Lawyers help restore painting of judge with storied background

BARRIE, Ont. — For decades, a massive portrait of Sir James Gowan hung in relative obscurity glancing a wary eye over what local lawyers affectionately call “settlement corner” at the Barrie courthouse.

Now, after a concerted effort by the community to restore the painting, the 147-year-old portrait of Simcoe County’s first judge will gain more prominence at the local courthouse. It will hang once again but will now be in pristine condition along with Gowan’s cane and a series of plaques explaining how he built the area’s judiciary and forged a path for the legal community to follow.

“It will be a dominant feature coming into the courthouse,” says Ted Chadderton, a civil litigator with Carroll Heyd Chown LLP and president of the Simcoe County Law Association. He helped lead the project after Barrie historian Mark Fisher proposed it.

Having earned his undergraduate degree in history, Chadderton appreciated the significance of what the Gowan portrait represents.

In 1843, Gowan became a judge at the age of 27 of the district and division courts in the newly created Simcoe district based in Barrie. Riding on horseback to quarterly circuits in outlying communities, he built the foundation for the judicial system that followed.

He was also quite involved in the community’s educational system and, throughout his career, he helped to draft legislation and continued to offer advice and write drafts of proposed laws. Much of his work and thoughts surfaced in his correspondence with lawmakers and politicians, including Sir John A. Macdonald and former Ontario premier Oliver Mowat. The papers themselves resulted in a story of intrigue many years later.

Gowan started the Upper Canada Law Journal, which is now the Canadian Bar Review, as a forum for his ideas to which he contributed anonymously. He also supervised others in the development of legal texts often based on his speeches and notes. With his interest in the codification of the law, he was involved in developing the Criminal Code as a senator.

“He had an extraordinary output,” says Ontario Chief Justice George Strathy, who’s Gowan’s great-great-great-nephew.

“The restored painting brings this extraordinary Simcoe County judge back to life.”

Strathy delivered the keynote address to the Simcoe County Law Association earlier this month during the unveiling of the Gowan portrait. There, he explained his other connection to local justice: the killing of his great-grandfather and the resulting trials, a process the current chief justice has closely examined.

Jack Strathy, a Barrie banker, was shot in the heart on his doorstep 120 years ago. Less than two months later, the shooter was on trial for murder. On appeal of his conviction and sentence to hang, the court ordered a new trial. The court found him guilty once again and handed him the mandatory death sentence. His lawyer then launched a petition for clemency by the federal cabinet, which commuted the sentence from death to life imprisonment. “And while the trials were brief, it was not at all uncommon at the time,” observed Strathy during the painting’s unveiling.

“The lawyers got to the point; the judge got to the point. There was no way a jury of farmers and merchants was going to be kept away from their farms or their jobs for any longer than necessary.”

Through his extensive research into the notorious killing and the proceedings that followed, Strathy has concluded the 19th-century justice offers some lessons society can now learn from. Gowan’s role in the system in midst of reform was twofold. He was chief justice of the district court and chairman of the court assessions. But he had a very hands-on role as he sought to propose and implement a working structure for the system and court officials.

“He was trying to professionalize, bureaucracize the administration of justice,” says James Phillips, a professor at the University of Toronto Faculty of Law and editor-in-chief of the Osgoode Society for Canadian Legal History.

To mark Gowan’s first 25 years on the bench in 1868, the Simcoe County bar commissioned painter Benoni Irwin to duplicate his likeness. The resulting painting hung in his home and eventually ended up at the Barrie courthouse.

The restoration project, which required the group to raise about $18,000, was a significant effort. It required levels of approval from the Ontario attorney general’s office and the painting’s keeper, the Archives of Ontario, simply to have it taken down. And then there was the work itself.

“It was just gruelling; it just about made me crazy,” says Gary Owen. An art restorer, he spent more than three months repairing the painting and the frame.

“Everything about the job was big. There was nothing easy about it,” he says.

Even getting a handle on its condition was a challenge as it hung above a staircase, which was one of the few options to place a less than two-metre painting in a building with ceilings that weren’t much higher. Owen used a pair of binoculars for his initial assessment. But only after its removal was he able to truly determine the amount of work required.

Owen stripped the frame, repaired the broken bits, and carefully resurfaced it with 23-karat gold leaves. Removing the painting’s top coating of varnish, now fogged and milky, revealed pitted and chipped sections that required repainting.

Although Gowan was active around the time of Confederation, he proved to be something of a fascination to a generation more than a century later.

In 1958, the son of one of the partners at a Barrie law office found his papers in the firm’s basement.

Fisher, the man who launched the painting restoration project and is now a retired teacher, wrote about the papers for his master of history thesis in 1971.

Through the years, he followed the papers’ trail as they fell into different hands, were the subject of litigation, and became something of a source of intrigue in a struggle over public ownership versus private gain. Fisher eventually chronicled the convoluted tale and its many colourful characters in his self-published book, The Gowan Papers, in 2011.

“It became a three-way legal fight,” says Fisher, noting the boy who found the papers spent years as an adult trying to profit from them and at one point sued his agent and the Simcoe County archives for allegedly misleading him about the tax credit he would receive. In 1999, 41 years after the initial discovery of the papers in a trunk in the law office basement, the court dismissed the lawsuit and the Simcoe County archives finally took ownership of them.

Lawyers, meanwhile, can now get a better sense of who Gowan was with the painting now restored. “We really are bringing a piece of Simcoe County judicial history back to life,” says Chadderton.

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