Drawing Classes at the Mechanics’ Institute

In Montreal in 1828, the leaders of the new Mechanics’ Institution envisioned the establishment of classes in such subjects as writing, arithmetic, French, and various aspects of drawing.  These would serve two purposes:  provide a source of education for the young men who were flooding the city and had nowhere to learn except on the job; and keep them out of the pubs.

However, after long hours of work, the young men were not necessarily interested in attending classes—by candlelight.  Employers did not always want to let their young employees leave work early to go to school. Funding was a problem: it was difficult to charge young pupils enough to cover the costs of renting classrooms and paying teachers.  Some teachers were willing to provide instruction gratis, but course continuity was a problem.

Nevertheless, a surprising number of young men did sign up—as young as 13 (including Alexander Cowper Hutchison and John Ostell’s son Joseph)—and maintained their membership in the Mechanics’ Institute over the years.  Some of the teachers, who were also members of the Institute and volunteered their time, included:

John Cliff, from England, was described in Dr. Daniel Tracey’s anti-English Vindicator in 1830 as “a man of science and much talent in his profession.”  In the 1831 census he is listed as a carpenter, in 1842 as an architect; in the Dictionary of Canadian  Biography he is referred to as an architect.  On December 24, 1833, he was appointed drawing master for the Institute’s first classes, which would start December 30, and be held Monday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday evenings at 7 pm.

James Duncan taught drawing at MIM in 1851-52 with  the Rev. J. Hutchinson, and landscape and ornamental drawing in 1854-55 with J. C. Spence. He was a skilled draftsman, but is primarily known as a watercolourist.   Originally from Ireland, by 1830 he was already established in Montreal as a painter, lithographer and teacher of drawing.  Among other schools, he taught at the British & Canadian School for working class children.  He was commissioned by John Samuel McCord to paint views of the city and its environs, and was the artist for Bosworth’s Hochelaga Depicta published in 1839. Some of his drawings, part of the extensive David Winkworth collection in England, have recently been repatriated by Canadian Archives in Ottawa. He was an MIM life member.

John C. Spence taught landscape and ornamental drawing in 1854-55.  He was—according to Joseph T. Dutton in the Mechanics’ Institute’s minutes— the “son of William Spence, a celebrated sculptor of Liverpool, England.”  Probably  Montreal’s first stained glass decorator, his works include three stained glass windows over the organ loft at the Church of St. John the Evangelist; and three windows over the altar at tiny Holy Trinity Church in Iron Hill. He was on the MIM Committee of Management in the 1850s.

Adapted from an article that originally appeared in the Westmount Independent.

Susan McGuire is the official historian of the Atwater Library of the Mechanics’ Institute of Montreal. You can contact her by email at:
s.f.mcguire@sympatico.ca.