Historian trying to unravel Manitoba mystery of Group of Seven member's missing WW I honour rolls

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This roll of honour located at Winnipeg's École LaVérendrye is one of a few by famous Winnipeg artist L.L. Fitzgerald that has been tracked down. The whereabouts of many others are still unknown. (Submitted by Gordon Goldsborough - image credit)
This roll of honour located at Winnipeg's École LaVérendrye is one of a few by famous Winnipeg artist L.L. Fitzgerald that has been tracked down. The whereabouts of many others are still unknown. (Submitted by Gordon Goldsborough - image credit)

There's one in the principal's office at a Winnipeg school. Another hangs on the wall of a recreation centre in a tiny southern Manitoba community.

Rolls of honour — pieces commissioned after the First World War as a way to list and honour those who served and those who died — are common sights in many churches and legions.

But there's something special about these ones.

They were created by Winnipeg artist L.L. Fitzgerald, who went on to become a member of the famous Group of Seven and was known for his depictions of the Prairie province he called home.

But for Michael Parke-Taylor, who first took an interest in the scrolls about five years ago, there's one problem.

Research into Fitzgerald's account books suggests there are dozens of the pieces in Manitoba, but the Toronto art historian has only been able to track down a few.

So where are the rest?

"Who knows? They could just be sitting in a town hall or in a law office or a school," said Parke-Taylor, who was the Art Gallery of Ontario's curator of modern art for more than two decades before retiring.

Submitted by Michael Parke-Taylor
Submitted by Michael Parke-Taylor

"That's the extraordinary thing. They may not be in plain sight. They may be hidden away in, you know, the old art-in-the-attic kind of thing."

Some of the pieces were signed by the artist, but others weren't, he said.

Some have been tracked down in institutions across Manitoba. One is at the Winnipeg Art Gallery, while another is in the University of Manitoba's faculty of pharmacy. Two more are at the University of Winnipeg, Parke-Taylor said.

But the whereabouts of many more are still unknown.

Melanie Froese/Submitted by Gordon Goldsborough
Melanie Froese/Submitted by Gordon Goldsborough

'Part of history'

Another one of the pieces sits in Ruth Schappert's office at Winnipeg's École LaVérendrye.

The principal at the Fort Rouge-area school said she first took note of the framed list of names below an ornate watercolour painting when she started on the job in 2016.

But it wasn't until a student took an interest in a patterned border near the top of the piece that Schappert said she looked close enough to see the signature: L.L. Fitzgerald, 1916.

Her father was a fan of the Group of Seven, so she immediately knew what the name signified. But it wasn't until Parke-Taylor visited about three years later and confirmed the piece's authenticity that it really sank in.

Winnipeg Art Gallery/University of Winnipeg Archives
Winnipeg Art Gallery/University of Winnipeg Archives

"I felt very much a part of history," Schappert said.

"And having my dad's appreciation for [the] Group of Seven and having grown up with that, it was quite amazing for me."

Among the names on the list is Capt. W.H. Clipperton, who was one of École LaVérendrye's first principals before serving in the 203rd Battalion during the First World War.

"It's definitely amazing to have a history of a veteran who had fought for Canada and for our freedoms," Schappert said.

Submitted by Ruth Schappert
Submitted by Ruth Schappert

It was a moving discovery for Parke-Taylor, too.

"That particular scroll is one of the most beautiful I've ever seen," he said.

Hiding in plain sight

Another Fitzgerald piece hangs in plain view in a community of about 350 people just west of Winnipeg.

That discovery came thanks to the help of historian Gordon Goldsborough, who first noticed it hanging in the Starbuck Community Hall while giving a presentation there.

He didn't think much of it until Parke-Taylor contacted him, asking if he'd ever seen one of Fitzgerald's rolls of honour. Goldborough remembered the piece which he had been, for some reason, compelled to photograph.

"There wasn't something I could put my finger on," said the president of the Manitoba Historical Society, but rather "something that [was] just unspoken that I couldn't quite articulate."

Submitted by Gordon Goldsborough
Submitted by Gordon Goldsborough

Community hall board member Janis McMorran said she's among those who weren't aware the piece was created by a famed artist.

But whether they know or not, people still look up at the list, scanning for names they recognize.

"So much time has passed, but you'll see names of families that still live in the Starbuck area," she said.

"It's a time not to be forgotten — people not to be forgotten."

The search continues

For Parke-Taylor, there's one Fitzgerald piece in particular he's on the hunt for next: a roll of honour commissioned for the small southern Manitoba community of Pilot Mound.

Its unveiling was covered in local newspapers at the time, but he hasn't had any luck in tracking it down.

He hopes if found, the lost pieces may help teach people more about Fitzgerald's earlier years.

Manitoba Free Press Archives
Manitoba Free Press Archives

"These are still youthful works, but they show a tremendous accomplishment for a young artist who hadn't even gone to art school at that point," he said.

"It's really kind of a big deal. So you sort of wonder, like, 'How could something so important back then have gotten lost today?'

"But hey, that's the story of the history of art."

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