By Chris Raible, originally published August 29, 2011
A look into the portraits of his life
Throughout his whole political life, William Lyon Mackenzie was at the centre of controversy: the 1824 launch of his Colonial Advocate newspaper, critical of the administration of Upper Canada; the 1826 destruction of his printing office; the 1831-33 ejections from parliament and subsequent re-elections; the 1832-3 journey to England seeking redress of colonial grievances; the 1834 battles after his election as Toronto’s first Mayor; the 1837 debacle of Rebellion; the 1840s hardships of exile in New York; the 1849 riots prompted by his return to Toronto; in the 1850s, once again editing an independent newspaper and serving as a member of parliament. Adored or abhorred, hero or villain, Mackenzie generated strong emotions around him, during his life and in the 150 years since his death in 1861.
The varied ways Mackenzie has been viewed are reflected in the varied images of him created over the past two centuries. In the parlour of Toronto’s Mackenzie House hangs a portrait of Mackenzie along with a matching one of his wife, Isabel Baxter Mackenzie. The artist is unknown; museum records suggest they may have been painted while Mackenzie was Mayor of Toronto in 1834. I would date them a few years earlier. In the spring of 1828 Mackenzie, embarking on his public political career, may have followed the example of other prominent York citizens and commissioned a “Mr. Stevens” to paint these portraits. They are a sign of his rising social status in York/Toronto. Mackenzie is well-dressed, confident, secure, comfortable with himself, but hardly charismatic. Here is the portrait of a successful merchant publisher, rather than of a passionate persuader of men – “faithfully painted” as Mackenzie intended. (1)
The only other major “live” images of Mackenzie were made nearly thirty years later. (2) Sometime in the mid-1850s, a daguerreotype portrait was taken by Toronto photographer Eli J. Palmer. Here Mackenzie has aged from the harsh ordeals of his life. The image reveals, to quote an artist who took it as a model years later, his “massive frontal head, searching gray eyes and deeply lined face.” (3) His manner is stiff (perhaps sitting still for a photograph conflicted with his restless nature), strong, serious, almost solemn. By dress, setting and manner, he is totally respectable – a tenacious critic perhaps, but hardly a fiery radical.
About this same time, in the mid-1850s, Mackenzie sat for sculptor Ferdinand Rosen, who was creating a series of “Busts of Public Men”. (4) Here Mackenzie is calm and comfortable, at ease with himself. He had just decided to resign his seat in Parliament, though he would continue his newspaper for two more years. The 1858 bust now rests near the door of the Ontario Legislative Library.
When Mackenzie died on August 28, 1861, his son-in-law Charles Lindsey took up the task of writing a comprehensive biography. (5) The frontpiece of the first volume was an engraved portrait based on the Palmer photo:
Here, Mackenzie is younger and less grim. His eyes are clear, his expression thoughtful, his dress correct, his manner calm and contented. Lindsey’s biography was a sympathetic, albeit not uncritical, work based on Mackenzie’s extensive personal papers.
A quarter century later, popular historian Charles Dent published his The Story of the Upper Canada Rebellion. His purpose was to revise history, making John Rolph the hero of the Rebellion and demeaning Mackenzie. Yet the work’s frontpiece portrayed a relaxed and peaceful Mackenzie.
The image is in sharp contrast with Dent’s characterization of Mackenzie in the Rebellion drama as a fanatic and a madman.(6)
A new century brought renewed interest in Mackenzie. In 1899, Toronto City Council commissioned prominent artist J. W. L. Forster to create a portrait of the city’s first mayor to hang in the new City Hall, at Bay and Queen Streets (7):
Here is Mackenzie the statesman, standing erect, quill pen in one hand, the other resting on an important document – a list of political grievances of the yeomen farmers of the County of York. As their Member of Parliament, he is seeking redress. Here is the version of Mackenzie the City Fathers united to honour. Upon viewing it, Ontario Premier Sir William Ross immediately ordered a duplicate – it now hangs in the corridors of Queen’s Park.
A few years later, the King family commissioned a second Forster portrait. It hangs in the gallery of Mackenzie House (8):
In the 1930s, with William Lyon Mackenzie King as Prime Minister, there were new memorials created for King’s illustrious grandfather. One such memorial is now in the garden of Mackenzie House: a bas-relief panel of almost gargantuan proportions, its scale alone declares William Lyon Mackenzie to be a Very Important Figure in Canadian History. The scene is the Upper Canada House of Assembly, April 10, 1835. Mackenzie, as chairman of the “Select Committee on Grievances,” presents his Final Report. Here is King’s version of Mackenzie’s finest hour – there is no “Little Mac” or “Little Rebel” here. Mackenzie stands tall, the dominating central figure. The prophetic statesman speaks with authority. His text catalogues everything that is wrong with the government. Pondering the import of his words are his parliamentary colleagues – all anonymous, all virtually identical, all suitably solemn in the presence of the Great Man. Here is the quintessential Canadian idol – a Member of Parliament complaining!
The artist is C. W. Jeffreys, whose depictions of Canadian history were etched into the psyches of Canadian school children for half a century. The sculptor is Emanuel Hahn, whose images grace our dimes and quarters and whose public monuments abound throughout the land. Originally this panel was part of a triumphal Pioneer Memorial Arch, erected at Niagara Falls in 1937. Its erection was a political act, a tribute to Mackenzie as father of Canadian Responsible Government.
Twenty-nine years after it went up, the Arch came down. Officials declared it a “traffic hazard”, and made solemn promises to rebuild it elsewhere. These iconoclasts of 1967 saw neither William Lyon Mackenzie nor his grandson as a person to take patriotic pride in. A failed violent insurgency was no act to celebrate in a country parading itself as a nation of peacekeepers. The demolition of the Arch, like its erection, was a political act. No one – no King’s horses, no King’s men – could be called to put its pieces together again. Not until 1984 was this panel salvaged and given the public place it was thought to deserve: a quiet and secluded back garden. (10)
At Queen’s Park, outside the west entrance to the Ontario Legislature, stands another King-promoted Mackenzie monument. Conceived to mark the 1937 centennial of the Rebellion, construction was delayed until 1940. This bust of Mackenzie is far more forceful than the Arch panel image. Mackenzie faces the winds of opposition, an inspiring figure to his farmer followers.
Nearby is a strange, slightly stooped allegorical figure. The viewer might imagine it a leftover statue from the World War 1 monument at Vimy, France. Indeed this whole structure was designed by Vimy’s sculptor, Walter S. Alward. Near the figure is an abandoned plough, presumably a reminder that aroused farmers left their farms to take up arms. Today the monument’s symbolism is ambiguous. Even in 1940, Canadian attitudes toward Mackenzie and the Rebellion were ambiguous. (11)
A more modern view – one certainly lacking in ambiguity – burst forth in 1956 withThe Firebrand, a Mackenzie biography written by political reformer William Kilbourn. (12) The book’s jacket features the fierce face of the protagonist – an image to match Kilbourn’s imaginative prose. (13) To tell his story, Kilbourn admittedly juggled facts and was highly selective in his material. The Firebrand is clever and memorable – but it is a distortion. A firebrand kindles fires. Mackenzie may have fanned fires of discontent into bigger blazes, but he did not start them. Worse, Kilbourn’s title conjures up Mackenzie as hot-headed and irrational, as an irresponsible agitator. Like its cover, the book itself is a caricature.
For more than half a century, this has been the image of Mackenzie that has dominated our culture, notwithstanding attempts by biographers and sympathizers to describe him otherwise. (14) Despite many efforts to portray Mackenzie as a reformer turned radical for good reason, the Kilbourn picture persists. Indeed, a reprint edition of The Firebrand was published last year. (15)
As far as I know, the most recent public image of Mackenzie is a small part of the large murals that grace the walls of Toronto’s Queen Street subway station. Installed in 1980, they are the work of Ontario artist John Boyle. (16) It is doubtful if one TTC passenger in a thousand passing through the station has any idea of who this odd figure is and why his image is featured on a subway station mural. Here is Mackenzie with a flat cap and quizzical look – he might be mistaken for investigative journalist and writer Peter C. Newman. Has Mackenzie been reduced to this – inconsequential, impassive, uninspiring? Or will a new image yet emerge? Time, no doubt, will tell.