back on the farm

A century ago Toronto’s population contained many displaced country people. On summer holidays they would exit the city and re-enter a world where the rhythms of planting and harvest prevailed. Back on the farm they would visit ageing relatives and seek out remembered pleasures of childhood in the hedgerows, field, woods and river.


In the 1880’s young Robertson Matthews escaped his Toronto home and widowed mother by summering on relatives’ farms in nearby Albion and King Townships.As an adult he would return there on holiday from his job as a lecturer in the Engineering department of Cornell University. Staying with his mother in Bolton, a village on the Humber River, Matthews read about entropy and tinkered with his design for a compression ignition engine while at the same time taking part in the rural activities that stretched far back in time.


On his daily rambles he carried a five pound camera stocked with glass negatives. Unlike the point-and-shoot photography that was becoming popular, Robertson’s approach to creating images involved contemplating and placing himself in a world both familiar and foreign.  By studying his photos beside diary and letter descriptions of his thoughts as they were taken, one can see the process of a self-described modern man locating himself in an environment steeped in the past.




Robertson Matthews’ approach to his environment was different from that of his relatives who lived in the country year-round. He enjoyed those features, relics of an economic past, that had been re-purposed for recreational use.

1. the mill race

By 1910, a once economically important industrial feature, the water channel leading to Bolton’s lumber mill, had a new function. Mattheson’s diary entry for July 8, 1910 states:

Came in this evening from a mighty pretty little experience. Spent afternoon off with a small picnic party. Coming back I had two pleasing, feminine faces opposite me in the canoe. Gliding almost silently between the close high banks of the mill race overgrown with wild apple, hawthorn, hazel and raspberry bushes, I remarked that it didn’t matter much whether the world was just then any bigger or not.

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2. the woods and fields

In September 1912, before his return to Cornell, Matthews was searching for experiences that might sustain him during the upcoming months of tedious academic life.He set out to visit the farm of his Methodist minister father who had died when Robertson was an infant. He describes the experience in a letter to his friend Bill Boynton:

On the way lay a bit of old woods fifty acres or more into which I had to go. …Sunlight broke through…dispersed the smooth beech trunks in soft hues. Nature’s grand old cathedral! I had to wake the silence! To hear those tones that only the hunter in the tall trees ever hears I cut loose with a full magazine and then a couple more shots besides. What music Bill! How I wished for a log cabin right there by the side of one of these small hollows.  As I stood there breathing in air of the forest the blood of my ancestors, wielders of the axe, stirred in my veins. And think of what these forests were when they first struck back into them over two hundred years ago! And here I was standing on the very hills of which my grandfather was a champion axman!

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I came out of the woods among some cattle sunning themselves on the hilltop. Away to the south in the south opal light of September lay mile on mile of white man’s country. Almost a my feet a couple of tiny lakes then as far as the eye could see rolling hills dotted with small hardwood woods.     …with here and there on my way a cultivator crumbling up the small clay loam, there a bunch of cattle.. and yonder a load of oats going in from the field, the scene seemed steeped in harmony and quiet… All was moving according to law and harmony. I stopped again and again to gaze upon the peaceful scenes and to fill the chambers of my memory.


In contrast to earlier generations who would have regarded the thinned-out wood lots or “bush” at the back of each farm as a production site for maple sugar and source of firewood, Robertson appreciated it as an arena for sport hunting. Proud of his marksmanship with woodchucks, his June 13, 1912 diary entry notes that he had gone to …       Cold Creek with rifle—got two woodchucks—tanned leather to be used for binding books of a personal character to serve as souvenirs when the day comes that I will not be able to do as I once did. Later that summer, on July 24, he shares more plans for his woodchuck trophies: …posed my dead chuck in the study and took some pictures of it partly with a view of to having them for an article on chuck hunting.


Relying on friends or using a long shutter release cable, Robertson created images of himself buckskin-clad and in hunting poses. He used this sport-shooting portraiture to further his own “frontier” experience of the land.


3. the snake fences

In the tradition of gentlemen amateur photographers, Matthews used photography to more closely preserve and study elements of the environment. The snake fence, emblem of settlers’ claim to the land and vestige of the original forest, was a favorite subject.

With rural depopulation many farmhouses were unoccupied, their fences left to be engulfed in weeds.   On June 23, 1912 Matthews wrote: … drove to old bush on farm once owned by my father. I was in search for pleasing settings for a series of old snake fence pictures but find the chosen fences so overgrown with bushes that nothing in the way of a picture could be made of them. The “old house on the hill” where I had so often gathered… was vacant and set in loneliness. 

snake fence house on hill snake fence

The beautifully worn, elegant lines of the snake fence symbolized the past; Matthews used the fence also in an image of promise in a romantic portrait with his future wife.




The men left working the farms were, for the most part, old. While he delighted in how their bodies, faces and personalities contributed to the character of his rural home, Robertson sensed a profound gulf between how he and they viewed the same environment. He reasoned, for example, that his elderly Uncle Ira’s intense farm labor would preclude him from developing the detachment or time to appreciate his fields as  scenically beautiful. He comments on this in his diary entry of  Sept. 9, 1912:

At Uncle Ira, I wonder if he himself has ever realized the peacefulness of the scene of which he formed part on that day as on some similar days for almost half a century doubtless not although he loves the fall of the year best, for a tired body allows little place in life for the aesthetic.

Matthews pursued his fascination with a sense of place by posing his subjects as part of their surroundings.  He worked hard to capture his great aunt’s Dorset accented speech on paper. In photographs followed up by a written record of her reactions to the same portraits, he captures what he considers her essential qualities of humor, dignity and resilience. Just as he reasoned that Uncle Ira didn’t have the capacity to view his environment from outside his physical experience of it, Robertson thinks that hard labor had left no room for self-consciousness in his great aunt’s mind. He highlights how she interprets her wrinkles as a marker of the years of toil: her regret based less in seeing her beauty marred than from seeing farm work as the sum of her life.


July 14, 1912:  Never, no matter what the subject, have I heard Aunt Jane Norris (nee Matthews) take on a doleful air.  …Some would say this was the result of great faith, doubtless there is a great faith behind it as her very expressions regarding a life to come would signify… So when referring to some pictures I had taken of herself and Uncle Charlie she exclaimed, “I’m beg’ing to look so old that I don’t care to have me likeness taken any more!” There was not a hint of vanity but an impression that in some way when in reference to the hard life on the farm in earlier years she declared, “I wouldn’t want to go thru it again. Thank God I’m getting’ old!”


All generations of the family were familiar with the rituals of portraiture and participated in forming compositions that project their closeness to each other, to their ancestors in their portrait frames and to their land. The clusters of fathers, mothers, grandparents, siblings and cousins reveal the permutations of the same gene pool. The faces mirror each other in the laugh lines and wrinkles drawn by the years of living very closely together in an almost self-contained world.


Within this family world Robertson Matthews’ place is first and foremost beside his mother. She is portrayed individually ensconced in the most decorative domestic settings: porch, parlor and garden.

R. Matthews Archives of Ontario Naomi Webb Dodds on front porch Willow St. Bolton F 9-6-1-7R. Matthews Archives of Ontario Naomi Dodds F 9-6-1-7???????????????????????????????

Despite his close relationship with her, Robertson saw in his mother a “narrow piety” that he associated with the constraints of her rural and religious upbringing. In his Aug. 20, 1912  diary entry he recounted a conversation with her  in which he expressed a desire to develop a more care-free mindset and blamed himself for “taking life too seriously.”

Mother, who is the result of the narrow pietism surrounding her, disagreed with me. To myself probably the gains of later years have been in tolerance and … my vision is wider and thus less crabbed…

Matthews’ irritation with his mother came on the heels of concern over his cousin, Ethel Dodds, who he felt was a victim of the same repressive Victorian female-dominated environment.  In the previous day’s diary entry he depicted her as sinking into a pit of obligatory family support work that would delay her recovery from an unspecified illness.

I cannot help but feel sometimes as I witness the life that E. is living in her home these days that she is being slowly slain before my very eyes. Her condition since before her illness of two years ago and even before that has been far from satisfactory. Now the condition of her father and the attention required by him together with the selfish attitude of her Mother and lack of judgement places the girl in a crushing position and one in which she should never be placed in her present condition.


Taking matters into his own hands the next summer, Robertson married Ethel, effectively removing her from a situation he found intolerable.



In his notes for a 1907 undergraduate speech competition at Cornell, Robertson Matthews describes the role of the engineer in society:

The engineer has his mind trained on neutral ground of scientific thought. He is, therefore,largely a self-developed personality. He strengthens his personality by contact with what is real, with what exists, rather than from tradition. And such is better by far than any imposed personality, no matter after what pattern or how beautiful. For it makes him a prime mover—yes, and able to travel apart from the beaten path of the past.


In his diary entry of Aug. 14, 1912 Matthews offers an account of a personal pilgrimmage to a tree on his father’s farm on which he had marked his name almost ten years earlier. He links his presence before the tree to a family memory of his father’s preaching on the transience of all life.

 “took a picture of my name cut in a beech tree way back in ’94. This picture has an extra value in my eyes since it is at the west end of the woods that stand on the opposite side of the farm from the beech that bears my name, that my mother first heard father preach his text being: And Enoch walked with God; and he was not for God took him.

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Robertson Matthew’s photography reflects his search for an identity rooted in the details a very specific place and time. It celebrates the beauty of Albion and King Townships and his connection to it through his ancestors and relatives.

His documentation and self-representation in what he felt to be his natural setting is poignant. Matthews understands that he does not take part in the worldview and spirit in which this agricultural world was composed but rather he is an observer, sportsman and critic in the landscape. Not entirely at home in Victorian rural Ontario or modern engineering offices and classrooms, Robertson Matthews is a product of a hinge moment in history. His annotated photographs offer a privileged view of his ambivalent relationship with a world that was about to irrevocably disappear into the past.


market square back to the farm 3

Note: All posted Robertson Matthews photographs and texts are in the collection of the Peel Art Gallery Museum and Archives (PAMA) with the exception of the three portraits of his mother Naomi Dodds which can be found in the Province of Ontario Archives in the George S. Henry family fonds.

R. Matthews mother, Naomi Dodds was a relative of John C. Snell, the livestock breeder and importer (Snell and Sons). John Harrington Ferguson was related to the Snells through business and marriage and wrote a farm diary between 1869 and 1884. A transcription of the entries for 1873 provide a vivid account of the type of farming and society to which Robertson Matthews was responding.