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William Edgar Cantelon
By Melissa Collver
Often 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 colours".

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 him".
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.

It 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 melissa.collver@sympatico.ca