by Ivy Wigmore
Artist Julia Sarradet paints portraits of the family of Arthur Newbery For the past year or so, Julia Sarradet has been living with a house full of very demanding guests. They clamour for attention day and night, she says, and as if that weren't enough, she dreams about them. Well, they are at least fairly quiet, since none of them are in the land of the living-no, I'm not talking about ghosts. Sarradet has been obsessed with portraying a nineteenth century family since she found their family album in the Charlottetown archives.
The Newbery family captivated her; she felt immediately that she was their connection to the present. The more she discovered about them, the more interested she became. Her husband would often be greeted with stories about what the various Newberys had done, much in the manner of news about an absent relative. Looking at their photos and reading various documents compelled her to try to bring their story to life, to let others get the sense that she had of a very real family with a story to be told. She got copies of the photos and began to try to illuminate their lives through the medium of her art.
The paintings tell the story of a close-knit family at the end of the nineteenth century. Arthur Newbery worked in a government office overlooking Queen Square, which was more or less a vacant lot and in no good state of upkeep. A passionate gardener and a community minded soul, Newbery worked to create a beautiful natural space out of the land at the centre of town. Flowers and fountains transformed the area and a bandstand was built where the community could gather for open air concerts of a warm summer evening. In 1885, a writer for The St. John Globe wrote about the gardens: "That desert waste known as Queen Square ... has been transformed into a thing of beauty-a veritable oasis."
The Newberys' home life was just as compelling for Sarradet. In one painting, an obviously doting Ella Newbery bathes one of their three girls. Another of the canvasses, "A Hard Day's Play" shows two very serious little girls taking tea with their dolls. Yet another features an extended family relaxing on the front porch on a summer afternoon. As the viewer walks from one painting to the next, the Newbery family becomes more fully realized, their day-to-day life more easily imagined.
From the moment she met them, Sarradet wanted to make the Newbery family known. For her, they epitomize the qualities that make the Island so special: the strength of family ties, love of the land and the power of community. Until now, she hasn't wanted to talk about these works, because she didn't want her connection to the family filtered through another's perspective. Now the paintings are almost finished, though, Sarradet is ready to let the Newbery family appear once again in Charlottetown.
The Newbery Family Exhibition will be showing at the Pilar Shephard Gallery from May 27 to June 15.