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Irish Connections: Mary Palliser’s Portrait Makes It Home

Painting of Mary Palliser by Victorian-era Irish artist Sir Frederic William Burton (1816-1900)
Painting of Mary Palliser by Victorian-era Irish artist
Sir Frederic William Burton (1816-1900)

Mary Palliser was an artist from a distinguished Irish family who was well known during the Victorian era. A painting of her came to be part of the Provincial Archives of Saskatchewan collection some time ago and has recently returned to its home country of Ireland. Its acquisition and return home comes with an interesting history that includes a love story.

Mary was the sister of Captain John Palliser, an Irish geographer and explorer who helped map Canada in the 1850s. One of the many places John Palliser visited was a creek system in central Canada in 1857. He called it Wascana (derived from its Cree name, Oskana). With the arrival of the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1882, the area was renamed Regina.

In 1871, acclaimed Irish artist and later director of the National Gallery of London, Sir Frederic William Burton, painted a portrait of Mary Palliser. His work is known for its often dramatic and romantic themes.

The portrait of Mary Palliser is no exception to Burton's theatrical style: While little is known about their relationship, it is rumoured the two were in love and the portrait was possibly an engagement gift. A clue can be seen in the painting—a ring on Mary's finger.

How the portrait came to be in Saskatchewan is a bit of a mystery, but it was left to the Archives' collection by someone related to a friend of the Palliser family, who commissioned the portrait.

Historian Irene Spry conducted extensive research on the Palliser expedition and traced surviving family correspondence for her book The Palliser Expedition (Toronto, 1963). She also wrote about it for the introduction and editing of the Champlain Society's The Papers of the Palliser Expedition, 1857-1860 (Toronto, 1968). During this research, Spry met Enid E. Lenox-Conyngham while searching for Palliser family connections and artifacts.

This led to the discovery of the magnificent painting.

It was Spry who convinced Lenox-Conyngham to send the portrait to the Archives for safekeeping in 1994. The Palliser portrait had not been viewed publicly since it was loaned by Gerald Lenox-Conyngham for a 1900 memorial exhibition of Burton's works, until the Archives loaned it to the National Gallery of Ireland for the 2017 Frederic William Burton: For the Love of Art exhibition.

Now, that portrait is home again on a long-term loan to the Waterford Art Gallery in Waterford, Ireland. While Mary Palliser died young and her relationship with Frederick William Burton is shrouded in mystery, the portrait stands as an artifact from another era and represents a small part of Saskatchewan's long-standing connection to Irish history.

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