Stephenson Page 3

Great Canadian Portraits

Lionel Macdonald Stephenson 1854-1907

Great Canadian Heritage Treasure

Left is a painting found at a rural auction in Ontario. It is an oil on board 12 x 20" and entitled Ft. Garry 1869. It is signed in red LM Stephenson. The painting attracted little interest because no one knew what - or where - Ft. Garry was, and the signature was unknown to those who paused to look.

But behind the painting is a great Canadian story.

In 1869 the Hudson's Bay Company sold the Canadian western territories - and its headquarters Fort Garry (Winnipeg) - which it had owned since 1670 - to the newly established (1867) Canadian Government.

Right, a scene of Fort Garry in the 1870s, from exactly the same spot, on the south bank of the Assiniboine River, where Lionel sat to do his painting in 1869.

Today a huge bridge carries Main Street directly through the middle of the front of the old fort, towards the intersection with Portage Ave, a kilometre beyond. That's Portage & Main, the most famous intersection in Canada.

This fort is called Upper Fort Garry to distinguish it from a later one built lower down the Red River towards Lake Winnipeg which was called Lower Fort Garry even though it was on higher ground than the Upper Fort above which inconveniently flooded when the Red River topped up.

Fort Garry, 1869 - Lionel Macdonald Stephenson
Orig. oil on board - Size - 12" x 18"
Found - Palgrave, ON
Signed LMS Ft Garry 1869

Teenage Opportunism
- One of the most grandiose fur trading forts ever established, in western Canada, by the Hudson's Bay Company, during its 200 year rule in the region. The scene on the Assiniboine River - captured just 130 years ago is - is today the heart of the traffic and gas fume congested metropolis of Winnipeg, Manitoba.

So, what would have been one of Canada's great architectural treasures, is long gone, pushed aside to make way for progress and concrete, pavement, hotels, and railway tracks.

What remains, is this wonderful Great Canadian souvenir art of the stone fort in its heyday, in 1869, painted, by an enterprising 15 year old, Lionel Stephenson, for Canadian soldiers to take back to Ontario after they suddenly showed up to quell "the rebellion" that had supposedly broken out in this remote part of Canada.

Great Canadian Insight

When the Government of Canada took over, it sent out surveyors to map the land, to make it ready for distribution to individual new white settlers it intended to settle there. Their high handed activities upset the local Métis people who had lived there for over a hundred years without interference in a society based on more communal values.


These photos illustrate the coming clash of two cultures: on the left, the long established Métis system of strip farms along the Red River, which allowed everyone to have access to the river, with bush lots at the back, and had neighbours living side by side along the waterfront river road.

The government imposed the more dehumanized British "mile-square" formula for land division, wreaking havoc with the lives of Métis inhabitants who had been living there for over 100 years with a system of land ownership developed locally.

The Métis Resistance of 1870: The Métis took over Fort Garry, which stood on the banks of the Assiniboine River, where the Fort Garry Hotel now stands, in downtown Winnipeg, and set up a provisional government inside. Since the Hudson's Bay Company had suddenly left, and the Canadian Government had not shown up, the region lost the only government the area had ever known in 200 years. The Métis decided that to prevent lawlessness, they would form a legitimate government to safeguard the rights of the people in the Red River Colony. The Canadian Government sent out troops to "restore order."

Colonel Wolseley (shown years later during the Boer War, resplendent as Commander-in-Chief of the British Imperial Army) and his Red River Expedition arrived to find the Métis dispersed, and their leader Louis Riel flown to the US. Many Métis moved west to the empty prairies of Saskatchewan, to regain their sense of freedom.

Great Canadian Heritage Treasure
Fort Garry, 1869 - Lionel Macdonald Stephenson
Orig. oil on board - Size - 11" x 18"
Found - Toronto, ON
Signed LMS Fort Garry 1869








Great Canadian War Souvenir: The soldiers wanted a souvenir of their military exploits in the "wilds of Canada." Stephenson was on hand and painted this view over and over again for soldiers to take back to Ontario. Since Wolseley had brought 1,200 men with him, you can see that Lionel painted a lot of pictures.

They turn up at auctions now and then, as old estates are cleared, and attics and closets are cleared of "grandpa's old junk 'n stuff."

We have seen about 10 of Lionel's views - samples left and right - at art auctions. The only difference, sometimes there is an Indian in a canoe, sometimes not. Some are dated, some not. Some are merely initialed LMS.

The best of their type, feature the name of the Fort, the date, the artist's signature, and are also evocatively painted.

Great Canadian Heritage Treasure

Riel on the Red River 1870: In 1870, General Wolseley (below) had been a colonel, leading the Red River Expedition into the wilds of the Canadian West, to put down the Métis resistance that was spreading around Fort Garry (today's downtown Winnipeg, Manitoba).

The hardest part of the wilderness trek, by far, was the overland crossing from the western end of Lake Superior to the Red River.

To transport his army across this rugged and wild terrain Wolseley hired French-Canadian voyageurs. With hundreds of years of wilderness canoeing experience coursing through their veins, he know there were no better boat handlers in the world. He expressed undying respect for the way these Canadian boatmen could transport impossible loads over impassable rapids, and formidable water falls, and still have boundless energy left for laughing, singing, dancing and smoking all the way...

The Wolseley Expedition, Kaministiqua River, 1870 - William Armstrong
Orig. water colour - Size - 9.5" x 13.5"
Found - Toronto, ON

Above, astonished Indians watch the passing cavalcade enjoy the last free ride before the voyageurs had to earn their keep, man-handling the heavy boats over rapids and up cliffs which the British officers considered impossible. This fabulous picture was painted by famous Canadian painter William Armstrong who had accompanied the expedition.

Lionel Stephenson watched the men coming with glee; there were hundreds of potential clients for his Fort Garry views...

Gordon on the Nile 1884: Fourteen years later, when Wolseley was given the task of ascending the Nile to rescue General Gordon, he immediately thought of the Canadians again, and decided 400 Canadian boatmen was just what he needed to take his army upriver, over the rapids and falls along the Nile.

The Canadians were mostly recruited in Trois Rivières and Caughnawaga, Quebec, and in the Ottawa area, resulting in a robust mix of French-Canadians, Métis, Indians, and Anglo-Saxon freighter canoemen and lumber jacks.

Great Canadian Heritage Treasure
Fort Garry, 1869 - Lionel Macdonald Stephenson
Orig. oil on board - Size - 10" x 18"
Found - Toronto, ON
Signed LMS Ft Garry 69

Lionel and I
The very first painting I ever owned was an LMS, in 1962. I got it while I was a history student at UofT and working selling gas appliances during the summer to pay tuition.

In the Beaches area of Toronto an old man came to the door and invited me in. I marvelled at once at what I saw hanging in his living room. It was an LMS of Fort Garry in a glorious gaudy golden gesso frame!

He was so impressed with my outburst that he said, "Five bucks and it's yours." I couldn't believe it, and walked home with it under my arm.

Even though five bucks was hard to come by, I now owned a real historic Canadian treasure that was 100 years old! (Below in Owen House at Spadina & Willcocks in October, 1962)

For over a year, it hung above my desk in a rooming house I shared with 16 other poor students. I was the only one who could afford to hang real Canadian art in his room. They all came down to view it.

But I was never quite sure how genuine their interest was, and if they really wanted to see my historic masterpiece, or had merely come to see the naked calendar girl that hung right beside it...

To see a real art connoisseur, roll over below.

Sadly I could not afford to keep it because I didn't have enough money to pay tuition the following year. I took it to the Royal Ontario Museum Canadiana Section. They offered me $100 for it. I thought that was mighty cheap of them considering how important a genuine Canadian treasure like this was...

It would be the only original Canadian art I would own for many years to come. Lionel and I have always been very close as a result, a bond I renewed when I saw a similar LMS come up for auction a few years ago.

Today it sits in front of me over the computer, just as its predecessor did when I was a young student 40 years ago. It reminds me of a stirring event in Canadian history, the painter who sat there on the bank of the Assiniboine River painting it so long ago, and the young volunteer who gleefully bought it and transported it, back to Ontario, on foot, by canoe, by ship, and finally by train, eager to show it to a breathless family awaiting his safe return...

Great Canadian Heritage Treasure
Fort Garry, 1869 (detail) - Lionel Macdonald Stephenson
Orig. oil on board - Size - 11" x 18.5"
Found - Toronto, ON
Signed LMS Ft Garry 1869
Brrrrrh! Lionel must have gotten tired of doing the summer scenes of Fort Garry because, from time to time his dog team views of the side of the Fort in winter show up.

These pictures give a good idea of why more people leave Manitoba - like neighbouring Saskatchewan - on average, than emigrate to it. It is cold, desolate, and windy, for way too many months of the year. Oh, and flat, flat, flat, so no downhill skiing, to make you feel that at least when you're moving, you're at least going somewhere interesting...

All you can do is sit and drink, and wait for summer...

If you don't believe me, look at Brrrrh #2 below...

Five more people have just left Manitoba...

It was the end of a typical Great Canadian Adventure - whoever he was, he never had to fire a single shot at anyone.

And brought back a Great Canadian Souvenir to boot...

Interestingly enough, the pictures are all painted on thick, hard, artist's board, quite amazing to think of, when you consider that it was expensive to bring in goods to this remote frontier outpost in the days before the railway or steamers could reach here... And artist board for a teenager must have been a luxury item indeed, at a bare necessities fur trading post.

Great Canadian Insight

Lionel could rightfully be called a forerunner of the Group of Seven in that he - like they - planted a stool in front of some immovable object - for him a fort; for them a hill, a barn, a tree - and painted the same static subject over, and over, again...

But, unlike them, Lionel liked people and animals, and put them into just about all of his paintings.

After all they were, both, an integral part of the real Canadian wilderness in which he lived, not the emasculated empty landscapes dreamed up by those city boys on their holiday and long weekend junkets into the outdoors.

Lionel would never have understood the castrated Canada - paintings without living beings - so favoured and painted by those tourist painters from Toronto.

Their paintings did not so much portray the outdoor countryside they saw, but betrayed more their inner need to avoid people, to escape physically and mentally from the urban masses among whom they lived and toiled most of the year.

Their art was two thirds therapy, and only one third representational.

Great Canadian Heritage Treasure
Old Fort Garry North Gate - 2005
Orig. stone gate
Found - Winnipeg, MB

The Fort Garry Gate: The north gate of Old Fort Garry is all that remains of the vast stone walled complex that was Fort Garry when Lionel painted it for the Canadian soldiers that swarmed all over the place there in 1870.

They would have come here especially to pause for a moment because outside this gate the rebellious Ontario resident Thomas Scott was shot for treason. He had done everything in his power to undermine the Métis Government and foment resistance to its power. Pushed to extremes by his continuous belligerence, a Métis military tribunal found him guilty of treason and sentenced him to death. The event outraged Ontarians and the Canadian Government and troops were sent. (Below, the ivy-covered gate in earlier days with the Fort Garry Hotel behind.)

Great Canadian Heritage Treasure
Buffalo Bill Group at Fort Garry Gate, c 1905
Orig. pc - Size - 3.5" x 5"
Found - Houston, TX

The gate attracted celebrity visitors, including Buffalo Bill in 1905, when his Wild West Show was in town. Who brought him here? Why none other than Gabriel Dumont, a famous Métis activist of the time, who fled Canada in 1885, when new conflicts arose between the Métis - this time in Saskatchewan - and joined up with Buffalo Bill and his show.

Below the bridge to the old gate site on the left, north bank of the Assiniboine River.









The aerial view shows the location of Old Fort Garry, marked by the blue dot, and the yellow spot where Lionel was sitting to paint the views above. The north gate is further inland, below the tall Fort Garry Hotel.

The stone construction techniques used in frontier forts are evident on the Fort Garry Gate, brought west by Scottish employees of the Hudson's Bay Company with their long traditions of stone construction in Scotland. The construction style was a mix of dressed and rubble stones set with narrow strings of mortar.

Quebecois stone construction of the period, was not so regular looking, and used a lot more mortar, leaving only patches of stones exposed in a random pattern.

Of special note are the quoins, the large dressed stones buttressing the corners to solidify the structure. Large lintel stones - often of granite - were used to provide a supporting top on window openings, rifle loopholes, and gun ports, underneath. Keystones beveled slightly towards one end were used to create the arch; the heavier the load the more tightly they pressed together, the more strong the arch became.


This rare photo shows these walls and towers which were dismantled in 1881-82.

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