Original art, unseen in over a century, uncovered in Ontario legislature

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TORONTO — When the Ontario legislature is back in session later this month, politicians and members of the public will be able to view a section of a painting original to the building that hasn’t been seen in over a century.

Gustav Hahn, who pioneered the art nouveau style in Canada, painted ornate murals on the ceiling and walls of the legislative chamber in 1893. But in 1912, the space was redecorated and all of that art was covered up.

White acoustic panels were installed on the ceiling, burying the art under layers of horse hair, chicken wire and canvas.

In 2016, four panels were removed in the centre of the chamber and restoration work was done to reveal various maple leaf designs. It was an exciting find, but there had been photographs of the ceiling before the panels were installed, so staff had known what art lay beneath.

That wasn’t the case with the newest discovery.

When the legislature opened at the Queen’s Park location in 1893, curtains hung partway down from the ceiling above the public galleries, so while photographs from that era show most of the chamber’s artwork, none showed the ceilings above the public galleries, legislative staff say.

“We never had any photographs,” said Jelena Bajcetic, the director of the legislature’s precinct properties. “We didn’t know if there was anything up there.”

The curtains remained until the 1920s, and since the acoustic panels were installed in 1912, by the time the curtains came down any public gallery ceiling paintings were already hidden from view.

Recently, legislative staff noticed a tear in the canvas above one of the public galleries, and after it continued to deteriorate over a couple of months, crews removed one panel.

Underneath was what appears to be one corner of a painted design of stylized leaves in yellow, brown and greenish tones.

Officials assume it extends from the north to the south end of the chamber and is the same on both sides, but don’t know for sure.

They hope that one day they — and the public — can see all of the original art work.

“We didn’t have any documentation that described what was up there or photographs to look at what was up there, so until we actually got in to do that repair we weren’t sure what we were getting there,” said Clerk Todd Decker. “But to discover that, there’s artistic merit now in going back and restoring that.”

Restoring the chamber art to its original state would be a large undertaking, said Bajcetic, as all of the different areas require different techniques, access and amounts of time for restoration, and they want to make sure acoustics and lighting aren’t negatively affected.

It may have to be done bit by bit, as a lot of restoration work was required just for the one panel. The horse hair was nailed directly into the plaster ceiling, puncturing the art in several dozen places just in the one section.

“We’ve done quite a few investigations both in the last few years and in the ’90s about restoring all of the art work in the chamber, so the intent one day, it would be nice to uncover and do a full restoration of all of the chamber artwork,” Bajcetic said.

“We’re just over the years, I think, collecting the information and putting a plan together for how that could happen.”

Allison Jones, The Canadian Press