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Lord Elgin Hotel – Articles

Case closed: Archivists solve mystery of Lord Elgin Hotel's Wolfe statuette

From The Ottawa Citizen, January 23, 2012. By Tom Spears.

The Maple Leaf Forever says that Wolfe the dauntless hero came from Britain’s shore. So did his dauntless statuette.

It came to Ottawa in 1914, and reappeared here last summer after a 50-year absence, during which an unknown man stole the statuette as a youthful prank.

Like Gen. James Wolfe himself in 1759, it sneaked up when no one expected it and took its place in Canadian history.

You may remember the incident. Last June, someone left the statuette unceremoniously in a washroom at the Lord Elgin Hotel, with a note saying he stole it in the 1950s and regrets the “act of foolishness.”

But where did the model of the ancient major-general belong?

Now, thanks to archivists at Library and Archives Canada, the little bronze sculpture has a permanent home and a re-discovered lineage, traced back to the English artist who made it more than a century ago.

It even has a nickname. The archivists call it Wolfie.

On June 6, archivist Mary Margaret Johnston-Miller was driving to work when she heard about the mysterious statuette on the car radio. Then she saw its photo on the Citizen’s front page. It seemed familiar, like a photo of a statuette from the old Dominion Archivist’s office, but while the style was similar it wasn’t quite the same piece.

Johnston-Miller was doing research on the War of 1812 at the time. (This year is the bicentennial, and all kinds of public institutions are asking for paintings and prints of the war.)

But she took a historical detour to attack the Wolfe puzzle.

Years ago, an archivist had gone through stored artifacts and made a note of each purchase or donation of artwork.

On June 10, Johnston-Miller was sipping her coffee, leafing through a box of three-by-five-inch index cards.

“I hit pay dirt,” she recalls. There it was, a reference to correspondence with Sidney March, a sculptor and brother of Vernon March, whose name appears on Wolfie. (Vernon is better known in Ottawa as the man who designed the War Memorial at the Cenotaph.)

Johnston-Miller called the storehouse in Renfrew where old correspondence is kept. A truck had just left for Ottawa, but they called it back and loaded on the records she wanted.

These showed that in 1913, the Dominion Archives had ordered four bronze statuettes from Vernon March in England — figures of Wolfe, Samuel de Champlain, James Cook, and George Vancouver. That solved the puzzle of the photo from the Dominion Archivist’s office that wasn’t quite Wolfe: It was probably another in March’s set.

A followup in 1914 recorded the payment of $100 for the set of four.

“It says 1909 on the base of the statuette, but they were not purchased by the Archives until 1913-1914,” she notes.

“So at that point we knew we had bought them and that they had arrived. The next question of course was what happened to them.”

Back to the files. Johnston-Miller knew that Archives had once operated a museum in the Daly Building in downtown Ottawa. Its collection there included Sir Isaac Brock’s jacket, Sir John A. Macdonald’s desk, “and statues and all sorts of things.”

That’s where Wolfie was displayed, and where someone stole it.

But ownership of most of these objects was transferred decades ago to the Museum of Man, forerunner of the Museum of Civilization.

At first the trail appeared to go cold. But another archivist, Shane McCord, called the Museum of Civilization. More pay dirt: a card catalogue there not only records the transfer of the Wolfe statuette to the museum in 1966, it even has a photo that matches Wolfie perfectly.

And it says the statuette had been stolen. “So they got the card catalogue, but never got the statue,” Johnston-Miller said.

The whole mystery took from June 6 to 27 to solve.

“Once I found the index card, it fell into place fairly quickly,” she said.

Johnston-Miller has a special affection for Wolfie.

It doesn’t show the general in a commanding or heroic pose. Rather the opposite: “It’s Wolfe with his left hand on his hip. He should be holding a sword (but) it snapped off at some point. He’s sort of looking up, looking very pensive.”

He’s 33 centimetres tall. “He would have been fairly easy to hide.”

Some mysteries remain mysteries in the archives business, she notes, so it gave everyone a satisfying feeling to untangle this one.

The statue of Gen. James Wolfe was delivered to the Canadian Museum of Civilization on Sept. 20. The museum says it has “no immediate plans to display it.”

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