While the Merritt family is revered for their contribution to the building of the canal, their relationship to the artistic community of St. Catharines is a lesser-known connection. Through various creative disciplines and multiple generations, the Merritt family were patrons of the arts, and helped to establish a culture of creativity that has persisted into the modern community of St. Catharines.
One example of the family’s significance within the arts is that of Emily Merritt (1858-1943). Emily Merritt – granddaughter of William Hamilton Merritt, and daughter of William Hamilton Merritt Jr. – was an amateur artist specializing in watercolour landscapes.
Emily was a dedicated student of the arts, having travelled in 1907 to all areas of Europe and Asia – including India, France, Italy and Japan – for her artwork. This type of excursion was a popular concept, often referred to as a “Grand Tour” in the late Victorian period. Although high-ranking men were more likely to partake in these expeditions for their education, women were often encouraged to travel to bolster skills considered suitable for ladies at the time, such as painting, drawing and language studies. These trips would normally last a few weeks, and were expansive, often involving multiple countries and regions. Popular destinations included Rome, Venice, and Paris, although some tours also extended into eastern Europe. During these tours, women were always accompanied by a companion or guide and would often keep records of their time abroad through travel journals and memoirs. Accompanied by her sister, Emily documented her trip with a series of watercolour landscape paintings which were later bound as a keepsake. Unfortunately, most of her painted landscapes have since been lost. Only one or her paintings remains in the St. Catharines Museum Collection, entitled, “The Old Brewery, Port Dalhousie”.
The landscape is comprised of a small portion of water, where a single boat passes through the scene carrying two people. The colour scheme is cool and appears to depict the early morning or evening based on the absence of a direct light source. The painting is undated; however, we can estimate based on Emily’s age and documented artistic pursuits abroad that it may have been completed in the late 1890s to the early 1900s, when she would have been in her late thirties to early forties. We also know the location to be near Port Dalhousie, based on the title, although an exact location is difficult to pinpoint. “The Old Brewery” she refers to may be the Taylor and Bates Brewery, first established as the St. Catharines Brewery in 1827, which operated alongside the old Welland Canal until 1934. If this is the case, we can assume the waterway depicted in the painting is the canal, which may be her way of documenting her family’s impact on St. Catharines. The Taylor and Bates Brewery, according to city records, was the only operational brewery in St. Catharines at this time, however, we are unable to confirm her definitive intentions for the location of the painting. Unfortunately, since Emily was an amateur artist, any other information collected about this piece has been lost. In fact, it was previously unknown that there were any paintings attributed to Emily before this one was discovered in the museum archives. The lack of information on both the artist and her painting is certainly disappointing, but, as with all historical art, there is always room for interpretation based on an appreciation of the artwork itself.
Although the landscape seems simplistic, Emily expresses much more emotion in her art than can be interpreted from the natural elements she depicts. The artwork itself is painted from life in watercolour and portrays a singular moment of nature in St. Catharines that is captured through her eyes. The bright colours surpass realism, and instead opt to convey positivity and the magic of the city that is only experienced by those who reside here. While her studies of famous landmarks and sites around the world would be interesting to view, her interpretation of the city where she was born is the beginning of her journey as an artist and represents the beauty that is found in simple moments by ordinary people. There is no grand landmark or recognizable subject – this painting captures a moment of enjoyment that is unique to her individual experience. It represents the true meaning of art.
Although Emily has long since passed, artists in St. Catharines continue to draw inspiration from the same landscape that first inspired her. Despite the unfortunate lack of information afforded to many early artists, the creative culture of modern St. Catharines remains intact, and the influence of prior creative pursuits on the artists of today is still as significant as ever.
Chloe Diemer is a Programming Student at the St. Catharines Museum and Welland Canals Centre.