Passionately Canadian: A fresh look at early decorative arts

August 26, 2015

At first glance, the jug looks like a fantastical baked pastry — translucent glaze over red clay, a circular design, every surface covered with harvest motifs, even the stopper. But what can it tell us about our early Canadian roots? Answering this question is the focus of the online exhibition, The Harbinson Collection – A Passion for Canadian Furniture and Decorative Arts.

The jug is a one-of-a-kind “harvest ring” showstopper, made in Bruce County, Ontario, by the Brownscombe family of potters more than 140 years ago. Harvest rings are unusual, a design traditionally meant to be carried on the arm. Passed down through generations, this harvest ring and other pieces of Brownscombe pottery reflect the family’s English origins, but were made with locally available clay.

Coming to Canada

Over the past 400 hundred years, immigrants to Canada often arrived without the familiar things that make a house a home — a writing desk, a painting of a loved one, a blanket. In Quebec, along the Niagara Peninsula, in the Maritimes and elsewhere in Eastern Canada, immigrant artisans adapted to their surroundings, often using local materials to recreate designs from their countries of origin. And once relocated, regional design variations soon followed.

Pennsylvania Germans moved north after the American Revolution, bringing their weaving techniques with them. Scottish cabinet-makers reflected Chippendale designs in their chests of drawers, but altered the knobs to better match prevalent Victorian tastes. French immigrants adapted decorative traditions to create diamond-point designs in what is now Quebec, where the style maintained its popularity long after it had passed in France. An experienced eye can follow the story of immigrant families and artisans through the objects they passed down from generation to generation.

Genesis of a collection

Collecting the story along with the object was important to John and Heather Harbinson when they first started acquiring early Canadian domestic furniture and decorative arts in the 1960s. Sifting through second-hand shops, jumping on weekend auction finds and developing relationships with savvy antique dealers, the Harbinsons carefully added to a stunning, world-class collection. Their criteria? Each piece had to have a strong and verifiable history, display excellent workmanship and utilize identifiable, made-by-hand techniques.

Their stringent adherence to these values makes the Harbinsons’ collection one of the best of its kind in Canada. They donated it to the Canadian Museum of History in 2007. “This is an important addition to the Museum’s decorative arts collection,” says Alan Elder, the Museum’s Manager, First Peoples and Early Canada. “The collection includes both rustic pieces — using basic techniques and materials — and finely made artifacts. The objects represent different lifestyles in the country’s early years.”

Showcasing the collection

The new virtual exhibition allows viewers to click on important details otherwise difficult to display, such as a maker’s signature on the back of a frame or a label affixed inside a drawer. Meanwhile, the Brownscombe harvest ring is ready for its close-up.

Alan Elder puts the pottery piece in context: “This harvest ring allows us a window into the lives of early Canadians and the heritage that they brought with them. While the clay used to make the piece may have been local, its exquisite craftsmanship represents the Brownscombe family’s knowledge of a long history of design and making.”

Discover the collection: The Harbinson Collection – A Passion for Canadian Furniture and Decorative Arts

Harvest Ring
Made by the Brownscombe family, Kinloss Township, Bruce County, Ontario
Around 1870–1880
Earthenware, 38(h) x 21.5(w) x 13(d) cm
Canadian Museum of History, IMG2014-0140-0107-Dm