artists and their work are not appreciated until they are no longer with
us. Such is the case with William Edgar Cantelon of Doan's Hollow,
Norfolk County, Ontario. Mr. Cantelon was a visionary who dedicated his
life to collecting and preserving the history of Norfolk County. His
story is an interesting one.
- W. Edgar Cantelon was born on a pioneer
farm near Streetsville. Like most young boys of the 1800s Edgar had
daily farm chores. He found these to be dull and mundane and tried to
complete them as quickly as possible so that he would have more time for
his one true love. As a young fellow, he was not interested in the usual
boyhood pursuits but felt very early on a passion for sketching and
painting. In those less than tolerant times, Cantelon was considered
strange by his peers but was fortunate to be the son of parents who
encouraged his passion for art.
- His father inspired him with kind and
encouraging words while his mother provided Edgar with paper on which to
sketch. Paper was a scarce and expensive commodity but Edgar's mother
was a resourceful woman. She saved the white paper found wrapped around
tea purchased at the general store which she smoothed, folded and
stitched together to create books for Edgar's "pencil and
- As you can imagine paper was not the only
thing difficult to come by. As a member of a growing pioneer family,
money was scarce even for the most essential items and art supplies
would have been considered a real luxury. Cantelon had to rely on his
own ingenuity and boyish enthusiasm to provide himself with the
necessary equipment. Brushes were a must and for these he looked no
further than his own backyard. He found that the ear hair of the family
dog was stiff yet flexible and would make perfect bristles. He clipped
enough to make two or three brushes. A trip to the poultry yard yielded
a few feathers borrowed from the gray gander. He split the quills,
dipped one end of the gathered hair in glue and inserted them into the
quill. He then wrapped cord around to hold it together. Cantelon is
quoted as saying, "Of the hundreds of 'boughten' brushes I have used,
none has given me more of a thrill as did this childish product" The
only thing missing now was colour for his sketches. He experimented with
berry juice, sumac fruit and wool but found these to be unsatisfactory.
But one day while poking at the brick of his house with a pocketknife he
noticed that it created red dust. Intrigued, he moistened it with his
own saliva and discovered he had a wonderful red "paint"!
- As a young man, Cantelon had the good
fortune to travel to Chicago where he studied art. While there his
colleagues nicknamed him "Canada". Upon returning home, he took up
residence in Norfolk County. He lived with his brother and sister-in-law
in Doan's Hollow. Cantelon set up a studio above a store in downtown
Simcoe, Ontario to pursue a career in art.
- I recently had the pleasure of visiting
with Dorothy (Anderson) Riddle who took lessons from Cantelon during the
1930s. As we sat at her kitchen table she reminisced about her time
spent with this somewhat eccentric gentleman. Lessons took place on
Saturday and apparently Cantelon looked upon them as important events.
He would sweep up and put on a clean shirt each Saturday morning before
his student's arrival.
- Dorothy proudly showed me the cardboard box
of supplies Cantelon provided for each of his students. Hers was about
11" x 14" and had once held 'Men's Stanfield Unshrinkable Underwear'.
Inside the box was a beautifully grained palette, two paintbrushes, two
tiny tin cups, one for paint and one for turpentine, a flexible knife
and about twelve tubes of oil paint. This kit cost each student $4.64.
Dorothy remembers Cantelon as "quite a gentlemanI was glad to have known
- Dorothy has another connection to Cantelon.
Her 'family' church, a small village church in Wilsonville, Ontario is
home to a beautiful and very large (9' x10') Cantelon painting. It
depicts a peaceful river with sheep grazing along its banks, willow
trees and in the distance a small country church. This painting was
commissioned by Dorothy's father in memory of her mother who died in
1931. It is a lovely memorial and even more so since Dorothy actually
painted some of the leaves while the canvas sat in Cantelon's studio. He
insisted she put a little of herself into this piece.
Cantelon dedicated his life in the
tireless pursuit of preserving the history of Norfolk County. During
good weather he bicycled up and down the concessions of our fair county
sketching and painting. He painted places family burial grounds,
churches, flour mills, tanneries and historic homes. He painted people
including Abigail Becker, heroine of Long Point and General John Graves
Simcoe. Many people commissioned Cantelon to paint portraits of their
loved ones including their pets. At one time his collection of Norfolk
paintings was considered to be of such great historical value that the
Ottawa Public Archives was anxious to purchase them. Cantelon refused to
allow them to leave the area and in the late 1940s, the Norfolk
Historical Society purchased the complete collection. They paid $4000.00
for 300 paintings.
- During his travels, Cantelon not only
sketched and painted but also collected important historical artifacts
that illustrated Norfolk County's colourful past. These he stored in the
basement of a local library until a museum was created to house the
collection. For many years, he served as Curator of the Norfolk
Historical Societywho better?
- Of course, not all of his paintings were of
Norfolk. Hanging in the home of my parents is a Cantelon painting
depicting the house where Mary Pickford was born on University Avenue in
Toronto. And my friends, Keith and Diane Koopman own a very unusual
Cantelon portrait of Abraham Lincoln.
- It appears that Cantelon was not burdened
by the pursuit of acquiring wealth as so many are. He seemed to know
that what he was doing was important. Years later we are appreciative of
his efforts. Paintings that once would have sold for a few dollars
seventy years ago now command hundreds of dollars. His style may be
primitive but it his subject matter that sets him apart.
- William Edgar Cantelon died March 3rd, 1950
but his spirit lives on through his work. By pursuing his passion he has
achieved immortality. I believe that he would be both surprised and
pleased to know that his paintings are collected and preserved. How much
they sell for wouldn't really interest him but the knowledge that he has
left a legacy for future generations would be most meaningful.
is estimated that W.E. Cantelon produced nearly 8000 paintings
throughout his lifetime. A large number of them can be viewed at the Eva
Brook Donly Museum, Norfolk St., Simcoe, Ontario.
- Melissa Collver is an antique collector.
She can be reached at email@example.com