Revealed: a lost Ontario art treasure
Hidden from view for more than a century, a lost Ontario art treasure is finally being revealed.
Back in 1912, a massive four-panel mural of stylized maple leaves painted on the ceiling of the legislative chamber at Queen’s Park by Gustav Hahn in 1893 was covered by layers of horse hair, canvas and white paint.
At that time, large acoustic baffles were glued and nailed into the Art Nouveau paintings to muffle the din, after MPPs complained they could barely hear one another on the floor of the assembly.
The 7.5 cm-thick padding has absorbed the sound of every debate in the House since the year the Titanic sank.
But gravity was starting to take its toll on the sagging, primitive insulation, and fears were growing that a six-sided, 12-square-metre panel might eventually collapse on MPPs, pages and legislative staff.
This summer, during the installation of new railings for the public galleries, officials peered behind one of the drooping panels to examine the state of the ceiling.
They could not believe their eyes — or their good fortune.
“It was a happy accident,” recalls a smiling Debbie Deller, clerk of the legislative assembly, as she points up at the vivid autumn orange and green maple leaves, which look as fresh as if Hahn painted them last week.
“We knew they were there, but we really didn’t know what kind of condition they would be in,” says Deller.
Because scaffolding had already been erected in the Legislature to bring the safety railings up to code, restoration of the ceiling — and cleaning of a large, circular wrought-iron air grate, which turned from sooty black to a shimmering bronze — was a relatively modest $80,000.
Jelena Bajcetic, director of the precinct properties’ branch, notes that the horse hair and canvas padding actually helped preserve Hahn’s mural — notwithstanding the damage caused by hefty nails and fish glue.
Bajcetic says that with the help of a heritage architect and an art conservationist, the acoustic panels were safely removed and nail holes in the oak tongue-and-groove boards, similar to hardwood flooring, were repaired.
The hard work has paid off: Hahn’s 104 life-like 23-point maple leaves and ornate borders lend the legislative chamber a startlingly fresh look.
The four hexagons — two green and two orange — are textbook examples of the Art Nouveau style, which was hugely popular in the late Victorian and Edwardian era, with intricate linear detailing and flowing curves.
As for the acoustics, Deller admits she has her fingers crossed for the return of MPPs from their summer break on Sept. 12.
“Sound technology has improved a lot since 1912,” she says, noting that there have been consultations with a sound engineer and in-house experts at the legislature’s broadcasting and recording department.
“I’m hoping we won’t notice a sound difference,” says the clerk, who sits at a table directly in front of Speaker Dave Levac on the floor of the assembly when the legislature is in session.
Even if there a slight audible difference, esthetic and historic considerations should offset it.
The German-born Hahn, who died in 1962 at the age of 96, was an important early Toronto muralist whose work adorns many churches and public buildings, including Old City Hall and Spadina House.
He was an influential teacher at the Ontario College of Art, the Royal Ontario Museum, and Central Technical School, and daughter Sylvia Hahn’s murals can still be seen at the ROM.
Slowly but surely, his artwork at Queen’s Park is being resurrected.
A 1994 restoration effort retrieved sections of painted friezes in the chamber that depict figures representing justice, wisdom, power and art.
They had been covered with white paint when the acoustic panels were slapped on the ceiling two years before the start of the First World War.
During another renovation in 1999 — when the gaudy disco-era red carpets and blue leather chairs were replaced with traditional parliamentary green broadloom and upholstery — the cornices were cleaned off.
But the four-part centerpiece around the air grate would remain under wraps (and paint-and-canvas-encrusted horse hair) for another 17 years.
Exposing the rest of Hahn’s work in the most important room in Toronto would require much more painstaking scalpel work, carefully scraping off paint.
Deller says such a massive endeavour would entail a move to a temporary legislature for MPPs, because it would take months or years to do.
“There’s only a small window of opportunity,” she says, adding she was pleased they were able to restore the ceiling mural and finish the new railings before the legislative session resumes next month.
“Looking after the Legislature really is an ongoing thing.”