McFarlane Street

A mystery painting

Robert McFarlane Stratford-Perth Archives

McFarlane Street was laid out in the William Gordon Survey and is named in honour of Robert McFarlane.

Two years earlier, in 1872, the Town of Stratford and the federal riding of South Perth had been saddened by the sudden death in Ottawa of their young member of Parliament, Robert McFarlane. A Liberal, McFarlane had been re-elected in September, 1867, to represent South Perth in the first parliament of the Dominion of Canada.

He was 37 when he died in office, on June 1, 1872. One of his closest personal friends, Hon. John Sandfield Macdonald, Prime Minister of Canada (1862-64) and the first prime minister of Ontario (1867-71), died on the same day.

Called to the bar in 1857, Robert McFarlane formed a law partnership with Daniel Home Lizars (see Hamilton Street), who became a Perth County judge. His next partner was John Idington, who became a justice of the Supreme Court of Canada.

He entered Perth County politics as a Reform candidate in 1862. He ran unsuccessfully against Thomas Mayne Daly in a by-election in Perth County. In 1863, he defeated Daly and represented Perth in the 8th Parliament of the Province of Canada. When the county was split into two parts after Confederation, he was elected in the south riding. Source: Wikipedia

Kathleen McFarlane Lizars, co-author with her sister of the social history In the Days of the Canada Company was named for her father-in-law's partner, Robert McFarlane.

From the start, Robert McFarlane enjoyed popularity with his fellow members of government and their varying shades of political opinions . One such friend was Thomas D'Arcy McGee, the famed Irish Canadian and brilliant political orator. A Fathers of Confederation, McGee had condemned the Irish-American Fenians. Early on the morning of April 7, 1868, after a night-long session of Parliament, McGee and McFarlane left the Parliament Buildings together. The air was clear and crisp as they said goodnight to each other on Sparks Street near McGee's lodgings.

Robert McFarlane was one of the last persons to see McGee alive. He was shot dead by an assassin as he entered his lodging-house on Sparks Street. The Beacon said, "Who knows but what if he (McFarlane) had accompanied Mr. McGee a few steps farther, he might not have shared the same fate?" Patrick James Whelan, a Fenian, was tried and convicted, and he became the last man hanged in public in Canada. By Stanford Dingman

Portrait by J. W. L. Forster Stratford-Perth Archives

The mystery painting

Robert McFarlane's name returned to the news pages in 1973. During renovations at the Perth County Courthouse, a fine oil portrait was discovered above the false ceiling in the ladies' washroom. Though the stretcher and canvas were still intact, the frame was missing and the identity of the subject unknown. The mystery was solved when Lorne Brothers recognized Robert McFarlane from a small engraving of the portrait published in the Stratford Beacon in 1905. It is believed to be the work of the well-known Canadian portrait painter, John W. L. Forster.

Though Forster was a young apprentice artist when McFarlane died, it is clear that he later painted portraits based on photographs and descriptions of historical figures. The tragedy of McFarlane's sudden, early death, his connection to the first Dominion Parliament, D'Arcy McGee and Sir John A. MacDonald would have made him an appealing subject for Forster.

Forster's cousin, Dr. Fred J. R. Forster, lived in Stratford, and may have brought the story to the attention of the artist. In the portrait, MacFarlane is holding an open letter. He spent his last hours, apparently, recovering from his illness, and catching up on correspondence. Forster liked to include objects significant to his historical subjects. William Lyon MacKenzie, for example, was depicted, according to Forster, with "a quill pen recording the nine theses or principles of the settlers' petition to the Colonial Office, London." Source: Stratford-Perth Archives

Note: the painting appears to have been a copy of the photo above. The portrait is now held by the Stratford-Perth Archives.