The Bay's downtown store has lost a lot in the past couple of years. Most of its upper floors are now off limits to shoppers, the Paddlewheel sailed away in 2012, and the basement-level Zellers closed in 2013. This January, the store's largest work of art quietly slipped off the wall.
Pioneer Days at Fort Garry, 1861 is the name of the mural that hung over the main-floor elevator lobby, peering down on shoppers as they waited to be whisked away on their retail journey. The 16.5-metre by three-metre oil-on-canvas work had been a fixture in the store since September 1927, less than a year after it opened.
The work shows a trading day at Upper Fort Garry. On the left is an aboriginal village and on the right is the steamship Pioneer unloading passengers and cargo. The foreground shows the interaction of Métis and aboriginal people with a missionary and HBC employees.
There were actually two murals of the same size unveiled at the time. When the store first opened, it had two banks of elevators, which stood across from each other (if you look at the columns on the main floor opposite the current elevators you can see the outline of where the second bank was). The elevators were an attraction unto themselves, featuring the latest in passenger safety. One feature was an "automatic micro-levelling device," which made up for sloppy attendants by stopping the car precisely at floor level. The cars also featured side escape hatches, so if an elevator got stuck, customers could be transferred to an adjoining one and continue on with their shopping "without delay or much inconvenience."
The mural above the second bank of elevators was called The Building of Fort Charles, 1668. It depicted the construction of the Hudson's Bay Company's first fort and included the Nonsuch (a full-scale replica is in the Manitoba Museum) anchored in James Bay.
The murals were a collaboration between artists Adam Sheriff Scott (1887-1980) and Edward Tappan Adney (1868-1950), both based in Montreal and well-known for their historic scenes.
Sheriff Scott was born in Scotland and trained in Edinburgh and London before coming to Canada in his early 20s.
His most famous image is likely Chief Trader Archibald McDonald descending the Fraser, done in 1928. Part of it was used as the cover of the Peter C. Newman book Caesars of the Wilderness: Company of Adventurers Vol. 2. Another mural, sometimes incorrectly cited as his largest work, is The Battle of Crysler's Farm, which was completed in 1961 and hangs at Upper Canada Village in Morrisburg, Ont.
Adney was born in the United States, and after studying art in New York as a teen, he moved to New Brunswick.
A respected artist, author and photographer, much of Adney's legacy comes from his interaction with Maliseet (Wolastoq) First Nation in New Brunswick. He studied their language and culture and became fascinated with the birch bark canoe. His writings, illustrations and models on the subject are credited with saving the art of birch bark canoe-building for future generations.
Since his death, a number of works have been published based on his journals and illustrations, including The Travel Journals of Tappan Adney (2010) and Bark Canoes and Skin Boats of North America (1964).
The store's second bank of elevators was removed in 1948 when escalator service was extended to the top floor. The Fort Charles mural was removed and loaned to the Manitoba Archives. In October 2001, HBC head office in Toronto requested it be returned to them.
As for Pioneer Days, nearly a century of bad lighting, cigarette smoke, changes in temperature and other perils of public display had taken their toll. For a number of years the canvas has been coming away from the wall in places, the surface was delaminating and the supporting wall hasn't had any renovations in just as long. In January, the mural was carefully removed under the supervision of a conservator to prevent further damage.
What happens now to the mural? A spokesperson for Hudson's Bay Company says it is "studying conservation options."
The best-case scenario would be for the mural to be restored and remain in Manitoba, given its subject matter. With the future of the Bay's downtown store in doubt, however, it is unlikely it would return there. Due to its size, there are few places that could display such a large work.
It is reminiscent of the challenge faced 45 years ago with a series of eight oil-on-canvas murals by Frederick Challener that hung in the Royal Alexandra Hotel.
They were removed in 1970 after the hotel closed, and a 2001 article in the journal Manitoba History said four were restored in the early 1970s. One was on display at the Manitoba Archives building that year and three were in storage. The whereabouts of the other four is a mystery. Perhaps they were discarded.
Let's hope Pioneer Days at Fort Garry will be restored and a new, equally prominent home can be found for it.
Christian Cassidy writes about local history on his blogs West End Dumplings and Winnipeg Downtown Places. He will be hosting a presentation on how to research building histories on June 18 at the Millennium Library.