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Painting of Barrie's first judge, Sir James Gowan, being restored

By Ian McInroy, Barrie Examiner

Gary Owen, of Gary Owen Framing, Fine Art and Restoration Services, inspects a portrait of Sir James Gowan at his downtown Barrie studio. MARK WANZEL PHOTO

Gary Owen, of Gary Owen Framing, Fine Art and Restoration Services, inspects a portrait of Sir James Gowan at his downtown Barrie studio. MARK WANZEL PHOTO

Perhaps recognition will come at last for one of Barrie's most famous historical figures.

A painting of Sir James Gowan, who was appointed Simcoe County's first judge in 1843 at just 27 years old — and was later prominent on the provincial and national stage — is being restored.

The oil painting was commissioned in 1868 by members of the Simcoe County Bar in commemoration of Gowan's 25th anniversary as judge, a position he held for 40 years until 1883.

In 1885, Gowan was appointed to the Senate by John A. Macdonald and continued to make contributions in the Red Chamber until he retired at age 92 in 1907.

Gowan was a friend, confidant and advisor to many prominent politicians and played a major part in the establishment of the judicial system of early Ontario and Canada, according to Barrie Historical Association president Mark Fisher.

"He was a key figure in the establishment of the crown prosecutor system of 1857, the consolidation of the statue law of Ontario in 1859 and 1877 and the codification of the criminal law in 1892," Fisher said. "He was also one of three judges appointed to investigate the notorious Canadian Pacific Railway scandal that brought down the government of John A. Macdonald in 1873."

Macdonald would later be elected again as prime minister.

"His dedication to the legal profession was additionally evident in the 1855 creation, at his own expense, of the Upper Canada Law Journal that eventually became the Canadian Bar Review, the pre-eminent legal periodical of Canada," Fisher added. "He was a keen student of law."

During Gowan's time in the Senate in the 1890s, he also played a big part in establishing rules for matrimonial divorce. Before that, divorce could only be granted through a complicated and costly Act of Parliament which was out of reach of most average Canadians.

"The rules remained in place until 1968," Fisher said.

Awarded a knighthood in in 1905, Sir James Gowan died in 1909 at the age of 94.

Now, the grand painting of a regal-looking Gowan is one of the last visual reminders of one of Barrie's most important citizens, and one that is largely unfamiliar to most 21st-century residents.

"Gowan is largely forgotten simply due to the passage of time and the growth of the city. Too many of the present population are relative newcomers, younger people with busy lives trying to make a living," Fisher said. "In 1909, when he died, Barrie had probably about 4,000 people."

Gowan's massive Ardraven estate — originally located between Duckworth Street and St. Vincent Street Park, and Blake Street and Kempenfelt Drive, and where the painting hung for many years — was built over beginning in the 1950s.

"His two big houses were torn down. The old courthouse (where the painting hung for many years) was demolished in 1977," Fisher said. "We seem to do that a lot in Barrie, far more than many other towns. I don't know why, it must be something in the water."

After the painting was moved from Ardraven, it was placed on permanent loan to the County of Simcoe and was later hung in the old Barrie courthouse. It was moved to the current Barrie courthouse in 1977 where it remained until recently.

Now Gowan's portrait is finally being restored to its original grandeur by Gary Owen, of Gary Owen Framing, Fine Art and Restoration Services.

Including the frame, the oil-on-canvas piece is imposing, measuring 67 inches tall and 55 inches across and with plexiglass that was installed (probably around 1977), it weighs close to 100 pounds.

That plexiglass will have to go, Owen said.

"Oil and canvas need air flow front and back, otherwise there's mould and condensation," he said, adding that has already happened to some extent.

The old varnish that seals the oil paint is reverting back to its original state, which is a yellow-brown cast, and Owen will "very carefully" remove it with a cotton swab.

"It's a bit of a process," he said. "If you use too much of the solution, it damages the paint. If you don't use enough, not all the varnish is removed."

There is also the 'schmaltz' texturing around the frame to be refinished, years and years of dirt and grime on the frame to remove and the restoration of some of the frames plaster detail, some of which will be gilded with 24-karat gold leaf.

"It'll be pretty ornate," Owen said. "Without the plexiglass, the detail will really stand out and the newer varnish will give it deeper tones and richer colours."

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