Treasures Revealed Episode 3 – Keeping the Faith

Greenish stylized treasure chest with Library and Archives Canada maple leaves at the bottom and rays rising from the chest at the top. Numbered #03. 

For our next Treasures Revealed episode, we speak with LAC Government Records Archivist, and past Discover Library and Archives Canada host, Geneviève Morin. She will tell us about the marriage of art and science in early 20th century Canadian botany.

Duration: 14:13

File size: 14 MB Download MP3

Publish Date: September 23, 2021

  • Transcript of Treasures Revealed episode 3

    Théo Martin (TM): Welcome to “Discover Library and Archives Canada: Your History, Your Documentary Heritage.” I’m your host, Théo Martin. Join us as we showcase treasures from our vaults; guide you through our many services; and introduce you to the people who acquire, safeguard and make known Canada’s documentary heritage.

    Welcome to Treasures Revealed!

    In this new podcast series, we’ll be showcasing certain items in the Library and Archives Canada collection. Each episode, we’ll speak to a LAC employee and highlight an item that they consider a real “treasure” in our collection.

    They may be rare items, perhaps unusual or valuable, or items with historical significance. Perhaps they will have a compelling or interesting story to go along with them. More importantly, all of them will show case our vast and rich collection that is the shared documentary heritage of all Canadians.

    Now, on to Episode 3, “Keeping the Faith.” Our guest for this episode is LAC archivist, and past Discover Library and Archives Canada podcast host, Geneviève Morin.

    Geneviève Morin (GM): Hi, my name is Geneviève Morin. I’m an archivist here at Library and Archives Canada. I’ve been here for 16 years. Currently, I work in the Government Records Branch, and my specialty are the art collections that are produced by the Government of Canada.

    TM: As always during this Treasures Revealed series, our first question to our guest is, “What’s the item that we’ll be talking about today?”

    GM: Today, I’m going to talk to you about the watercolour botanical studies that were done by an Assistant Botanist at the Central Experimental Farm here in Ottawa whose name was Faith Fyles. I’ve chosen two. The first one is a depiction of the Scarlet Pippen Apple, and it shows the apple in two separate views. One is the apple as a whole, and the second one is a slice right down the middle where we can see the flesh of the apple and its pips.

    The second watercolour I’d like to talk to you about today is the Garnet Chili Potato, which, although not as glamorous and beautiful as the depiction of the apple, is very special in and of itself, and I’m really excited to tell you about it.

    TM: Geneviève, why are these items in LAC’s collection?

    GM: I discovered these watercolours actually when I was inventorying government art that hadn’t been completely catalogued. I was very surprised to discover that these watercolours are part of a lot of 79 illustrations that were transferred to us in 1989. But only three of them had ever been catalogued, so it was a joy to open up these boxes and see this treasure of colour and all kinds of varieties of fruits and vegetables that, some of them, we don’t even know, we don’t even know today.

    TM: These 79 botanical illustrations that Geneviève mentions were transferred to LAC from the Department of Agriculture in 1989. We asked Geneviève why these LAC treasures are unique.

    GM: The items I’m talking about today are unique for so many reasons. The first one, it helps demonstrate exactly what we’re talking about when we say that LAC collects documentary art. These ones, although they are quite beautiful, do have a scientific intention behind them. And LAC’s intention in collecting art has always been to privilege information in the art over esthetic value. So these are, although they are beautiful and they have the best of both worlds, they also tell us a lot about Canadian history and Canadian agriculture and the activity of a female artist.

    The items are also unique because they demonstrate this expertise that we wouldn’t think about today. Both of them date from the 1920s—the apple is from 1921 and the potato is from 1925—and a lot of people might not think of this, but colour photography only came around a little later. So how did the scientists from the Experimental Farm communicate things like disease, or the perfect colouration, or the technical colouration for an apple, or the precise identification of a weed or of a seed? You needed some skilled watercolourists who could have almost, no, it’s not almost, they had scientific precision in depicting what they were studying.

    When we look at the Scarlet Pippen and the Garnet Chili, we quickly understand that the Government of Canada had some exceptionally gifted artists in its service. We even wonder in this specific case if the artist kind of snipped away a few bristles off her brush to have a more precise point in order to achieve these fine lines. You look at the texture of the potato, and you see all of these little wrinkles in its super paper-fine skin. And you look at the eyes of the potato, and your fingers have this tactile memory. You feel you can almost hold it in your hand, and you can tell what it would feel like. And she had that same precision when she’s depicting the skin on the apple. It’s got these splashes of red and these traits of red over a shiny yellow background. It’s a scientific work. It’s meant to communicate scientific information, but a lot of us would be quite happy to frame it and put it on a wall in our kitchen. It’s beautiful!

    TM: So let’s talk about the artist who painted these two works, the Scarlet Pippen Apple and the Garnet Chili Potato. Who was Faith Fyles?

    GM: LAC is very proud to have been one of the first institutions in Canada to collect women artists. And thanks to that practice, we are now the repository of an amazing collection of works of art by women who are both professionals and amateur artists. Faith Fyles adds to this collection of women’s art because she represents professional women artists who work for the Government of Canada, but her works will also help us better understand the role of women in science and the role of women as public servants in the early 20th century.

    Now, Faith Fyles was a woman of intellectual and artistic passion whose love of botany lasted an entire lifetime. Her father was an amateur botanist, and when Fyles went to the university of McGill to do her BA in the late 19th century, she had the chance to study with Carrie Derick, who herself will become a pioneer of genetics and botany in Canada. Fyles was also the first woman to have the position of Assistant Botanist at the Experimental Farm here in Ottawa, and it wasn’t a small job. She was responsible for the management of the botanical garden and the herbarium of the Dominion. She collected and identified botanical specimens, including labelling all the trees, shrubs and perennials in the garden, and especially, she did scientific research, and she published about it. She even travelled out West to do her research and collect more specimens. Fyles also had artistic training, so she took the initiative to do botanical studies, extremely precise botanical studies, of the specimens that she collected and that she managed, and she did them in watercolour. She, at first, used the watercolours for her own publications and for colleagues who requested them, and very quickly the Department of Agriculture recognized her talent and started using her watercolours in their own official publications. I was overjoyed to find a lot of these publications in the LAC holdings.

    TM: In 1914, Fyles made two research trips: the first to Western Canada, and the second to New Brunswick. On her first trip, she collected nearly 800 specimens of weeds, including edible indigenous plant species. On her second trip, her research led to the identification of a new species of fungus, and she published her findings in the Wild Rice bulletin of 1920. That same year, she also wrote and illustrated a paper on Principal Poisonous Plants of Canada.

    GM: Unfortunately, she may have been a bit of a victim of her talent, because in 1919 the Civil Service Commission reclassified her position, and she went from being a botanist to an artist. She lost her title of Assistant Botanist as well as her scientific responsibilities, and her salary was cut. Happily, her director eventually had some of her scientific responsibilities restored as well as her pay, but she never had the title of Assistant Botanist again. It’s a bit of a bittersweet end to her career that still lasted until 1931, but that’s why I chose to talk about these two watercolours, because they illustrate so perfectly the two loves in Faith Fyles’s life. The apple, which is artistically beautiful and so pleasing, and the potato, which although not glamorous and, you know, not as appealing to put on your kitchen wall, has the dedication and passion and precision of someone who is really good at her job and really wants to make sure that it has been documented well.

    TM: Faith Fyles’s botanical illustrations are part of the Department of Agriculture fonds at LAC. Our collection also includes publications that feature her work, as well as one of her landscapes, The Gatineau Valley from Kingsmere, held in our private art collection.

    GM: If listeners would like to see the Scarlett Pippen and the Garnet Chili, I was able to have them digitized, although the other watercolours in the boxes haven’t been completely catalogued yet, but you can get a little preview. And they’re searchable via our Collection Search, and if you just type in Scarlet Pippen, p-i-p-p-e-n, and Garnet Chili, you should be able to find them.

    I will also tell folks that the museum of science and technology has a beautiful collection of Faith Fyles watercolours, because the Science and Technology Museum has a lot of records from the Experimental Farm as well. You can access the digitized version of those watercolours on the Science and Tech website.

    TM: If you’re interested in viewing these two botanical illustrations, you can use LAC’s Collection Search like Geneviève mentioned, or you can go to LAC’s Flickr page. There, you will find an album of images called Treasures Revealed. We will update that album with each episode, giving you a chance to view the treasures that we will be highlighting. We will also add a link to the Flickr album in the Related links section on the episode page for this podcast.

    Thank you for being with us. I’m Théo Martin, your host. You’ve been listening to “Discover Library and Archives Canada—where Canadian history, literature and culture await you.” A special thank you to our guest today, Geneviève Morin. Special thanks also to Isabel Larocque and Sandra Nicholls for their contributions to this episode.

    Treasures Revealed theme song provided by Blue Dot Sessions.

    This episode was produced and engineered by David Knox.

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Host: Théo Martin, LAC archivist

Guest: Geneviève Morin, LAC Government Records Archivist


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