Famous P.E.I. painting gets facelift, thanks to another Islander

Robert Harris's painting A Meeting of the School Trustees depicts a famous P.E.I. scene, and now another Islander has taken on its restoration.

Conservator Tasia Bulger getting to work on A Meeting of the School Trustees

Tasia Bulger is helping restore Robert Harris's A Meeting of the School Trustees. (Peter Simpson)

One of the country's most beloved historical paintings is getting a facelift, and the job is about as all-P.E.I. as it can be.

The painting is a famous scene, A Meeting of the School Trustees, an image from a one-room schoolhouse in Long Creek, P.E.I.

The painter was Robert Harris, who lived in P.E.I for several years after his parents emigrated from Wales. 

And for the trifecta: the woman tasked with restoring the painting at the National Art Gallery of Canada in Ottawa, well, she's an Islander too.

Assistant conservator Tasia Bulger has taken on the delicate job of sprucing up the 132-year old piece.

Fun job

All those P.E.I. connections were pretty exciting for Bulger, she told Island Morning.

Restoration work to A Meeting of the School Trustees revealed the slate at the bottom left had a message about the trustee meeting. The painting, by Robert Harris, was purchased by the National Gallery of Canada in 1886. (National Gallery of Canada)

"I got maybe too into it," she laughed. "It was really fun to do the research part because I was so familiar with the painting itself, the artist, I had actually worked on a painting by him in 2014 already, so I was very familiar with his technique.

"I got to look into our curatorial file and see more information about the painting. I initially knew about the painting from the early '90s Heritage Minute commercial, which everyone I'm sure remembers and loves."

The initial stage of the restoration work involved fixing some 100-year old problems with new techniques.

"The structural component, like the canvas, is in good shape, but it had about five tears in the 1920s that had been restored," said Bulger. "Those were still stable, but unfortunately the paint that was compensating for the lost paint in the areas of the tears had discoloured, and the varnish layer that the restorer put on at that time had also discoloured. So what we are doing now is reversing those older restorations ... and replacing them with more stable synthetic materials."

The end result will be a clearer, cleaner painting where it's easier to see the figures and background.

Finding a surprise

The cleaning work has uncovered a little surprise for Bulger.

"In the lower left corner there's actually a slate, or a tiny student's chalkboard on the desk, and it just looked like it was blank when we were initially examining it," she said. "But when we removed the varnish layer ... we realized it said 'o-o-l', or probably 'school' and then 'trustee's meeting day next.' And that was really cool for us because we didn't know that was there originally, and it was fun to find something that hadn't been seen, or it hadn't been seen in at least a century."

There's more to her job than fixing flaws. She also got to do some detective work on the painting's history.

Another Robert Harris painting, this is one of 15 murals that can be seen in All Souls' Chapel in Charlottetown. (CBC)

"The teacher is supposed to be a woman named Kate Henderson which is where I became really interested in it, because it turned out she was a teacher before the painting was made, but never in Long Creek," she said.

"Because it turned out that Long Creek never actually had a woman teacher at that time. So it was fun to do some investigation and look through the P.E.I. census and annual public school and education reports from the 1880s to see where this Katherine Henderson ended up and how she ended up in the painting."

Bulger got her master's degree at Queen's University, the only place in the country where you can study paintings conservation, and has been working in the field for six years.

From the Island Morning interview