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grand theatre stageThe Proscenium Arch Mural ~
Celebrating 100 Years
by Christian Cardell Corbet, PPCPA, FRSA

For over well over half a century now there has been incessant speculation as to who created the marvelous mural that adorns the Grand Theatre's proscenium arch.

Early speculations suggested London, Ontario artist Eva Marie Bradshaw. However, Bradshaw was a post-impressionist painter and never worked on allegorical themes let alone murals. It was recorded by Canadian artist Frederick Sproston Challener, RCA that he created a mural in the year 1905 and did so for The Grand Opera House in London, Ontario, now the Grand Theatre.

Given further accounts by descendants of the artist and by the style and work itself in comparison to Challener's other mural work it is now concluded that F S Challener is indeed the great hand behind one of our nation's finest murals. At long last the mystery has been solved and this in the 100th year of the mural's existence.

Frederick Sproston Challener was born at Whetstone, Middlesex, England on 7th July 1869. The son of Edwin and Emma Jane (nee Wood) Challener the Challener's immigrated to Canada in 1870. Challener received his early formative education by returning to England to attend St. Paul's School in Stratford, Essex. At the age of 14, in 1883, Challener returned to Canada where he moved to Toronto and commenced work at a stockbroker's office.

Challener's talents as an artist were recognized early in life. While he worked in Toronto the owner's of the highly noted photography studio Notman and Fraser saw Challener's sketches and offered to pay for Challener's entry fee to enroll at the Ontario School of Art, now known today as the Ontario College of Art and Design. In 1885 and within Challener's first two semesters at the school his instructor, the renowned artist George Agnew Reid (1860-1947), realized that Challener's talents exceeded instruction given by the school and invited the young artist to commence free private instruction under him for which Challener accepted.

For the next five years Challener worked as a full-time newspaper illustrator and in 1890 Challener held his first solo exhibition held at the influential Royal Canadian Academy of Art (RCA). In 1896, Challener was elected a member of the Ontario Society of Artists (OSA) and produced a colour exhibition poster for the society, which featured a semi-nude woman reclining next to the banks of Lake Ontario. The poster, allegorical in theme, was composed of soft pastel colours and situated in a romantic Canadian landscape, a style for which Challener would become well-known for.

By 1900, Challener and other members of the OSA were starting to receive both public and private commissions and in particular exciting mural work. The Royal Alexander Hotel in Winnipeg, Manitoba commissioned one such mural. Challener painted the mural in the North American "modern style" similar to that of the Art Nouveau style which was popular in Europe.

Challener had studied many murals in Europe during his sojourn there between 1898-1899. While there the artist studied and made hundreds of sketches that would later become important reference material for his murals and other works of art once he returned back to Canada. Such allegorical work would make Challener a very busy man back in Canada.

challenerBy 1900 Challener had begun to receive much acclaim for his art work and in the same year had three paintings accepted by the Ontario Society of Artists for the OSA 28th Annual Exhibition. The works Challener exhibited at that show and their titles reference, in part, the allegorical theme of his paintings namely "In a Nazareth Garden" a decorative panel measuring some four feet in length.

On February 20th 1902, while visiting the USA, Challener married Ethel White and soon returned to Toronto to set up his new studio at 87 Garden Ave. In 1904, while Challener was living in Leamington, Ontario, The Grand Opera House in London, Ontario commissioned Challener to paint a massive three-paneled mural for their elegant proscenium arch located above the main stage. This commission was a welcome job for as a founding member of the Society of Mural Decorators in 1894, Challener worked diligently with the society to encourage mural painting in schools, libraries, churches, government building and private homes.

The mural for The Grand Opera House was to consist of three separate canvas panels. The intent of the murals was to create the much needed aesthetic value for the theatre as previously the proscenium arch lay bare and void of any decoration. In keeping with his European studies, Challener embarked on what was to become one of his greatest works of art in his career. The mural was to be painted in Challener's studio located just outside London at the time.

Challener sketched out the original drawing previously as a cartoon, which won him the commission so now he was left with working up the mural in his studio. It is believed that Challener used his barn studio primarily during the summer months to execute his large murals. The canvases were painstakingly stretched onto the interior wooden barn walls and nail-tacked into place. Later Challener would have wet the unprimed canvas to ensure a taunt surface to work upon prior to priming the material. Once primed in a basic white colour Challener drew his composition in charcoal. It is important to note that the artist worked on only one canvas at a time as was his practice. It is in the first panel on the left of the proscenium arch that that we see a slightly different style in painting compared to Challener's work on the other two panels. This is where another great artist comes into play.

Artist and historic illustrator C. W. Jeffreys, RCA, OSA (1869-1951) was a close friend of Challener's. The two had met while attending art classes given by artist George Agnew Reid and later worked together on numerous murals with their collaboration resulting in both artists insisting that the other artist be given the credit for the work. They rarely ever signed a collaborative mural with their names. It is here with the mural for The Grand Opera House we believe that Jeffreys took a role in the commission.

In the first mural, located to the left, one can see it was painted by a different hand. The use of colours in this panel reflects those closer to that of Jeffrey's color palette, which carried more subtle pastel tones. This panel is believed to have been drawn by Challener but painted by Jeffreys. The reason why Challener would have employed Jeffrey to do this first panel is not known but speculated that Challener hired Jeffrey to assist him in his artistic career and after all they were good friends.

To create a mural of this substantial size one has to be well aware of the deliberate artistic perspectives that come into play when creating a work of art that is angular such as the proscenium arch. If the painting was created in the traditional flat manner then the figures and scenery, when viewed from below, would have seemed quite distorted and much smaller. Instead Challener's figures were slightly elongated or disproportional so as to fool the eye when being viewed in a seated position. Challener was a master of this technique as was Jeffrey.

Whether all three of the panels were affixed to the proscenium at once or if each panel was put in place at the completion of each painting is not known. It is presumed however that the entire mural would most probably have been already completed and approved by the owner of The Grand Opera House and installed over a one to three day period with the artist assisting in the gluing of the canvases onto the arch. Challener always oversaw all the details of the installations of his murals.

With several people on hand to assist the walls of the proscenium as well as the canvases themselves would have been primed with rabbit's glue as an adhesive and using large, soft bristle brushes affixed to long poles lifted into place. Thereafter the canvases would have been gently erected by several hands and placed into position ensuring the exact location of each panel and later smoothed out using, once again, very fine, soft brushes to smooth out the canvas.

Once this process was completed Challener would have finished the mural itself with a diluted mixture of 50% varnish and 50% paint thinner so as to not create too much of a gloss or glare due to the potential reflection from the stage lights. Finally a master carpenter would have set the fine wood and plaster molding around the edge of the murals in place to complete the project.

grand theatre 1901While research has been done to try to determine whether there was a "grand unveiling" of the mural it is not known however the mural was completed in 1905 as indicated by Challener in his personal records and would most certainly have been met with immense public enthusiasm.

Frederick Sproston Challener died in 1959 in his 90th year having left behind a most extraordinary career and many notable masterpieces of art work that is unsurpassed today. Challener is represented with wall paintings in the following collections: National Gallery of Canada; Art Gallery of Ontario; University of Lethbridge Art Coll.; Agnes Jamieson Gallery Coll. Challener is represented with murals at the Royal Alexandra Theatre; Royal Alexandra Hotel, Wpg; MacDonald Hotel, Edmonton, AB; Laidlaw Building, Toronto; and 14 important panels at Parkwood Mansion, former residence of Col. R S Mac Laughlin, Oshawa, ON.

Christian Cardell Corbet is a noted Canadian artist, art historian, curator and patron of the arts. He is Past President of the Canadian Portrait Academy, Member of the Canadian Group of Art Medalists and International Society of Artists and Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, England. Corbet's art works can be seen in numerous public collections both in North America and Europe. Christian wishes to dedicate this article in memory of Rob Wellan, Public Relations Officer, Grand Theatre.

This article is copyrighted 2005 by Christian Cardel Corbet and is not to be reproduced without the author's permission.