In Parliament’s esteemed Centre Block, there’s a room tucked just outside of the Parliamentary Library off of the main Hall of Honour.
It’s called the reading room. It’s also home to a bit of an agriculture-related mystery. To the average visitor, it may appear to be simply another room – albeit a large one with a distinctive fireplace, ornate ceiling, stunning oak panelling and several large portraits.
Today, it hosts parliamentary receptions, committee hearings, the governing party’s weekly caucus meetings, and press gallery muggings where departing journalists are celebrated by their peers.
To historians, the room is a cherished piece of parliamentary history that dates back to before Confederation when members of Parliament needed a room in which, well, to read.
Historical records show the room was traditionally stocked with newspapers, periodicals and up to 20,000 books. Chairs and tables ensured MPs looking for a place to read outside of the overcrowded library could find a spot.
The original reading room is also where the famous 1916 fire that destroyed much of Centre Block is believed to have started.
Today’s reading room, rebuilt after the 1916 fire, was designed by John A. Pearson and Jean O. Marchand.
Pearson apparently wanted the room to have distinctive murals and asked the joint committee of MPs and senators overseeing the reconstruction project for permission to spend $19,000 to commission then well-known Canadian artist Arthur Crisp in 1920. The project was completed two years later.
The entire project consists of 17 panels, which have served as a useful distraction to the odd parliamentary reporter, who has found themselves stuck in the room monitoring a filibustering committee late into the evening.
In fact, the idea for this column may have originated from one such evening.
You see, most of the murals in the room appear to have a distinct connection with the written word.
For instance, the painting over the fireplace is called The Spirit of the Printed Word, complete with a symbolic holding the torch of knowledge and three birds (a dove, a pigeon and raven) representing good news, the transmission of news (journalists in the early 1900s often relied on carrier pigeons to get their copy in by deadline) and bad news. Two boys holding pieces of a printing press complete the picture.
Another portrait in the room is called The Printed Word. It features four men gathered around a printing press reading the newspaper.
In one corner of the room, there is a mural (called The East) that shows a man checking an inventory list as men lug bags of grain, fruit and fish through a Canadian seaport, while another (The North) has a group gathered around a map. There’s even a painting dedicated to British Columbia’s lumber industry – called The West. After all, you need pulp to make paper.
The paintings’ connections to the printed word is easy to discern. That is except for one.
This mural features a woman feeding chickens while two men and a child stand alongside a cow under what looks to be a blossoming apple tree. Grain fields are noticeable in the background. There is no paper to be seen.
Having spent more hours than one would care to admit trying to puzzle out the connection between that painting and the printed word, it was time to bring in the experts.
The very friendly parliamentary librarian was a little surprised, and clearly bemused by my request: What’s the story behind the portrait of farming and wheat in the reading room?
She promised to try and find out. A few days of research later, an answer landed in my inbox.
Turns out the painting – called simply The South – has no connection to the written word whatsoever. Instead, it’s one of four regionally inspired murals within the room that shows Canada’s important eras (epochal development).
The portrait merely “depicts agricultural activity, illustrating fertile fruit farms and grain fields…in Ontario. (Apparently, the Library of Parliament found, at the time Crisp was painting the murals, grain fields symbolized the province of Ontario, not the Prairies.)