Her story – anonymous, until a few days ago

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The chromolithograph with the old boards.

The chromolithograph with the old boards.

I didn’t want to buy any furniture when I moved to Vernon B.C. because I knew I wasn’t going to stay there long. I didn’t like it. However, my parents said they were going to visit me, so I had to get a table and chairs. I also bought an interesting piece of artwork, which remained pretty, but anonymous, until a few days ago. Along with it, there’s a history and a story stretching almost a hundred and thirty years that could have been forgotten.

Let’s start about ten years ago in the Okanagan. I had just become the managing editor (as well as reporter, photographer, receptionist,) of the Vernon Daily Courier. I had left Fort Smith in the Northwest Territories with my cat, luggage and not much else. It was too expensive to bring furniture down from the north but I had put my dishes and pots and pans on the Greyhound. I was good. However, Vernon was not.

The warm valley weather didn’t extend to some of its residents. I found Vernon cliquish and some of the senior population was aggressive. They had no qualms about pushing you off the sidewalk with their elbows or out of their way in the grocery aisle with a shopping cart. I decided as soon as I got another job somewhere else, I was out of there. Nevertheless, when my parents said they might visit me, I thought I’d better find some cheap chairs in case.

Each spring, the Allan Brooks Nature Centre high atop a hill on the outskirts of Vernon holds its Mega Garage and Plant Sale. (Money goes towards educational and nature programs.) Perfect! I drove up and found so many beautiful things. I bought three chairs, a coffee table, a pretty porcelain platter with cherry blossoms etched on it as well as several pieces of art. (Including this velvet oeuvre.)

When paying for all my fabulous items, someone told me that the rose picture was a work of watercolours on silk. He said it was an old piece probably from the mid-1900s. I said thanks for the details and took my stuff “home.” I hung the pictures and set up the furniture and I was done. A couple of months later, I was also done with my job. I was out of work, thanks to the recession.

I moved to Revelstoke and ended up giving away my chairs and tables. I kept the art. I moved a few more times and ended up in Edmonton this last September. The last move broke the glass on the rose picture.

While removing the shards from the frame, I was careful not to cut the picture. One piece of glass was not budging and I either had to slice my hand to get it or take the back off the picture. I didn’t want to do either. I didn’t want to get blood all over everything and I had heard that removing the backing from the picture could damage the artwork. Alas, there was no way around it and bits of the time-stained brown paper were flaking off the frame anyway. It was time.

I took off all the paper and found two thin pieces of rough wood held in place by thin nails. As I bent the ancient tacks away from the frame, I saw the white paper of the artwork emerge with some writing. On the lower right hand corner, it said $2.50 each. There was also a label: Prang’s Satin Art Prints. The date said 1891.

The roses are 127 years old.

This was incredible. I went to my computer and looked up the company. Turns out, the roses aren’t watercolour on silk; they are a chromolithograph, a type of coloured print. These types of artwork became popular in the late 1800s because they were cheap and it meant anyone could have a nice piece of art hanging in their living rooms – not just rich people.

Prang was the surname of Louis Prang, an American, who is known as the “Father of the American Christmas Card” as he made cards affordable for all. Prang is remarkable too because he hired women artists, not a common practice in his time. Despite googling Mrs. Virginia Janus, the creator of the rose piece, I can’t find any information about her. During my research, I read women in the graphic arts in the late 1800s were mostly ignored by historians. However, it’s now 2018 and I’m fortunate to have uncovered her talents, if not her story.

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