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Get Thee To A Thrift Shop

Sunday, January17, 2023

Ah, the lure of the thrift shop! For the incurable collector the attraction is just too strong to resist. And just think what you might find……

Here’s Eric’s story:

Dear Ms. McLean,

I found this small (9 3/4" x 13") oil on board painting by Cara Harris quite by accident in a local thrift store - a truly local thrift store, one that displays items donated locally. It may have come from an estate in Saint John or the surrounding area, or from someone who was downsizing. I didn’t recognize Clara’s name and it cost me only $4. Whoever price-tagged it evidently did not recognize the quality. My father was an amateur painter who worked in oils, and I grew up in a house full of paintings, so it stood out to me as the work of a skilled artist. I thought the painting was quite accomplished. Googling led me to your website, which is superb! 

Please feel free to add this image to your collection. If you have any idea where the scene may have been painted, based upon similar sketches or paintings in your archive, I would very much like to know.

Eric, thanks for sending these photos. It always amazes me just how many of Clara's paintings continue to surface. And where they end up. The painting is beautiful.  I haven't seen this scene before so I can't tell you where it is. However, someone reading the site might have an answer for us.

The colours are a bit more muted in person than what my phone camera was able to discern, but it is quite a lovely painting of a figure standing alongside a woodland road that curves along the shore of a lake or sea cove with a hillside in the left background and wood in the right foreground. From the posture of the figure, I would be inclined to think that he or she is fishing.

And here is a photo of the back and a close-up of the signature. There’s a photo that shows Clara’s signature that’s missing.

The brown paper that had been on the back of the frame seems to have come off a long time ago, and with it, any title or date, if it was marked with a title or date. There is no date on the painting, just her signature. The painting is oil on wooden board, and the back of the board has been marked in blue ballpoint pen: "59851

fr. 10 1/2 x 13 3/4 [ the dimensions of the inside of the frame]

2 1/2 70 87-93 finish as cust sample"

The back of the frame has been marked in green ballpoint pen: 

"59851 10 1/2 x 13 3/4"

The exterior of the frame is 14 5/8" x 17 7/8".

I like Clara's paintings on board the best.  You probably know that artists who painted on site used board to get a quick sketch which was portable.  Then they'd take their scenes back to the studio and do a bigger version on canvas.  Proficient artists could complete one of these paintings in approximately 30 minutes. It sounds preposterous but I learned this on a tour of the McMichael Gallery in Kleinburg.

The phrase "finish as cust sample" makes me think Clara was commissioned to paint this scene and she used this to see how the client liked it before starting on the real version.  She painted scenes for Christmas cards too.

I did not know that board was often used for on-site preliminary paintings, but that does sound like what the inscription "finish as cust sample" is referencing. Perhaps that explains the choice of frame as well... either a style she would not normally have chosen, which reflected the customer's tastes, or something clean but inexpensive, as the customer had not yet committed to the work on canvas? Or perhaps it was painted and framed up somewhere on the East Coast, where the selection of available frames would have been quite limited? It might also explain why there is no title, date, or place attribution.

If the number on the frame and board reflect her cataloging (or Fred's) rather than say, the store that sold the frame and board, perhaps it can be traced to the customer.

Here is a photo of my office wall: Clara’s painting hanging proudly on the left; centre top, a painting by J. Medina (signature of Alice J. Silva Medina, 1922-2005, a Swain School of Design graduate who lived on Martha's Vineyard. Like Clara, she travelled and was prolific in her art, and is not as well-known as she should be); centre, a hand-pulled print by the West Coast impressionist and sportsman-writer Russell Chatham (1939-2019); right, a print of a Miramichi, New Brunswick fishing scene by NYC artist Charles DeFeo (1892-1978) framed up with one of his flies.

Your curated online archive is quite an accomplishment, and I am glad it is attracting the attention of museums and art institutes. Clara Harris deserves to be better known.

The Baby Point calendar is a wonderful initiative, and I am going to order one - thank you for bringing it to my attention. 

Thank you for taking it upon yourself to see that this unsung artist is better known.

With thanks and best regards,

Eric M.

Researcher, Writer

University of New Brunswick

Saint John, NB

Eric, thanks for contributing photos of this painting and your thoughts which are now part of Clara’s archive.



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