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It’s all relative

September 21st, 2018

Caption: Edmund Wyly Grier. Portrait of Mabel Cawthra, 1892. Oil on canvas, Overall: 172.5 × 146.5 cm.Gift of Jeremy E.B. Adamson, on behalf of the descendants of Mabel Cawthra (Mrs. Agar S.A.M. Adamson), 2016. © 2018 Art Gallery of Ontario.

Imagine walking through the AGO, admiring works in the newly reopened J. S. McLean Centre for Indigenous & Canadian Art, and seeing a portrait that looks familiar. You move in for a closer look and realize the person in the portrait is … your great-grandmother!

That’s what happened to AGO Audience Researcher Madeleine Adamson. Her great-grandmother was Mabel Cawthra, a Swiss-born Canadian artist and decorator who was active in the arts scene in Toronto. Cawthra is also the subject of a stunning portrait, recently acquired by the AGO, painted by Australian-born Toronto-based artist, Edmund Wyly Grier.

Cawthra sat for the portrait in the early 1890s. In it, she’s seated in a dark ornate chair, wearing a black dress while holding a black accordion fan in one hand and the stem of a white rose in the other. When the portrait was first shown at the Chicago World Fair, it was a hit. Grier considered it one of his best works, frequently borrowing it from Cawthra to show at exhibitions.

The portrait, while beautiful, only just begins to tell the story of this extraordinary woman. Described by her family as a dynamic, creative and socially conscious woman, she was devoted to the arts and the advancement of the women’s movement in Canada.

After marrying Agar Adamson in 1899 at St. George by the Grange (yes, the church in Grange Park behind the AGO), Cawthra became the first president of the Society of Arts and Crafts of Canada. A talented artist, the first exhibition of the Society was held at the art gallery on King Street in 1904 and 15 of Cawthra’s pieces were exhibited.

Madeleine Adamson with Portrait of Mabel Cawthra, 1892 by Edmund Wyly Grier.

She was also an avid art collector and supported the local arts scene. She donated her enamel kiln to OCAD University and established a scholarship for students studying enamel arts. She also founded the Canadian franchise of the Thornton-Smith Company, a British interior design firm which decorated several theatres and churches in Toronto, including the Royal Alexandra Theatre. In 1909, she co-founded the Heliconian Club, an association of women involved in the arts and letters in Toronto.

Like her great-grandmother, Madeleine Adamson has a passion for the arts. She’s worked at the AGO for almost five years. Though she never met her great-grandmother, she’s heard many stories of Cawthra’s life from her father, Christopher, and her uncle, Jeremy. The portrait of Cawthra once hung in Jeremy’s house. A former curator of Canadian Art at the AGO, Jeremy is the one who generously donated the portrait to the AGO. When discussing art with her family, Madeleine was often told, “It runs in the family.” We can see why.

The portrait of Mabel Cawthra is on view on Level 2 in the J. S. McLean Centre for Indigenous & Canadian Art and is included in General Admission.

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