The Cabot Commemorative State Service for Canada, 1897
The Cabot Commemorative State Service for Canada, 1897

By Marie Elwood

Parliament Buildings and Ottawa River - PCD 3732-016
Dinner plate
Parliament Buildings and Ottawa River
Painted by M. Logan
National Trust for Scotland, Edinburgh

The year 1897 marked the 400th anniversary of the discovery of Canada by John Cabot. To commemorate this event, the Women's Art Association of Canada (WAAC) proposed to commission a State Dinner Service of hand-painted china for the Governor General's residence in Ottawa. The Service was to accommodate a state banquet for 24 people. No two pieces were to be alike; it was to be painted with Canadian subject-matter only and to be painted by Canadian women. As a project it was an early expression of nationalism in Canadian art and it was also an expression of confidence in the ability of Canadian women to carry out such a task, at a time when British and European art, especially ceramic art, was much more highly esteemed than colonial products.

The idea for a national State Dinner Service originated in the United States. In 1879, Mrs. Rutherford Hayes, wife of the President of the United States, commissioned a State Dinner Service for the White House from the Haviland firm in Limoges, France.1 In a chance conversation, Mrs. Hayes mentioned this project to an American artist, Theodore R. Davis. The artist suggested that she had a marvellous opportunity to create something entirely American by making the designs exclusively of American flora and fauna. Mrs. Hayes, delighted with this suggestion, cancelled her original choice and asked Theodore Davis to design such a service. He produced over 130 designs of American flora and fauna for the service, which was made in the Haviland factory.2 The factory then issued several duplicate sets for sale. An enterprising Montreal china merchant, Adam Darling, ordered one set, a Canadian version, with every piece marked with the Arms of the Dominion in colour. He advertised in Montreal newspapers for customers to come to see "The Famous White House Dinner Service" displayed in his shop window.3

Old Prescott Gate, Quebec - PCD 3733-004
Soup plate
Old Prescott Gate, Quebec
Painted by Clara E. Galbreaith
National Trust for Scotland, Edinburgh

In 1896, a State Dinner Service for Canada was proposed and a Committee of the WAAC began work on the "stupendous task" of producing a State Service of 16 dozen pieces. A competition was organized among the membership of the Association throughout Canada, to select artists of sufficient competence. Sixteen women were chosen by competition "to whom the work was apportioned according to their individual proficiency in the painting of various subjects."4 A Ceramics Committee was set up: "Material was then searched for by the committee in the shape of photographs, drawings and direct sketches of old forts, battlefields, old gates and other historical scenes, also reproductions of game, fish, shells, ferns and flowers of Canada. "5

This pictorial assemblage was to serve as a reference collection for the artists, who were supposed to draw inspiration for their designs within the constraints of the requirements imposed: i.e. plates for the fish course were to be painted with fish found in Canadian waters, the game course to have depictions of Canadian wild ducks in their habitats, "with the food specially favoured by each species on the rim", the salad plates to be decorated with Canadian ferns, the dessert dishes with Canadian fruits and songbirds and wild flowers of Canada to decorate the cups and saucers. On the soup and meat plates "the Historic Landscapes of Canada" from coast to coast were to be represented.



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