Queen of the arena has storied history
Second time was a charm for local artist
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 28/12/2014 (2962 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
No matter the event, no matter the team’s record, there was one constant at the Winnipeg Arena: that Queen Elizabeth II was keeping watch. Unveiled 35 years ago this month, the portrait most of us remember was actually the second giant portrait of the Queen to adorn the old barn, both painted by the same artist.
Gilbert Burch was one of triplets born on Feb. 25, 1927, to William and Margaret Burch of St. James. Growing up, Gilbert found he had a talent and passion for painting and sought work as a commercial artist.
In 1949, he began a lifelong career with the company Claude Neon/Ruddy Kester as a billboard painter. The firm was the local branch of the French multinational and created everything from posters and billboards to box signs and neon displays.
In 1955, Winnipeg Enterprises was putting the finishing touches on the interior of the Winnipeg Arena. As is practice, public buildings in Canada were — and are — expected to display a portrait of our head of state. For reasons that are unknown, the city-owned entity decided its Queen should be in the five-by-seven-metre range and hang on the south wall of the hall’s interior. Enterprises gave the contract to Claude Neon/Ruddy Kester and they, in turn, tapped their 28-year-old billboard painter for what would be the most prominent — and controversial — work of his career.
Today, Queen Elizabeth is one of the most recognized faces on the planet, but at the time she had been monarch for barely two years. In a Winnipeg Free Press story on Dec. 1, 1979, a colleague of Burch’s recalled they had difficulty finding a large portrait on such short notice, so Burch worked from an image about the size of a postage stamp.
Little mention was made in local media about the portrait when the arena opened. After all, everyone was too busy studying the $2-million state-of-the-art facility. A Canadian Press article, though, noted it helped “add some colour to the place.”
As people got used to the facility and more familiar with the Queen’s real-life image, the portrait was scorned for not being a very good likeness. In 1979, Lt.-Gov. Francis Laurence “Bud” Jobin quipped to a Tribune reporter the Queen herself might not recognize the image.
The criticism stung the artist. Speaking to Gordon Sinclair Jr. in 2011, Burch’s daughter, Carol, recalled the: “…emotional load on him was great with the negative media attention brought on him by the first portrait,” and that he sometimes wept about it. “My dad was a brilliant artist,” she added.
The Queen’s silver jubilee was in 1977, and Jobin took it upon himself to replace the portrait. Likeness issues aside, Elizabeth II was no longer a youthful rookie; she was now a rugged veteran with 25 years in the big leagues. He felt her portrait should age as well.
‘(The) emotional load on him was great
with the negative media attention
brought on him by the first portrait’
Jobin was unable to find the funding or an artist to satisfy him. The 1979 renovations to the Winnipeg Arena, which included the removal of the old portrait to allow for an expansion of the building, forced the issue. He put $400 into a fund and challenged Winnipeg Jets owner Michael Gobuty, former lieutenant-governor Jack McKeag and Winnipeg Enterprises to match it. They did.
He then approached the Winnipeg office of national advertising company Mediacom, which offered to take $800 off the production costs as their contribution.
Mediacom had recently bought out a local company called Universal Signs, which was once known as Claude Neon/Ruddy Kester. For such a large-scale project, they turned to their most experienced billboard artist, a man named Gilbert Burch!
This time working from a large, official portrait, Burch spent more than 200 hours on the new work. It was painted oil-on-wood over a dozen oak panels each measuring 1.2-by-2.4 metres, then coated in varnish. Jobin was pleased with the portrait, telling the Tribune: “In my opinion, it is excellent and a very good likeness.” The second time was the charm for the artist who died in 2006.
The Queen’s new portrait was unveiled at a short ceremony before the Dec. 7, 1979, game between the Winnipeg Jets and the Edmonton Oilers. The Free Press reported that: “A new picture of the Queen was unveiled by Lt.-Gov. Jobin before the game. It was enthusiastically received, though not everyone in the crowd was a monarchist.”
While fans debated the likeness of the new portrait, some Jets players found a way to put her to practical use. In the book Oldtimers: On the Road with the Legendary Heroes of Hockey, Bobby Hull recalls: “We (Jets players) used to fire shots from centre ice and try to hit the picture.” It was a habit he passed onto his son Brett, who recalls in his biography that as a child: “I liked to line up pucks at centre ice and try to hit that god-awful, ugly portrait of the Queen hanging on the arena wall.”
The portrait was unceremoniously removed in 1999 to make way for Pan Am Games banners, then dismantled into its dozen pieces and put into storage with the intention of scrapping it. The late Syd Davey, a founder of the Intrepid Society and head of the Canadian Commonwealth Society, convinced Winnipeg Enterprises to give it to him so he could find it a new home.
It would be a challenge for Davey to try to peddle what was widely acknowledged to be the largest portrait of the Queen ever produced. (In 2012, that record was broken when, inspired by the Winnipeg portrait’s size, a group called the Vernon Mill Artists created a nine-by-five-metre, pop-art style portrait and hung it from the tower of Vernon Mill in Manchester, England, to celebrate the Queen’s birthday.)
Its first stop was with the Souris Historical Society for display at the town’s Murray Arena. In the first case of what has dogged the portrait for the last 15 years, its sheer size and weight proved problematic. The portrait went into storage there for a couple of years.
When it made its way back to Winnipeg, it was discovered the portrait had been stored with the painted sides facing each other. Prying them apart tore off some paint from around the mouth. Famed Winnipeg artist Leo Mol stepped in to do the necessary restoration work.
The portrait was then shipped to the Camp X Historical Society in Whitby, Ont., for display in a proposed Camp X Museum. That facility never materialized and the portrait has remained in a storage warehouse there ever since.
In 2010, Oshawa city council tried to find a home for it. There was only one public location large enough to house it, but it was determined its walls would not bear the weight.
In 2011, with the Camp X group out of the picture for good, the portrait’s future was in doubt until British Columbia singer/songwriter Tim Lawson purchased it in an effort to buy it some time until a permanent owner could be found.
Anya Williams, the portrait’s custodian for the past decade, notes that aside from a new coat of paint needed for the frame, the portrait is in very good condition. She says there have been a couple of expressions of interest in the past from Winnipeggers, but they have fallen through after they realized its exact size and weight.
The easiest way to off-load the portrait would be to put it up for sale on a website such as eBay, but she wants to hold out as long as she can for a local buyer: “Winnipeg is where this portrait belongs and I would love to see it back in Winnipeg.”
Williams is planning a campaign in 2015 to raise local awareness about the portrait’s existence with the hope it will be repatriated.
Christian Cassidy writes about Winnipeg history at his blog West End Dumplings.
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Updated on Sunday, December 28, 2014 10:07 AM CST: Fixes cutlines