Four sketchbooks, along with various other personal items belonging to Eliza (nee Symonds) and Melville Bell – parents of Alexander Graham Bell, were donated to the Bell Homestead National Historic Site from the Dr. Mabel Grosvenor archives by her nieces and nephews in 2007. The sketchbooks came into Dr. Mabel’s possession after the passing of her mother, Elsie Bell Grosvenor, oldest daughter of Alexander and Mabel Bell. Prior to this, they were in Alexander Graham Bell’s possession after his mother passed away in 1897.
Eliza Symonds began painting at the age of 9 when her father, Dr. Samuel Symonds, passed his paint box on to her. By the time she and Alexander Melville Bell met in 1843, she was supporting herself as a portrait painter and art teacher in Edinburgh, Scotland. She typically painted in watercolour, but would also dabble in inks and charcoal. Like most women of the period, upon marriage she focused on managing her household and raising her family. Her artistic talent would prevail in between raising her three boys: Melville, Alexander, and Edward. In fact, what is thought of as her best painting, her portrait of her three sons as boys, continues to hang in the dining room at the Bell Homestead.
These four sketchbooks span Eliza Bell’s early days as an artist through to her later years in Georgetown (Washington, D.C.) and Baddeck, Nova Scotia. Eliza would carry a sketchbook with her when travelling in order to have paper at hand when a scene or object caught her eye. The earliest of the four sketchbooks shows brilliant scenes in Paris, France as well as landscapes in Scotland. A later sketchbook includes various scenes of her Brantford home – often labelled “Tutelo Heights.” They are a wonderful depiction of the Bell’s home in its rural farm setting as well as the back of the property looking down to the Grand River…an area that her son called his “dreaming place.”
In terms of today’s interpretation of the property, these images truly show that the Bells were not living amongst the upper classes in a “Downton Abbey” type setting! Given this was Eliza’s first time living on a farm, she even included a watercolour of a rather large potato grown in her vegetable garden. Further portraits and sketches in this particular book show different areas in and around Ontario and the United States that she and her husband explored.
In 1885, Alexander and Mabel Bell began work on their Cape Breton summer home at Baddeck. Eliza and Melville spent a considerable amount of time at Beinn Bhreagh (gaelic for Beautiful Mountain). Images of this remarkable place also grace the pages of her sketchbooks.
Having travelled far and wide with Eliza Bell, the sketchbooks had become very extremely fragile with broken and missing bindings and covers. They were sent to Ubbink Paper and Book Conservation in Ottawa for necessary treatments earlier this year. They have returned to the Homestead in excellent and stable condition so that they may now be better used within the story of this remarkable lady.
Written by: Brian Wood, Curator, Bell Homestead National Historic Site
Cover image: Eliza Bell, In the Dale: Tutela Heights, Colour, watercolour, detail