Rare portrait to hang in Kingston

This portrait of Isabella Clark Macdonald fetched $17,000.
This portrait of Isabella Clark Macdonald fetched $17,000.
Credit: 
Photo courtesy of Agnes Etherington Art Centre

After many years of separation, Canada’s first prime minister will be reunited with his first wife in the small Ontario city where they began their life together.

A combined purchase by the University, the city of Kingston, the Kingston Economic Development Corporation, and private citizen Diane Weatherall has ensured that one of two known portraits of Isabella Clark Macdonald will be displayed alongside that of her nationally renowned husband in his hometown of Kingston.

Brian Osborne, a professor in the geography department and chair of Queen’s Chancellor Richardson Memorial fund—which initiated the purchase—called the painting “a beautiful example” of mid-nineteenth century portraiture, as well as a significant part of Kingston’s rich history.

“It’s a matter of mystery, a matter of its historical connection, and [is important] as a piece of artwork itself,” Osborne told the Journal.

“Sir John A. Macdonald … lived in Kingston, and was active as a lawyer and politician in Kingston before entering federal politics, and this was his first wife.” Together, the interested parties purchased the portrait of Macdonald’s first wife for $17,000 in a silent auction on Saturday at Portsmouth Olympic Harbour. The painting was previously owned by Clay and Carol Benson, noted antique collectors from Port Hope, Ont.

Isabella, originally from Scotland, married Macdonald several weeks after meeting him in 1843. She fell sick within the first two years of their marriage and suffered from an unknown illness for the rest of their fourteen years together, finally passing away in 1857 at the age of 46.

The painting, an untitled portrait by an anonymous artist, is currently being researched by the University in order to ensure that the portrait is, in fact, of Isabella Clark Macdonald.

Osborne said he thinks the portrait is genuine.

“There is enough circumstantial evidence to convince us that this is the real article,” he said.

The only other known portrait of Isabella, painted by William Sawyer, is currently part of the National Archives of Canada.

According to the University, the newly purchased portrait is currently being held at the Agnes Etherington Art Centre, where it will be restored and displayed on certain occasions.

It will ultimately be displayed in Bellevue House, Sir John A. Macdonald’s Kingston home on Centre Street and a national historic site. On special occasions, it will be exhibited at Kingston’s City Hall alongside a portrait of Macdonald himself.

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