Presenting the Presenters – “Montreal’s Beaver Hall Group of Artists” by Sheila McCook and Stefan Hertmans’s “The Convert” by Fran Bleviss (Fall 2023 Forum #3 Summary)

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Sheila McCook and Fran Bevis

“Presenting the Presenters” featured two very polished presentations, both involving topics of historical significance, one literary and one visual.

The Convert

Fran Bleviss delivered an interesting description of a historical romance novel, “The Convert,” written by Stefan Hertmans in 2016. The presentation had three main areas of focus: the history of a real scrap of a manuscript from the 11th century, which inspired the author to write the book, a fictional description of the three voyages that the main character followed, and an account of an imagined love story that formed the core of the novel.

The scrap of manuscript was one of over 300,000 documents found in an archeological investigation of the ruins of a synagogue in Cairo. Once pieced together, the documents in vellum, linen and parchment, provided an unparalleled view of life in medieval Europe. They included topics as diverse as childish scribbles, poetry and a shopping list. Most importantly to the author, one fragment was a document from a rabbi in Monieux, France offering safe passage to a Norman noblewoman.

In the novel, the author sees the heroine undertaking three major voyages: one fleeing with her Jewish lover from her Rouen home in northern France to Narbonne in the south; a second from Narbonne to Monieux, a safer refuge also in the south; and, a third from Monieux to Cairo. The core of the novel was the romance between the noblewoman and her rabbinical student lover. Fran’s enthusiastic endorsement of the novel was echoed by a number of the audience members who had read or were intending to read the book.

Beaver Hall Group of Artists

Sheila McCook delivered a highly visual presentation about the Beaver Hall Group of Artists who banded together in the 1920s to offer a Post-Impressionist vision of Canadian art. Her presentation included a variety of images of the paintings of the Beaver Hall group, which were compared and contrasted to contemporary work by other artists.

In the early part of the 20th century, Canadian art tended to be derivative of realistic European landscapes. One example shown could have been as easily an English countryside as Canadian. In the 1920s, artists like the Group of Seven and Beaver Hall, who diverged from this style, faced bitter attacks from art critics and even from such notables as Mackenzie King.

The membership of Beaver Hall was diverse, initially including roughly equal numbers of women and men, most notably A.Y. Jackson who was the organization’s first president and for decades its strongest supporter. Sheila suggested that there was uncertainty about how many artists were members (anywhere from 19 to 30), and the number of group exhibitions they had (probably two). The best known members were A.Y. Jackson, Prudence Heward, Anne Savage, Sarah Robertson and Edwin Holgate, but many notable women joined the group over the following decades, making it unique in encouraging and celebrating female artists. Sheila presented some engaging work by Ethel Seath, Adrien Hebert and Emily Coonan, among others. Unlike much of the work of the Group of Seven, these Beaver Hall paintings were often portraits and urban scenes.

Sheila finished with a very amusing anecdote (with visuals) about Canadian artistic contributions to a 1925 exposition in London. Conventional landscapes were ignored, and the Group of Seven and Beaver Hall received favourable reviews, but the “star” of the Canadian show was an exhibit from the Canadian Dairy Industry: an apparently life-size sculpture in butter of the Prince of Wales as an Indian chief.

In thanking the presenters, the point was made that outstanding presentations have three elements: the presenter has deep knowledge of the topic; the presenter loves the topic; and the presenter makes the audience love the topic. Audience response would suggest Sheila and Fran succeeded in all three.

by Don Plumb