The Art of Science: Documenting Canada’s Central Experimental Farm

Canada Agriculture and Food Museum

Canada’s Central Experimental Farm (CEF), located in the middle of the capital city of Ottawa, has a rich history dating back to 1886. Founded in part to breed and test new crops suitable for the Canadian climate, an important part of this work was to document and share research with other institutions, farmers, and interested professional and amateur gardeners.   

The Canada Agriculture and Food Museum (part of the Canada Science and Technology Museum Corporation) holds a collection of over 3000 archival photographs, drawings, glass slides, and watercolour paintings from the CEF, some dating back to the 1890s.

This collection is a detailed visual record—one that captures the CEF’s scientific endeavours as well as showcases the beauty of its subjects.

Pictures worth 1000 words…
Different media were used for documentation and distribution by the CEF staff, including publication in scientific papers and journals, pamphlets for distribution to farmers, and printing on glass slides for public lectures to gardening enthusiasts.

Scientific study went hand in hand with accurate illustration of results, and photography offered a new way to document innovation and experimentation.

Using the photographs documenting their work, the CEF scientists published reports, recommendations, pamphlets, and other literature.

Advances in camera and film technology in the 1880s made taking photographs outside of dedicated studios possible. CEF staff used this new flexibility to capture their experiments—both in the field and in the lab.

Photography had its limits, especially as it lacked accurate colour representation.

Colour photography in the early 20th century lacked the colour quality necessary for scientific documentation. To address this, paintings and illustrations were created by talented botanical artists who, with their training and knowledge, could create works with accurate colour representation.

Another technique used to enhance photographic documentation was hand-colouring black and white photographs. Many of the glass slides in this collection have received this treatment, destined for the Magic Lantern machine.

The Magic Lantern was an early type of slide projector. Images applied to glass were inserted into the device, and a light shone through the glass to project them onto a wall or other flat surface.

Most of the images in this exhibit are from the collection of over 1500 glass Magic Lantern slides used for lecturing, demonstrations, and sharing research with other research centres, farmers, and scientists.

To produce a coloured slide, a print was made on glass, and hand-coloured using watercolour or oil-based paints. It was then covered by another glass piece to create a transparent slide, used in presentations and lectures.

Illustrations and paintings could also be applied to the slides by photographing the original print, and hand-applying colour to the resulting image.

The fragile slides are stored in a temperature-controlled environment, and must be handled very carefully.

Art and Science
Photographs, slides, and paintings were used by the Farm’s staff to document their experiments, and also to educate the public. Through lectures on new breeding techniques, publications for gardeners, and presentations that promoted the Farm as a place of beauty, the CEF reached out to researchers, farmers and other interested parties. 

The use of the hand-colouring technique to enhance the visual quality of the scientific documentation the CEF produced demonstrates just how blurry the line between art and science can be, especially when dealing with such a picturesque subject.

While photographs depicting the beauty of the CEF’s wheat fields, tree-lined paths and experimental plantings are attractive, the hand-coloured slides of the gardens are truly stunning.

These images would have been used as inspiration for amateur and professional gardeners alike. Following the First World War, horticultural societies saw record membership, and amateur gardeners often attended lectures delivered by the CEF’s horticulturalists.

Part of this interest was due to one of the Farm’s most talented horticulturalists, Isabella Preston, who worked at the CEF between 1920 and 1947.

Preston’s irises, lilies, roses, and crabapple trees were known internationally for their beauty. Extensively photographed, these images received the hand-colouring treatment for use in Preston’s lectures, presentations, and publications.

Preston’s irises were particularly popular, attracting the attention of Lady Byng, wife of Canada’s Governor General from 1921 to 1926. Byng took some of Preston’s specimens back to England, generating international attention for the Farm.

Naming flowers was part of the job of experimental horticulturists, and CEF horticulturalists such as Preston drew naming inspiration from lakes, rivers, royalty, and even CEF staff.

These lilies, Grace Marshall, were part of the Stenographer series, named after the Central Experimental Farm stenographers.

Dominion horticulturalist William Terrell Macoun was also responsible for breeding beautiful blooms, including this popular late 19th-century flower, the gladiolus. By 1926 there were over 550 varieties of gladioli at the Farm.

Bread and Roses
Visual documentation was also important for the experimental Cereal Division, which is particularly evident when the Division was tasked with finding an early-ripening wheat that could be harvested before the first frost in the newly “settled” western territories.

Dr. Charles Saunders, son of director William Saunders, was in charge of the Cereal Division. He hand-pollinated many different varieties of wheat, personally examining and selecting the best seeds for each new planting.

The main successes of the wheat program would come in the early 1910s, when Charles Saunders bred the Marquis cultivar.

The new variety avoided the fall frost by maturing 7-10 days earlier than other strains used at the time, and the flour it produced was excellent for baking. It became popular almost instantly.

Marquis was so successful that by 1918, it made up 80% of the Canadian wheat crop. Northern US states were also growing the new variety.

Farmers from across the country were also invited to send samples of cereal seeds (especially wheat) they planned to plant the following season, so a small amount could be test-planted in a CEF greenhouse. Frost at the end of the growing season could have potentially damaged the seeds, and these tests could save the farmer a failed crop.

The program was popular, receiving hundreds of samples each year. This image shows a sample of wheat that was deemed “strong”.

A variety of trees were also planted in CEF greenhouses, and carefully bred for desirable qualities. Methods for planting and breeding were depicted in several slide series.

These trees were transplanted to the CEF’s fields, or sent to Western farms as a way to prevent soil erosion.

Photographs of CEF staff activities could also be paired with illustrations and paintings during lectures or presentation, enhancing their impact.

For example, these men collecting soil samples could complement a painting of leaves grown in various soils, demonstrating the impact of nutrients on growth.

Documentation of new preservation techniques was also a priority for the CEF, especially during the Second World War.

During that time, CEF scientists concentrated on vegetable dehydration and preservation experiments.

These products were vital to the war effort and were sent overseas with soldiers as lightweight and non-perishable sources of nutrition.

Early attempts at such preservation, however, were unpalatable.

Farm scientist Dr. Mary MacArthur was in charge of the vegetable dehydration experiments. She was responsible for researching and improving the quality of dehydrated food.

The CEF was also at the forefront of the frozen food industry, testing, perfecting, and documenting methods for preserving a variety of fruits and vegetables.

The new techniques were carefully photographed and turned into slides for demonstrations.

Artistic License
Between 1920 and the late 1940s, the CEF employed a full-time botanical artist to sketch and paint important breeding experiment samples, especially the work with apples and ornamental flowers.   The first artist—Faith Fyles—was a trained botanist whose talent for painting allowed her to quickly and accurately document the subtle differences in tone and colour that resulted from experimental cross-breeding, soil nutrient changes, and other factors. Following her retirement in 1931, Fyles’s work was continued by another talented painter, Arthur Kellett.

Fyles’s artistic talents were first revealed during her time as an assistant seed analyst for the department of Agriculture. She painted samples for colleagues, and in 1920 published her research and illustrations in a 100-page departmental bulletin called Principal Poisonous Plants of Canada.

Later that year, she became the resident botanical artist at the CEF and continued to paint a wide variety of fruits, flowers, and other plants.

Many of Fyles’s paintings focus on apples—a major focus of experimentation in the first fifty years of the Farm’s existence.

Hybridization, selected breeding, fertilizer and pesticide application produced many apple varieties well suited for Canadian growing conditions.

Dominion Horticulturalist, W.T. Macoun, was heavily involved in this pursuit, and some of his varieties, such as the Lobo pictured here, are still grown today.

One of horticulturalist Isabella Preston’s most enduring legacies to the CEF is the Rosybloom crabapple trees she cultivated. The bright pink blooms—as well as the fruit—were attractive to passers-by.

Botanical artists such as Fyles and Arthur Kellett painted the blooms and resulting fruit.

The trees were also documented through hand-coloured slides.

Other fruits, such as grapes and cherries, were also cultivated by the CEF’s talented horticulturalists and painted by Fyles and Kellett.

Practically Picturesque
With its orderly gardens, buildings, and well-planned fields, the CEF was to be a glowing example of what a Canadian Farm could be—a beautifully landscaped space that included high-yield crops as well as ornamental flowers and gardens that a successful “gentleman” farmer could one day hope to achieve. The slides, photographs and paintings produced by the Farm supported this vision.

The CEF’s first director, William Saunders, saw it as a model farm, where beauty and science came together. Breeding ornamental flowers is a precise and skilled task, and Saunders devoted almost a quarter of the Farm’s acreage to the gardens.

Heavily influenced by 19th-century romantic ideas about nature, Saunders believed that the best way to encourage farmers to keep up their vital work was to surround them with nature (though this nature was to be organized and sanitized).

As director of the Horticultural Division, W.T. Macoun was responsible for planning these gardens, ensuring the flowers bloomed on a seasonal rotation.

Macoun designed a perennial border, as this diagram demonstrates, as a colour-coded guide to this cycle.

These two slides would have been shown in sequence, demonstrating the plan and then the resulting beauty—nature carefully arranged by man.

Under Macoun’s direction, many varieties of flowers such as sweet peas, irises, and peonies were planted each year, complemented by hedges, ornamental shrubs, and trees. The results of this work were stunning, and remain features of the Farm’s gardens today.

In the early 20th century, the CEF gardens were popular with nature lovers, amateur photographers, and those seeking respite from the expanding urban landscape.

Since the early days of the CEF, Canadians have been inspired by the work being done there. Photography and painting complemented the scientific and educational goals of the CEF, while also showing the artistic side of the Farm’s research efforts. By using a combination of these techniques, the CEF could create customized visual documentation to suit its needs.

Canada Agriculture and Food Museum
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Created by the Canada Agriculture and Food Museum, 2017.

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