorship of Upper Canada (now Ontario) – was that slavery would be forbidden. As he said to the legislative assembly:

Simcoe’s Illusion – by Charles Pachter – print as exhibited at Fort York (most appropriate)

“The principles of the British Constitution do not admit of that slavery which Christianity condemns. The moment I assume the Government of Upper Canada under no modification will I assent to a law that discriminates by dishonest policy between natives of Africa, America, or Europe.”

This is why Upper Canada became the very first part of the British empire to have an overall ban on slavery – a nice case of personal character exercised with determination, having huge and lasting value for many.

Bunting for Mister Simcoe – (and his kindly host Mr Scadding)

Also eternally cute – the oldest surviving house in Toronto, Scadding cabin – built by Simcoe’s personal assistant John Scadding (really a junior partner, in those rough and highly improvisatory days) can still be seen – now on the grounds of Exhibition Place. It is seriously nifty to be able to look so far back (1794).

Simcoe’s stand really was unusual and valuable, and he did much fine work on the foundation of what would ultimately become a united Canada – but he also has a couple of extra things going for him – publicity-wise.   As an Englishman of the anointed ruling class, he has always been the sort who we are supposed to most easily and instinctively revere in our history.

But settling for that story alone – leaves out a whole lot of enriching and exciting material.

Poor man’s redcoat – officers had tailors. Soldiers had wives, girlfriends, or very sore fingers!

Who is history about, anyhow? Do the exploits of Kings and Queens tell us the story of the times, or do we see and feel more when we look at the way folks who were more like us lived and worked – the way peoples historians like the great Howard Zinn assert?

William Berczy is a name that few Toronto people discuss – but he wasn’t an officer of the crown, sailing around the Empire on behalf of centralized power – he was a painter – studied art in Vienna and Saxony (even met Goethe!) before sailing for “the Americas” in 1792 – as the leader of a group of German settlers.

Berczy’s group set up in Philadelphia first, but were soon enticed north by offers of land on the just-purchased site of Toronto (purchase disputed for more than two centuries – until finally settled in 2010!) where, in 1793, Simcoe and his wife could be found in a rather large tent by the lake, right near the foot of present day Bathurst St.

Worth noting – in those days there was no “Eastern gap” and the Toronto islands were actually a big scooping peninsula – they only became true islands many years later after a severe storm washed away a chunk of the Eastern sandbar – which meant Toronto’s fantastic natural harbour was originally very easily defended, from a single point (right about where Fort York was built – quelle surprise!) Very near that first flag-flying tent.

So much for the modest situation of the representative of the crown – but who was going to do all the work of actually setting the place up?

All modern conveniences – Thirsty? Work for it!

Berczy and 186 others from his initial group settled at the foot of the Don river and founded the hamlet of “German Mills” in 1794 – and from that base, this small number did some truly extraordinary heavy lifting. Clearing a significant part the land for the early townsite itself, building some of the earliest houses (and a powder magazine – the whole project was great-power military also, always), and establishing some of the earliest businesses.

The verdant Rouge

But this determined bunch didn’t stop there – they built 15 miles of our beloved Yonge St – (Eglinton to Elgin Mills – which has some really tough hills to deal with!) cleared 24 straight miles of the Rouge River for navigation, and along the way founded the town of Markham and built its first 24 miles of roads.

Not only was Berczy a leader and effective diplomat for his community – he remained an active painter, and ready to get his hands dirty with heavy work. He was also a surveyor, and did some especially fine architectural work, including the plans for Christ Church Cathedral in Montreal, in 1803.

Civilized living at last

Berczy’s Swiss born wife, Jeanne Charlotte Allamand, also an exhibited painter in Europe, years before they left, was no less extraordinary a character – and thanks to the constant struggles with funding for their little community of German Mills (especially a nasty division in the original group of immigrants), she was often left to manage the day to day affairs of the community while William travelled far (and slow, in those days), seeking more money, or at very least more credit, for their optimistic project.

In later years, left entirely on her own, Jeanne Charlotte Allamand was highly frustrated by the refusal of the original group to repay debts owed to her husband – this injustice might have destroyed a lesser soul, but she persevered, first opening a haberdashery, and finally an art academy which ultimately became a real success, in Montreal (Lower Canada – now Quebec), where the family moved in 1798.

Only way to keep in touch

It’s important to note that despite the pain of their long, often continent apart separation – there is a huge trove of letters between William and Jeanne Charlotte which survive – and are filled with their enduring respect and affection for one another, and the sacrifices each was making, in their still mutual struggle.

The fact that the family struggled with debt forever, after making such a huge contribution (and that their leadership cost them, because of dishonourable followers), sounds frustratingly familiar and modern. More like a screwed-up artists commune that started off so optimistic and promising – than a strategic power play against the French from the crown. In every way more relatable stuff.

Likewise, with less informed and lazily cynical modern eyes, one might be tempted to see their son’s later political and business success as some unfair dynastic advantage – but they too started off small, built up a business together and only gained influence later, after they had proven themselves.

In memory of an overlooked founder

The fact that their father was stranded in New York during the war of 1812, and fell ill and perished there in 1813 (Buried in a misspelled grave, at Trinity Church in NYC) – while their political success came decades later, also suggests they earned their own way independently – made their contributions from their own resources and efforts.

But what I really love about this amazing couple is that even with all of this tumult and adventure, the kind of crazy artist parents William Berczy and his wife Jeanne Charlotte Allamand were – their children ended up painting too – William Junior well enough that his work still hangs today in the National Gallery of Canada.

The co-founders of our muddy York (Toronto)? A loving and incredibly determined couple of painters!

Cool, eh?

(Note for researchers and the persnickety – Berczy was originally known as Johann Albrecht Ulrich Moll – but he changed it to William Moll Berczy himself when he got married – so I’m going with his preferences, here – as I always consider most respectful)

I am always curious about what you are thinking

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