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The 125-year-old mystery of an exceptional Senate treasure
HOW & WHY
The 125-year-old mystery of an exceptional Senate treasure
March 1, 2018

In the Senate foyer of Parliament Hill’s Centre Block there is a directory displaying the names of the Speaker of the Senate and all current senators.

This unassuming panel — the Senate Seniority Board — is one of the oldest treasures in the Senate.

Until recently, no one knew just how old. The 1916 fire that razed Centre Block destroyed nearly all of its contents. Except for a few pieces, such as the Senate Mace and the 1842 portrait of Queen Victoria, most of the Senate collection dates from after the fire.

 

“The Senate Seniority Board was always a bit of a mystery to us,” explained Senate Heritage and Curatorial Services Project Co-ordinator Tamara Dolan. “When it was recently sent out for regular conservation work, the conservators were able to uncover a little bit of its history and give us a clearer idea of its past and provenance.”

The board has two components. The lower section displays the names of sitting senators by seniority, that is, from the date they were appointed. The names are engraved on movable tiles so the board can be easily updated.

The upper section, called the Speaker’s Arch, is considerably older. It is updated whenever a new Speaker is appointed, with each new name hand-rendered in gold calligraphy on a crimson backdrop. The convention for decades was to paint each successive name over the previous one. Until recently, the Senate could only guess how many hidden names there might be.

That changed when Ottawa’s Legris Conservation was contracted in 2016 to restore the board and art-restoration specialists began to strip away a 125-year-old mystery.

They scanned the artifact with infrared and ultraviolet photography, peering deep below the surface to determine how far the layers extended. Solvent tests were performed to determine the safest way to remove decades of accumulated paint and varnish.

As the work progressed, the conservators were astonished by the number of layers they uncovered. They revealed a record of the Senate beyond the Depression and the First World War. Ultimately, a significant name emerged: John J. Ross, Senate Speaker during the 1890s.

This proved that the upper component was much older than anyone had suspected, dating back to at least 1891, the year Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald died.

Astonishingly, the board may be older still. The conservators found evidence that suggests there is at least one further hidden layer of paint but they decided to leave John J. Ross’s name intact.

“Now we paint the name of the current Speaker on an entirely new panel,” Ms. Dolan said. “Then we attach it to the board with magnets. This preserves the name of the Speaker from 1891 but allows us to display the name of the current Speaker.”

The Senate Seniority Board, which displays the name of the current Speaker and sitting senators, hangs in the Senate foyer beside the entrance to the Speaker’s corridor.

Senate Heritage and Curatorial Services Project Co-ordinator Tamara Dolan unscrews the wooden side rail of the Senate Seniority Board to insert a new nameplate.

When conservators stripped away layers of accumulated paint, they uncovered the name John J. Ross, Senate Speaker from 1891 to 1896, revealing that the artifact is decades older than anyone had suspected.