Up the Gatineau! Articles

The following article was first published in Up the Gatineau! Volume 42.

Following Florence

W. C. (Bill) Allen

Following Florence
Florence Helena McGillivray, about 7 years old, with her parents and siblings in a family portrait, circa 1871. Standing, left to right: Charles, Mary, John, Catherine, George Jr., Adelaide. Seated, left to right: Caroline, mother Caroline with baby Norman, father George Sr. with William and Donald, Elizabeth. Closest: Florence and Theodore. Photo from the Whitby Archives.

Several years ago, I began researching the McGillivray family, a prosperous and accomplished pioneer family from the Whitby, Ontario, area with strong connections to the Gatineau Valley. During my genealogical research I became fascinated with one particular member of this clan—Florence Helena McGillivray, a talented but now relatively unknown landscape painter, who began as a watercolourist and created many superb paintings of such Gatineau Valley landmarks as the Paugan Falls.

Florence lived from 1864 to 1938 and was a contemporary of the Group of Seven and a mentor to Tom Thomson. She found some acclaim, and her work eventually entered the collection of the National Gallery of Canada. She frequently visited Wakefield, where two of her elder sisters lived, having both married Wakefield men.

In the summer of 2014, while I was visiting Ottawa as part of my research on Florence, an art collector there suggested I contact Norma Geggie, a Wakefield-based writer and historian, to help fill in some of the blanks in Florence’s life and art. It was sage advice. During a phone conversation with Norma, she invited me to visit and see a Florence McGillivray oil, which she had inherited and which I wanted to photograph for the collection I was building. I took her up on this offer, and was able to see firsthand a lovely painting of a farmhouse somewhere near Wakefield.

Norma gave me a wonderful history lesson on the area and set me on the road to an amazing weekend of discovery. During this trip I was able to track down several of the picturesque locations in and around the area where Florence had created her landscapes. I also got a better sense of why Florence McGillivray became so enamored of the people and places of the Gatineau Valley.

Florence Helena McGillivray was born March 7, 1864, at Clovendale farm in Whitby Township to a Scottish immigrant farmer, George McGillivray, and his wife, Caroline Amelia Fothergill. Her maternal grandfather was the eminent naturalist, writer and painter Charles Fothergill. Florence was the youngest daughter in a family of 13 children who all became prosperous citizens of this new land. Her early childhood years were spent at Clovendale farm, which had been built by her paternal grandfather, John McGillivray.

Following Florence
Florence, on the left, aged about 21, with her niece, Kathleen Hillary, the daughter of her sister Elizabeth. In later years Kathleen lived close to Florence in Toronto and acted as her caregiver until Florence’s death. Kathleen was responsible for many of Florence’s works being donated to Queen’s University, the Art Gallery of Hamilton and other institutions after her passing. Circa 1885. Photo from the McGillivray family collection.

In 1870 the family moved to Inverlyn farm, in the nearby town of Whitby. The property would eventually become a 700-acre farming enterprise. Education and enlightenment were high priorities for the McGillivray family, and because Inverlyn was within the town limits, the McGillivray children were able to attend the Whitby Grammar School and Collegiate.

Florence showed artistic talent early on and studied at the Central Ontario School of Art (later to become the Ontario College of Art in Toronto) under William Cruikshank. She later took private lessons with noted Canadian artists, including Lucius O’Brien, J.W.L. Forster, F.M. Bell-Smith, and Farquhar McGillivray Knowles (no relation).

Her connection to the Outaouais began when Catherine, one of her older sisters, married David MacLaren in 1875. David met Catherine when he was sent to the Whitby Grammar School for his primary education. He was a son of the lumber baron James MacLaren, a family name well known to Wakefield residents. The family once owned the grist mill (and later a sawmill, woollen store and general store) on what is now Mill Road. The original MacLaren homestead was up the hill beside the mill; many years later it was run as a museum by the Gatineau Valley Historical Society and is now a recognized federal heritage building. Today both the mill and the homestead are part of the Wakefield Mill Inn and Spa. MacLaren’s Cemetery, further up the hill on the same road, was once the MacLarens’ private cemetery; now it is the resting place of many, including former prime minister Lester Pearson.

Florence’s relationship with the Gatineau Valley expanded further when another of her sisters, Adelaide, married Reverend Robert Gamble in 1886. He was the minister of Wakefield’s Presbyterian Church, which had been built in 1861 (on land sold to the church for five shillings by David MacLaren, his brother-in-law). That structure burned in the village fire of 1904 and was rebuilt within the year. The Gambles lived for many years at the manse at the north end of Wakefield on the bank of the Gatineau River. Reverend Gamble presided over his flock for more than 30 years.

Following Florence
An example of Florence McGillivray’s talents in the art of painting china, a jardinière by Rockwood Pottery, from a private collection. 2014. Photo credit: W. C. Allen.

The marriages of Florence’s sisters likely reflect the family’s connections with both the Scottish immigrant community and the Presbyterian Church. Florence’s trips to the Gatineau with her family to visit her sisters began before the turn of the last century, when she was a young woman. Her love for the rolling countryside and the raging Gatineau River became a recurring theme in her work.

As noted, the MacLarens’ first house was beside the mill; their next home was down in the heart of Wakefield on Riverside Drive. This fine building later became “The Manor House” lodge, then the Gatineau Memorial Hospital, and now a retirement home, Le Manoir de Wakefield. The MacLarens moved into their final home, on Frank Street in Ottawa’s Centretown, some time before 1891 (they are there in the 1891 census). Florence also visited them when they spent time in Buckingham at the home of James MacLaren, David’s father. Her trips would no doubt have also included visits to the manse where the Gambles lived out their lives in Wakefield.

Following Florence
Florence, aged about 37, circa 1901. Photo from the Whitby Archives.

In 1898 the MacLarens purchased Inverlyn in Whitby from the estate of Catherine’s father (George McGillivray had died in 1894) and used it as their summer home. At the same time Florence, her unmarried sister Mary, and their widowed mother Caroline moved into a new home in Whitby, where Florence set up her first home studio.

The art historian and university professor Maria Tippett, in her exploration on women’s contributions to early Canadian art, wrote that Florence McGillivray and fellow artist Henrietta Mabel May were two of the first female artists to explore the wilderness of Ontario and Quebec. She noted:

Thus McGillivray belongs to that small group of artists whose pre-First World War landscape paintings linked two visions of the land: the romantic-realist view of the railway artists of the 1880s and 1890s and the heroic view of the land-scape that characterized the mature work of the Group of Seven and their adherents following the Great War.1

Florence became a member of the Women’s Art Association of Canada early after its inception in the 1890s, and was influenced by Mary E. Dignam, its founding president. In 1898 she joined the Women’s Art Club (which became the National Association of Women Painters and Sculptors in 1913), located in New York City.

She dabbled in the art of painting china and studied in the pottery studio of Marshall Fry in New York. It’s unclear whether Florence fired her own pottery, since some of her attributed pieces have Limoge and other marks, but others have no maker marks. She sold these wares from her home studio in Whitby and taught local residents how to paint on china.

Following Florence
Venice Canal, oil on canvas, from the Trafalgar Castle School collection, 1918.

In the early 1900s Florence became an art instructor and critic at a boys’ school, Pickering College, in Pickering (now in Newmarket, Ontario), and later became assistant art instructor at the Ontario Ladies’ College in Whitby (now Trafalgar Castle School). In 1917 she became a member of the Ontario Society of Artists, and in 1924 she was voted in as an associate member of the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts.

When Florence’s mother, Caroline, died in 1909, she took a leave of absence from teaching. The following summer she travelled to Cornwall and St. Ives in England to commune with the artistic colony there. She returned first to Whitby, and then ended that summer in Wakefield with her sister Adelaide Gamble. In 1911 her sister Mary died, leaving Florence alone in the home she had shared with her and their mother. In 1912 she wrapped up her affairs with the colleges and set out on a journey of artistic self-discovery in England and Europe.

In Paris she studied under Lucien Simon and Émile-René Ménard at the popular Académie de la Grande Chaumière and had her work shown at the prestigious Salon des Beaux Arts. She was later voted president of the International Art Union, a significant achievement for this rural Ontario farm girl, especially in that maledominated era. Her travels continued to Brittany, Venice, Italy and the Swiss Alps, where she found herself at the outset of the Great War, eventually returning to the safety of her Whitby home in 1914.

Following Florence
Mild Winter’s Day Wakefield, watercolour and gouache on paper, shows the house at 801 Riverside Drive in Wakefield. This house is often referred to locally as the Doctor’s House, having been occupied by a series of doctors from 1860 up to 1950, including Dr. Harold Geggie. The house still stands, but is now clad with white siding. From a private collection. Circa 1930.
Following Florence
The Paugan Falls, oil on canvas, from a private collection. Circa 1925.

Joan Murray, art historian and former curator of the McLaughlin Gallery in Oshawa, has written, “McGillivray stressed abstract qualities of line, colour, and form…. McGillivray seems to have been immediately accepted in the international community as a talented newcomer.” Later referring to Florence’s time in Paris, Murray notes, “McGillivray’s method of describing forms in massed areas of colour applied with a palette knife was, like that of Thomson and Harris, a first for Canadian Art. That she was an important new artist of a particular type can be sensed from the way she conveys with unusual clarity and drama, the flavor of Venice at sunset.2

In the winter of 1916 Florence visited Tom Thomson at his shack behind the famous studio building at 25 Severn Street in Toronto (several of the Group of Seven lived there). She offered him advice and encouragement, as Tom’s friend from Algonquin Park, Mark Robinson, noted. He recalled Tom saying “she was one of the best” and that he valued her advice. The Thomson and McGillivray families had a friendship that dated back to their roots in Inverness, Scotland.

In the intervening years she circulated among her surviving sisters’ homes— Caroline Fotheringham in Toronto, Catherine MacLaren in Ottawa, and Adelaide Gamble in Wakefield, where she continued to paint the countryside. She resumed her quest for the perfect landscape, travelling across Canada, the United States and the Caribbean.

Following Florence
Village Church on Saturday, showing the Presbyterian Church of Reverend Gamble, oil on board, from a private collection. Circa 1930.
Following Florence
Gatineau Covered Bridge, oil on canvas, from a private collection. This is the covered bridge that once stood at Val-des-Bois; it was built in 1929 and was destroyed by fire in 1995. Circa 1930.

Sometime in 1917 Catherine invited Florence to live with her in Ottawa (her husband David MacLaren had died in 1916). Florence sold her home in Whitby and set up a studio in the carriage house of Catherine’s Frank Street home. It was a short train ride from Ottawa to Wakefield and Adelaide’s home, where she likely found rest and inspiration in the beauty of the Gatineau Region.

This period, the 1920s, became the most prolific and vibrant phase of her artistic career. The work from her Frank Street studio exploded with colour and texture, reflecting the Post-Impressionist and Fauvist movements she had encountered in Europe.

Following Florence
The same church today—the United Church at 739 Riverside Drive in Wakefield, 2014. Photo credit: W. C. Allen.
Following Florence
Untitled, the Gatineau River around Wakefield, watercolour on paper, from a private collection. Circa 1928.

Although still travelling quite extensively during the 1920s, whenever she returned to Ottawa she also found time to visit Wakefield, taking trips up and down the river to paint. Paintings from this time period include The Paugan Falls, The Logs Coming Down the Gatineau River, The Cascades and The Farmers Rapids.

While in Wakefield, Florence came to know some of the Gambles’ friends, including the Geggies and the Stevensons. Hans Stevenson, one of the first doctors in the area, ran a practice out of his family’s lovely Victorian home at the corner of Riverside Drive and Burnside Road in Wakefield. The home today is the bed and breakfast Les Trois Érables.

Following Florence
Untitled, houses on a hillside in the Gatineau, oil on canvas, from the collection of Norma Geggie. Circa 1930.
Following Florence
Florence, aged about 46, circa 1910. Photo from the Whitby Archives.

Hans’s daughter, Ella Stevenson, married Dr. Harold Geggie, who took over Dr. Stevenson’s practice and the house. It was from the porch of this home that Florence painted a lovely winter scene of the house directly across the road, with the snow-covered Gatineau River behind it. Another of her paintings, so the story goes, was painted from the kitchen of this Geggie home; it was of the next house on the opposite side of Burnside Road and titled Looking Up Burnside. Florence would often include the Gamble and Geggie girls on her sketching trips, and Ella Stevenson Geggie became an accomplished artist in her own right under Florence’s tutelage.

Florence’s paintings include many locations on the Gatineau River, such as the Paugan Falls, which has since been lost to the hydro dam that replaced its foaming waters and rapids, which she painted in various media, including watercolour, pastel and oil. Florence also visited and painted scenes in Val-des-Bois, as well as The Ribbon of Blue, representing the Ottawa River at Fort Coulonge, and The Road to the late Kirels Farm. Duclos Barns, Gatineau is another example from the area of a pretty winter scene.

Following Florence
Florence, aged about 59, circa 1923. Photo from the Whitby Archives.
Following Florence
Headstone for Florence McGillivray and other members of the McGillivray family, at the Union Cemetery, Old Presbyterian section, in Oshawa, Ontario. 2014. Photo credit: W. C. Allen.

In 1930, by then in her mid-60s, Florence bought a house on Millwood Road in Toronto. This would become her retirement home. She continued to paint primarily from the sketches she had accumulated from around the world, including the picturesque Gatineau Valley. An example of one of her later works is the Gatineau Covered Bridge, a magnificent painting and one of her largest oils. This was the covered bridge that once crossed the Gatineau River at Val-des-Bois.

In 1938, at the age of 74, Florence died in her Toronto home. She was buried with many of her family in Oshawa’s old Union Cemetery after a funeral at Inverlyn; her sisters Adelaide and Catherine survived her.

Florence’s works are held in the National Gallery of Canada and many of the major galleries across the country. She associated with many in the Group of Seven, and in the 1920s she was affiliated with Ottawa’s Group of Eight, who, like the Group of Seven in Toronto and the Beaver Hall Group in Montreal, made substantial contributions to the evolution of Canadian Art.

Florence achieved some acclaim in her lifetime, but she lived in an era when it was the male artists—not their female contemporaries—who received most of the attention. She never married or had children; her legacy is her artwork. The body of her work is substantial, and it appears that she was deeply moved by the beauty and splendor of the Gatineau region. Her standing in the annals of Canadian art history deserves to be re-examined by today’s scholars.


  1. Maria Tippett, By a Lady: Celebrating Three Centuries of Art by Canadian Women (Toronto: Viking Press, 1992).
  2. Joan Murray, The Birth of the Modern: Post-Impressionism In Canadian Art (Oshawa, Ontario: The Robert McLaughlin Gallery, 2001), p. 98.

In spring 2016, Bill Allen is publishing A Collection of Works by Florence Helena McGillivray in a limited-edition subscription coffee table format. He is also working on a biography of the life and work of the artist.

His hope is that these publications will lead to a closer examination of her place in Canadian art history. Possible additional projects in the pipeline include retrospective shows and a documentary about Florence McGillivray. Look for more details about the artist at www.FlorenceMcGillivray.ca.

He also suggests that longtime residents of the Wakefield area, or their descendants, check their own art collections in case they own a gem created by Florence. Bill would be interested in hearing about such works or in learning about related stories or anecdotes. He is also happy to answer any questions and can be contacted at wca55@sympatico.ca.

  • The Canadian Women Artists History Initiative, an online resource at http:// cwahi.concordia.ca/. This is a collaborative endeavour at Concordia University in Montreal to enhance scholarship on historical women artists in Canada.
  • Winters, Brian, Chronicles of a County Town: Whitby Past and Present. Whitby, Ontario: Brian Winters, 1999.
  • The Archives of Ontario, Ontario Land Records.
  • Library and Archives Canada, the Blodwen Davies fonds.
  • All photos are copyright W. C. Allen, with the exception of the image of the painting Looking Up Burnside (see back cover).

Volume 42 table of content.

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