Monday, May 22, 2017

# 65 ~ The Strange Case of the Missing Statue of Queen Victoria


About two years ago, I came across a photograph in the Toronto Public Library Archives, showing a statue of a young-looking Queen Victoria.  The only hint to the history of this statue was the photograph’s caption which read “Victoria, Queen, monument, Queen’s Park, at head of University Ave.”.  I was intrigued.  If you’re familiar with the area, then you’ll know that there is a large statue of Sir John A. Macdonald on that spot, and it’s been there for years.

This photograph from the Toronto Public Library Archives shows the statue of a young Queen Victoria that once stood on the south lawn of Queen's Park, gazing down University Avenue.

Sir John A. Macdonald would eventually usurp the Queen's place on the front lawn of Queen's Park.  This picture shows him peering down University Avenue about 1914.

I forgot about the mysterious statue for a while, until my interests were revived over this past weekend.  With another Victoria Day here, and all the talk about Canada 150, and recognition of Queen Victoria as the “Mother of Confederation”, I once again looked into finding out whatever happened to this statue.

The location of any such statue of Queen Victoria at Queen’s Park is appropriate enough, at least in terms of geography.  The area was opened as a park almost forty years before the legislative assembly building first went into use.  It was opened on September 11, 1860, by none other than the Prince of Wales, eldest son of Queen Victoria and the future King Edward VII when he was in Toronto as part of a Royal Visit to Canada.  The young prince named the park “Queen’s Park” in honour of his mother.  Apparently, there are more schools, streets, parks and public spaces named after Queen Victoria in Canada than in any other country in the world.  Queen Victoria had a long reign of nearly 64-years, and Canada is a pretty big country.

Here in Toronto, we had a few things named after her during her lifetime.  There was Queen’s Park, as I’ve mentioned.  Lot Street was renamed Queen Street in 1844, and Upper George Street became Victoria Street that same year.  The University of Victoria College moved to Toronto from Cobourg, and the old Victoria Hospital for Sick Children opened on College Street in the 1890s.  But there was no statue of Queen Victoria for a considerable length of time.

Then, along came a man named Marshall Wood.  He was born to a family of sculptors in 1834, just three years before Victoria came to the throne.  Some critics seemed to think that Wood’s work wasn’t really high art, but instead, he made a living by selling his work.  It seems he was something of a door-to-door, or perhaps, a nation-to-nation statue seller.  Queen Victoria had a lot of loyal subjects, given how extensive her empire was, so he probably guessed that she would make a profitable “subject” for his sculptures herself.  He ended up selling statues of Queen Victoria to other cities in Canada, Australia, and even India. 

Marshall Wood brought a statue of Queen Victoria to Toronto, and our city council gave him permission to put up the statue at the base of the lawn at Queen’s Park, at the top of University Avenue, as noted.  It was installed in April of 1871.  The statue portrayed Queen Victoria as a young woman, which is a bit of a refreshing change for those of us today who are used to seeing her portrayed as an older woman in constant mourning for her beloved consort Albert.  The statue was made of bronze, and stood on a wooden pedestal.  Of particular interest are the cannons that flank her statue.  They seem to be the same cannons that are now positioned on either side of the main entrance to the legislative assembly building.  These were captured Russian cannon, taken by the British during the Crimean War.  The metal from other similarly captured cannons would go on to be used to make each Victoria Cross, which remains the highest military honour both in Canada and throughout the Commonwealth.

Marshall Wood had been in Canada to attend the unveiling of a very similar statue of Queen Victoria that he had produced for Victoria Square in Montreal.  So, he extended his trip to include Toronto, brought the statue that was located here as a sample of his work, and put it up in Queen’s Park, which would have been a suburban idyll near the north end of the city back in 1871. 

The municipal committee responsible for such things recommended buying the statue for $3,000.  The cost was debated in City Council for some time, but a consensus was never reached.  Some of our more pragmatic aldermen of the day thought the price was too high, or that it wasn’t a very good likeness of the Queen.  About two years after the statue was installed, city council finally voted against paying for it.  They asked Wood to take his statue away in 1874.  It was thrown into storage for about twenty years before it was taken to Quebec City and put into that city’s Victoria Park in June of 1897.  Queen Victoria was celebrating her sixtieth anniversary, or Diamond Jubilee, as sovereign, and there were celebrations the world over (or, at least in the parts she was in charge of, which were plenty).

Queen Victoria’s statue would regally reign in Quebec City for just over 66 years, which was a couple of years longer than the reign of the actual Queen.  Then, at about 3 o’clock in the middle of the night of July 12th, 1963, a blast rocked the city.  It was the height of the Quiet Revolution, the Sovereigntist movement in Quebec, and the FLQ crisis.  Someone had planted explosives at the base of the statue in Quebec.  When the smoke cleared from the bomb blast, Queen Victoria’s head was lying about 90 metres away from her body.  In something almost reminiscent of poor old King Charles I, the statue of Queen Victoria was decapitated.  Uneasy lay the head of anything that the most fervent FLQ members regarded, rightly or wrongly, as a symbol of British colonialism.

The decapitated head of Queen Victoria's statue after it was blown apart by separatists in Quebec City.

Art historian and museum curator Vincent Giguere checks out Queen Victoria's body.

Here's another detail of the Queen's head.

The two main pieces of the statue, head and body, were gathered up and since 1988, the body has been on exhibit at Canada’s Musée de la Civilisation, as part of a display on Quebec’s darker days.  The head remained hidden away in a museum warehouse.  There was talk of restoring the statue and putting it on display again for Quebec City’s 400th anniversary in 2004, but the last I heard, the damage done to the statue was too extensive. 

There is of course a statue of Queen Victoria at Queen’s Park these days.  It’s at the southeast corner of the building, so she no longer gazes straight down University Avenue.  That boulevard was rather more majestic in the 1800s anyway, being a tree-lined promenade for carriages and stroll-prone pedestrians, instead of the hectic office and hospital lined street that it is today.  Celebrations were held in Toronto, too, for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897, and there was talk of a statue commemorating the long-lived Sovereign.  However, the current statue at Queen’s Park wasn’t installed until September of 1902, about a year and a half after the Queen died. 

Victoria Regina : the current statue of Queen Victoria at Queen's Park in Toronto wasn't installed until 1902.  If you look at the postcard on the bottom, you'll note the houses in the background.  The area around our legislative assembly was largely residential until development through the early 20th-century.