By KATHY JOHNSON
New friendships were made and part of an incredible family history shared when a small painting purchased in Ontario some 30 years ago was returned to the artist’s '80-something-year-young' granddaughter in Barrington on Sept. 5.
“It was meant to be,” said Betty June Smith, whose grandmother Hattie B. Fox had long ago created the painting 'Surf Off Emerald Isle' in the early-to-mid 1900s while on the small island off the coast of Shag Harbour, that was once the family home.
The painting’s journey back to Nova Scotia began when it was purchased at an antique market in Ontario about 30 years ago,
“My mother… she always liked to going to antique markets,” said Linda Tremblay. “She would pick out little things she loved and she found this painting there. She really liked it because of the inscription on the back that said Nova Scotia.”
When Linda and her husband John moved to Nova Scotia in 1982, “my mother felt I had to have it because it said Nova Scotia on the back,” she said.
Over the years, the little painting adorned the walls in Tremblay’s home.
“Every once and a while I’d picked it up and read the inscription on the back: Surf Off Emerald Isle, Shag Harbour, Nova Scotia by Mrs. Hattie B. Fox Uncle Ashford’s Mother, December 1950.”
The personal inscription touched Tremblay.
“At one point I tried to figure out a way to find the family,” she said, but a busy life raising three children put the task on hold.
But earlier this summer Tremblay once again had the painting in her hands.
“I thought I really need to get this back to the family. It might have some meaning to them,” she said, so she posted a photo of the painting along with the inscription on the Facebook group, We Love Nova Scotia, thinking it may be an avenue to find the family.
“All of sudden there were hits from people,” said Tremblay. People were saying, "That was my grandmother, my great-grandmother, my great-great grandmother…”
It didn’t take long for Tremblay to connect with Betty June Smith’s daughter.
“I was so surprised to hear it existed,” said Smith.
“This is a wonderful gift, there is so much family history connected to it,” Smith said. “It is so thoughtful for Linda to make sure it went to someone in grandma’s family.”
Smith says her family history is one of islands and lighthouses that began when her great-grandfather Captain Ephraim Larkin – father of the artist, Hattie – bought Emerald Isle for the family home.
Born in 1874, Hattie lived on Emerald Isle as a child, marrying Arthur Fox in 1895 and later moving to nearby Clark’s Harbour, where Arthur was school principal. She returned to Emerald Isle for summer and Christmas holidays while her grandfather was still living.
The Fox couple had seven children including Smith’s mother, Evelyn Richardson.
Richardson won the Governor General's Award in 1945 in non-fiction for her memoir, We Keep a Light. In one of her other literary works, 'My Other Islands,' she wrote about her mother: “Hattie had been given six lessons in oil painting from a travelling teacher … and managed to paint a few small pictures a year…copied from lithographs of flowers and landscapes but altered and improved to her own taste.”
To Smith’s knowledge, her grandmother Hattie painted two original works while on Emerald Isle, including Surf Off Emerald Isle and a three-panel painting on tin of the wrecked steamer Express breaking up in the surf on the rocky shore right below the lighthouse on Bon Portage Island a few miles to the westward.
“These two are the only pictures I know of that she painted from life,” she said, noting Surf off Emerald Isle had to be done before 1950 as her grandmother would not have been visiting Emerald Isle at that time, and the inscription was not in her grandmother’s hand.
CONNECTIONS TO LIGHTHOUSES
It was on Bon Portage that Smith’s own connection to lighthouses began. Her parents Evelyn and Morrill Richardson were lighthouse keepers. Besides bringing Hattie's painting to the family, Linda Tremlay, who is a fibre artist, brought another gift with her to Barrington. It was artwork of the Bon Portage Lighthouse, which sparked memories of growing up on the island for Smith, and the fun she had with her sister Anne and brother Laurie.
“This window was closer to the roof than that,” she said while looking at the artwork. “One thing we used to like to do was shimmy out the window, along the roof down onto the back porch and down the screen door on to the ground. I was so little I needed help getting out of the window and onto the roof but whatever Anne and Laurie would do I had to do. They’d pick me up and get me going.”
Smith lived on Bon Portage until she was 20. She completing a secretarial course in 1951 and got her first job in 1952. In 1953 she married a lightkeeper’s son, the late Sydney (Sid) Smith, and made the move to the Cape Sable Lighthouse station where the couple lived, worked and raised their family until 1979.
As her grandmother Hattie had moved to Bedford in 1917, Smith didn’t really get to know her that well but recalls she was a kind, very loving person. She was also an accomplished seamstress creating clothing for her children that were “little works of art." She was very supportive of her children and her husband and would often tell stories and sing ballads as she worked.
Hattie passed away in 1961.