Have you seen this man’s paintings? Two people from Prince Edward Island would like to know.
“We don’t know all of the paintings that he did, we just know that he was prolific,” said Anne Neatby who for the last four years has been trying to find as many as she can. For Neatby, a retired nurse from P.E.I., the journey has been a tour through art history and family heritage.
“It’s an art quest.”
The artists’ name was William Stuart. Born 1835 in Aberdeen, Scotland, Stuart immigrated with his family to Porter’s Lake, Nova Scotia sometime between 1854 and 1856. Stuart pursued a career in the ministry. His father was a Presbyterian minister and both he and his older brother Alexander studied at Free Church College in Halifax.
Even back then, Stuart was leaving breadcrumbs for Anne Neatby.
Saint George and the Dragon
At the age of 13, while his family was still living in Scotland, it is believed that Stuart was studying art either with a private instructor or the Art Institute in Glasgow.
“It’s evident from his works that he had some kind of training,” said art historian Janet Whytock. Whytock first met Neatby in October.
“She had a binder of a lot of photographs and showed me a few of the initial water colors,” said Whytock. “I saw the work and they are a very unique collection to the Maritimes.”
One of the sketches she saw was Saint George and the Dragon, a piece done by Stuart at the time when Neatby and Whytock both think he was receiving art training.
In 1862 Stuart completed his studies. Not long after, he was ordained and appointed to a mission in Bermuda where he lived for one year before returning to the Maritimes to serve communities like West Cape, Brae and Campbellton in Prince Edward Island.
It was during this period that he met Elizabeth Ramsay. They were married, had their first child in 1868, and named the baby Catherine. Catherine grew up and married William James Montgomery.
“They’re my grandparents,” said Neatby. “What’s most exciting for me, now that I’m retired, is really focusing on the work my mother did on collecting family information. Catherine often talked about the paintings, and my mother listened and made notes. She was a great collector of family history.”
Neatby’s mother, Orell Montgomery had filled a binder with old photographs and pictures of Stuart’s paintings sent to her from cousins and other extended family in the Maritimes and in the United States where Stuart spent his remaining years.
Neatby credits her mother, who passed away in 2015, with starting the quest.
“After she passed away I took her boxes and started going through them. She had done a photo album of all the paintings that we knew about,” said Neatby. “That really launched us on our journey.”
And that journey has come to Pictou County.
Stuart’s family grew. He and Elizabeth had three more children, all girls between the years of 1870 and 1874. Sadly, Elizabeth died months after giving birth to their fourth child, also named Elizabeth, in December 1874. Baby Elizabeth died four months later. They are both buried in Fredericton.
And so, Stuart moved to Pictou County a widowed father of three with a new charge in the Salem Presbytery.
“What we’re hoping here is that the people in this area, particularly in Salem, have a piece in the church or maybe in their family homes,” said Neatby.
Right now, Neatby says that they are aware of at least 60 paintings that were done by Stuart, and they have tracked down 50 of them.
Last June, after a similar story appeared in The Guardian (P.E.I.) Neatby and Whytock were handed a treasure.
“It’s a really unique piece in the collection,” explained Whytock of the painting that a reader had in their P.E.I home. “In his other portraits, it’s usually just a head and shoulders image, but in this you get a slice of life.”
Not just any slice of life.
The painting shows an elderly woman seated next to a cradle with an infant resting inside. The woman is named Sarah Ramsay, and she was William Stuart’s mother in law.
“It’s one of the few pictures we have of who would have been our great-great grandmother. Of her face.”
Next summer, at the Eptek Arts and Culture Centre in Summerside P.E.I. Neabtby and Whytock will be exhibiting the work of William Stuart.
The project, which is through the P.E.I. Museum and Heritage Foundation will display artifacts from Stuart’s life and as many original paintings as Neatby and Whytock can get their hands on.
So, have you seen this man’s paintings?