|Description: An oil on canvas painting of a middle aged woman ( Mary Magrath Harris) seated on an ottoman in front of a window at Benares. The woman is wearing a cream-coloured dress and a blue hat.|
Mary Magrath Harris (1859-1954) was the granddaughter of Reverend James Magrath (1769-1851), who was the first rector of St. Peter’s Anglican Church. All of the Harris Family attended St. Peter’s and that is where Mary met Arthur Harris, whom she married in 1881. Mary was the mother of Naomi and Annie Harris. This portrait was painted in 1906 on the occasion of Annie’s wedding to Beverly Sayers and depicts Mary wearing the same dress she wore to the wedding. It was painted in the upstairs guest bedroom and Mary is seated on an ottoman which now sits in the hallway upstairs.
Caroline Farncomb (1859-1951) was a close family friend and a well respected RCA (Royal Canadian Academy) artist. She studied with Mlle. Van den Broeck in London, William Chase in New York, and in Paris at the Academie Julian; and exhibited her work in Canada and Europe, receiving many first prizes in exhibitions in London, Toronto, Montreal, and Ottawa. A number of other Caroline Farncomb paintings can be found at Benares including the portrait of Mary Harris in the drawing room, the painting of Arthur Harris in the sitting room, and the still-life of waterfowl located in Arthur’s bedroom.
Caroline Farncomb was born 12 January 1859 in Newcastle, Ontario, where her family had settled in the early 1850s. In 1867, the Farncomb family moved to London, Ontario, where her father bought Fairview Farm and became a gentleman farmer. Farncomb painted her surroundings including her family, friends, animals, and landscapes. She chaperoned Annie Harris and her friends on a trip to Europe in 1903 and painted many scenes of their travels.
Caroline pursued professional art training in Europe as women maintained a nominal position in the professional field of art in Canada in the nineteenth-century. In France, the Académie Julian, founded in 1868 by Rodolphe Julian, catered to young women interested in becoming professional artists. Initially established to train students for entry to the Ecole des Beaux Arts, the Académie Julian became the central location where women of financial means could develop their artistic skills alongside men (who paid lower tuition fees than the female students did). The school provided a liberal environment and allowed women to take the full arts curriculum, including working from live models.
Farncomb was elected to the Ontario Society of Artists ca. 1910 and maintained close friendships with local artists such as Mary Healey (1885-1923), a trained painter in oil and watercolour who trained at the prestigious Slade School of Art, London, England. Caroline never married and remained in London, Ontario, until her death on 13 November 1951.
For information on Caroline Farncomb and the Academie Julian, see: Gabriel P Weisberg and Jane R. Becker, 'Overcoming all Obstacles: The Women of the Académie Julian' (New Jersey: Rutgers University, 1999); Nancy Geddes Poole 'The Art of London, 1830-1980' (London, Ontario: Blackpool Press, 1984); Rebecca Sisler, Passionate Spirits (Toronto: Clarke, Irwin and Company Limited, 1980), 36