Monday, January 16, 2012

Curling on Speed River

Curling on Speed River, Guelph, Ontario, by Evan Macdonald. Click on the image to see larger size.

During the summer, Jim Fraser of Sorn CC told me that he had bought at a car boot sale a wee print of a curling match, and he asked if I knew anything about it. Although I had never seen a copy before there was something about it that suggested Canada to me: the match was taking place in the open air in front of some buildings, and although there were in evidence some half dozen Tam o’ Shanters, there were one or two distinctly un-Scottish bunnets to be seen. The print did afford another, important, clue; the artist had signed it 'Evan Macdonald'.

As usual Google came up trumps, for the search showed that Macdonald had been in fact an Ontarian artist who painted largely in the Guelph area of Ontario, and that his daughter, Flora Macdonald Spencer had written a book about him and his work.

In the hope that the book might contain some information about this picture, and perhaps some more curling works, I bought a copy from the publisher, Wilfrid Laurier University Press, Waterloo, Ontario. My hunch proved wrong for there was nothing of curling interest in the book. So I wrote to Brian Henderson of the publisher asking for any information about the artist and the curling picture.

This was the reply, which he had got from the daughter:

“Evan painted it for the Guelph Curling Club, and used an early photograph as a reference, I recall. Not sure if the photo was of actual Guelph curlers, but as he was working on the picture, he told us that his father and grandfather, and fellow local curlers would curl on the Speed River, after cutting a hole in the ice to flood it to greater smoothness. His father was a founding member of the Guelph Curling Club's indoor rink originally on Baker Street in Guelph. The club still has the original, I believe, and were given permission to make prints from the original about 20 years ago.”

She added this amusing anecdote which emphasises the dangers of curling on water-borne ice. “It reminds me of a family story of my father's uncles going out to do such a flooding. Somehow they let go of the axe and it sank to the bottom of the river. The smallest, Uncle Sandy, had to strip off and be held by the ankles until he found it, so fearful were they to return home without it!”

This story reminded me of a reminiscence about John Cairnie:

“On a certain occasion one of his own name, in spite of friendly warnings, played a rink of stones at Denny over ice that was much too weak, with the result that the whole lot went to the bottom of the pond. The accident would not have mattered had not the stones been required for an important match on the following day. Having reviewed the whole situation carefully, Mr Cairnie, all heedless of the biting blast that was blowing and the deep and dangerous character of the pond, calmly divested himself of his clothing and dived for the stones, one after another, until all were safely landed. It is pleasant to be able to add that Mr Cairnie was so little the worse of his adventure that he assisted in brilliant style to play the rescued 'channel stanes' to victory on the morrow.”

Allan Forrest, the father of my late skip, Joey Forrest, told us of his early curling days on the River Clyde at Dalserf, Lanarkshire, and of their chopping a hole in the ice after the day’s play to get water 'to flood the ice to greater smoothness'.

The question remained: did the painting still hang in Guelph Curling Club’s clubhouse? Sadly, a couple of emails went unanswered and so did what I should have done in the first place. I found the number of the club and phoned.

As luck would have it the person who answered the call was Gerry Sundwall, a keen member, who said that it did and that there were prints and that he would send me one. He also answered questions about Professor Murray MacGregor, professor at Guelph University, who with his family had spent a year’s sabbatical in Edinburgh, and curled in every ice rink in Scotland! Janice MacGregor, daughter of the family, was his next-door neighbour, and Murray and Betty, his wife, were still to the fore though both had given up curling now that they were in their eighties.

In fact, it was Janice who sent the print along with up to date photographs of the MacGregor family. And Gerry sent me a snapshot of the oil painting (shown above), 21 inches by 42, as it hangs in the club.

David B Smith.


Dave said...

Dear David:
I read your post about curling on Speed River with great interest.

First of all, you have a wonderful knack for story telling that brings a smile to one's face. I can only imagine the sheer panic that ensued once the axe dropping into those frigid waters.

Secondly, you mentioned Murray McGregor. He and my father were classmates at the University of Guelph back in the early 1950's. Murray later went on to service the U of G as a professor for his entire career. During this time as you have found out, he was truly an ardent curler and student of the game. He was extremely successful competing here in Ontario and won a number of provincial championships.

Personally, I curled for 30 years before having to give up the game due to poor knees. None the less, I still maintain a high level of interest in the game. Today, rather then spending my disposable income on curling dues, beer and bonspiels, I am in pursuit of curling pins and items related to the sport such as photos, older trophies, crests and the like. The constant hunt for these items gives me endless enjoyment and delight. A number of years ago I purchased at auction a very large photo mounted on a rather rigid backing. It is sepia in its tone and must date back to at least the last 1800's or early 1900's. More interestingly, if memory serves me correctly, I believe the photo was taken in the Guelph area. It includes dozens of people in an outdoor scene enjoying the sport on either a lake, pond or river. I placed it somewhere safe in my home, but at the moment, forget where that safe place is. When I do find it I could perhaps take a photo of it and send it your way.

Thanks again for all of your superb efforts. This is an absolutely wonderful website and I've enjoyed it immensely.

Keep up the good work Sir!


Dave Godward

David B Smith said...

to noreply-comment
Many thanks indeed for all the kind things you say about my blog about the curling painting. It is wonderful to know that what one writes gets through to at least some people. I say "at least some people" because my daughter once sent me a card which bore the legend: "What's the use of being the world's leading authority on something no one else is interested in?"

I like to think that what I do in my wee pieces about the history of our great game is share with others my enthusiasm.

I knew Murray for the year's sabbatical he spent in Edinburgh. He and all his family threw themselves into Scottish curling. We had great times together.

I did not curl last year because of an arthritic right knee. Three weeks ago tomorrow I had the knee replaced. The pain is still very considerable but I hope that soon it will have abated and I will be able to think of resuming the game next season.
David B Smith