Mysterious Queen's portrait removed from Calgary council chamber to uncover its backstory

·3 min read
Mysterious Queen's portrait removed from Calgary council chamber to uncover its backstory
The portrait of the Queen is seen hanging above Mayor Don MacKay's chair in the early 1950s.
The portrait of the Queen is seen hanging above Mayor Don MacKay's chair in the early 1950s.

(City of Calgary Archives - image credit)

A portrait of a young Queen Elizabeth was carefully removed from Calgary's city council chamber this week.

The temporary removal is part of an effort by the city to learn more about the painting's backstory.

It portrays the Queen wearing jewels with a white fur draped over her arms as she holds a pair of gloves.

It was signed in the bottom corner by the artist, Pamela Edwards, in 1952.

  • WATCH | City hall is trying to solve a mystery of a young queen, framed and hung in council chambers for decades. See the video above for more

Other government buildings in Canada usually feature more recent pictures or portraits of Her Majesty.

But for unknown reasons, Calgary has stuck with a portrait that's been displayed in its council chambers since the 1950s.

Moved to new building in 1985

It was displayed in Calgary's old city hall until 1985 when a new municipal building opened. Like city council, the painting moved next door to its new home.

An art conservator with the City of Calgary, Sophia Zweifel, was on hand for removal of the painting on Monday.

She said the oil-on-canvas painting appears to be in good condition and the frame is sound.

The portrait of the Queen is seen hanging above Mayor Don MacKay's chair in the early 1950s.
The portrait of the Queen is seen hanging above Mayor Don MacKay's chair in the early 1950s.

Besides giving the painting a good cleaning and getting it appraised, they're hoping to find out more information about the portrait.

"We have a photo that shows it has been in the possession of the City of Calgary since 1953 or 1954," said Zweifel.

"We don't have any documentation of its provenance so we don't have any proof of ownership, which with collections is a very important thing. So we're doing a lot of research to try to dig back and find that documentation."

There was no information on the back of the painting nor on its frame.

Unknown past

Right now, the city doesn't have any details of how it acquired the painting, whether it commissioned the work, paid for it or if the portrait was given to the city sometime after the Queen's coronation in 1953.

The artist passed away in 2014 at the age of 97.

She painted several other portraits of the Queen. One was located nearly a decade ago in Montreal.

Conservator Sophia Zweifel says after a few weeks of work and an appraisal the painting will be returned to the council chamber walls — hopefully with more details uncovered about its provenance.
Conservator Sophia Zweifel says after a few weeks of work and an appraisal the painting will be returned to the council chamber walls — hopefully with more details uncovered about its provenance.

Zweifel said the city has contacted members of Edwards' family in hopes of learning additional information about the painting.

She said they were surprised to hear about the portrait in Calgary.

'None of us knew'

Edwards' granddaughter, Skye Barbic, tells CBC News her grandmother had a successful career as a painter.

A professor at the University of British Columbia, Barbic said she and other family members were pleased to hear about the artwork and that it has a place of honour in Calgary.

"This was a surprise to all of us," said Barbic. "None of us knew about this."

She said they're aware of at least four portraits of the Queen painted by Edwards — although one was apparently stolen from a hotel in Montreal in the 1980s.

"The original paintings were painted for government or for parliamentary purposes, to be positioned in city councils across the country. This one certainly has had quite the home for 69 years."

The oil-on-canvas painting was lowered for cleaning.
The oil-on-canvas painting was lowered for cleaning.

Barbic said she hopes to be able to travel to Calgary at some point to view the painting.

After some needed attention, the city plans to return the portrait to its long-held place on the wall of the council chamber.

It's estimated that will happen in about two weeks.

In the meantime, the search for clues about the painting's past continues.

The portrait was painted by Montreal artist Pamela Edwards in 1952, the year Princess Elizabeth became Queen.
The portrait was painted by Montreal artist Pamela Edwards in 1952, the year Princess Elizabeth became Queen.