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He was a pioneer in Canadian art history

April 28, 2017

Barbara A. Martindale- For What It's Worth (2000)

  Last week reference was made to J. Russell Harper, author of Haldimand County’s Early History published by the Sachem in 1950, Haldimand’s Centennial year.

 

  Russell Harper is one of those area people of whom we are proud. His Canadian accomplishments were numerous; he was recognized all over Canada as a scholar of Canadian art and its history plus much more.

 

The late Gordon Saunders kept articles written about Mr. Harper when he died

November 16, 1983. These are a source for this week’s column.

 

  Russell Harper was made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada in 1974 and an officer of the Order of Canada in 1975. He also had an honorary degree from the University of Guelph in 1972.

 

   After his archival and curatorial work at the University of Toronto where he graduated in 1947 with a degree in art and archeology, the Royal Ontario Museum and the Lord Beaverbrook Art Collection in New Brunswick, he was appointed curator of Canadian art at the National Gallery of Canada in 1959. From 1967 until 1979, he was a professor at Concordia University in Montreal.

 

  He was a pioneer in the field of Canadian art history, and author of a number of studies on artists including Paul Kane’s Frontier 1971 and Cornelius Kreighoff 1979. He had to make up his field as he went along, there were no reliable texts or reference books, he wrote them.

 

  His most influential book was “Painting in Canada: A History”, published in 1966 in both French and English. This was a comprehensive account laying the groundwork for the academic discipline of Canadian art history. It led to the foundation of the first full university courses on the subject.

 

  Up to then, painting in Canada was hardly worth noticing, he once told Robert Fulford. Fulford wrote his column on Harper in the Saturday Toronto Star Nov. 26, 1983 following his death.

 

  “By the time Harper died last week, there were Canadian art courses across the country and an army of scholars and curators devoted to examining our artistic history,” said Fulford.

 

  In 1973, he wrote a book on folk art called “A People’s Art” which opened up another field of study preparing the way for a boom in folk art collecting and exhibition.

 

  Harper never tied himself permanently to an institution, never spending more than three or four years in one place. In his lifetime, he had worked also as archeologist on Indian sites and he was involved in preparing for the restoration of Louisbourg in Nova Scotia.

 

  Although he uncovered valuable art of Canada’s past, he never promised to uncover artistic greatness. He was claimed to be a greater artist and pioneer than many of his subjects.

 

  His Caledonia high school teacher Mrs. Hicks said Russell Harper was a brilliant student and a world authority on Krieghoff, said the Sachem in their obituary report. Caledonia’s Canadiana Instructor Mr. Jarvis occasionally got advice from Mr. Harper and brought back notes from him to Canadiana members. Harper also was called back to speak to a gathering in Oneida Township.

 

  When he died in 1983, he was survived by his wife Elizabeth Goodchild, whom he met in England while in the RCAF during WWII. They had a daughter Jennifer who was a professional photographer in Montreal.

 

  His sister Mabel Ward lives in Ancaster. She is a annual visitor to Ruthven Park, often bringing new visitors from Ancaster along with her.

 

  J. Russell Harper’s ashes were buried at the Oneida United Church’s Gore Cemetery.

 

  For what it’s worth, J. Russell Harper is one of those people this area can claim as a prominent Canadian, one who made his mark in the world of art and archeology, His University of Toronto degree in the subject led him to renowned contributions.

 

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