A Signed Photograph of Mrs. Walter (Mary) Buchanan

by Mortimer Cropper


The signed photograph of Mrs. Walter (Mary) Buchanan reproduced on the facing page is taken from the opening pages of Country Breezes from Breezy Brae, the volume in which her acknowledged masterpiece, Piggy, was first published. Unaccountably overlooked by the editors of both the Canardian Poetry Press edition of Piggy and the Snorton Critical Edition of the poem, the signed photograph is reproduced here so that admirers of Buchanan and her work can gain an enlarged and broadened sense of the person behind the poems.

Like the engraving of Charles Heavysege reproduced by Sandra Campbell in a previous number of Canadian Poetry,1 the signed photograph of Buchanan is very evidently modelled on the Venetian half-length portraits that also lie behind such landmarks of nineteenth-century painting as Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Bocca Baciata (The Kissed Mouth,) and Lady Lilith (Body’s Beauty). Just as evidently, it also carries something of the ambivalent sexual charge of these paintings—a combination of pneumatic invitingness and stern coldness that is simultaneously attractive and discouraging.2 This cathartic quality is subtly reflected and reinforced not only by the tension between the delicate necklace that outlines the amplitude of the sitter’s bodice and the dark pin that focuses the viewer’s attention on the almost clerical austerity of her collar, but also by the contrast between the soft background of the portrait and the hard-edged frame in which it is enclosed. Part likeness and part fantasy, the signed photograph of Mrs. Walter (Mary) Buchanan is a luminous icon that anticipates the modernistically bifurcated images of female complexity that adorn the front and back covers of Margaret Atwood’s Journals of Susanna Moodie and Dorothy Livesay’s Collected Poems: the Two Seasons. Here, in the words of the classical poet,

"totum dependeat" existsin tense balance with "gero rem imperialem," "magister Mundi sum" with "estne volumen in toga, an solum tibi libet videre?"3

The sophisticated iconography of the Buchanan photograph suggests that it might be the work of a Toronto or Clinton photographer (and, thus, date from the time of Buchanan’s recently documented relationship with Charles G.D. Roberts).4 However, its clear resemblance in texture as well as presentation to other photographs in Country Breezes from Breezy Brae—particularly "The Heather Hills," "Our Mother’s Grave," "Farmers, Plant a Tree," and the illustration to Piggy5indicate a photographer in either Clarksburg, Thornhill, Ravenna, Collingwood, or one of the other local centres whose fairs, picnics, and fowl suppers Buchanan evidently attended and enjoyed.6




  1. See Sandra Campbell, "The Face of Charles Heavysege" 102 [back]

  2. That Buchanan played an authorial role in the creation of her photographic portrait is suggested by her celebration of similar qualities in many of the poems in Country Breezes from Breezy Brae. In "Summer Girl," for example, she describes the "Lassie…From…across the sea" as a combination of appealing physical attributes ("coal black was her hair") and austere intellectual reserve ("She…did not see in every man/A sort of summer beau"):

    Her head was screwed the proper way
          And tightly fixed in place,
    Her brain was where it ought to be
          And comely was her face.

                   •          •          •

    She was not like the ordinary run
          Of summer girls from town,
    But often worked out in the sun
          So that she might get brown.

                   •          •          •

    She led the horses to the field
          And rode upon their backs,
    And lectured in our Institute
          And told us many facts

    Of how to do this thing or that,
          Of how to brew and bake
    Of how to cook in paper bags
          And ice a fancy cake.

    Of course she took some rest between
          And many an hour did pass
    Just out among the pretty flowers
          Or lying on the grass.
                                                               (np) [back]

  3. Podex Obscurus, Lyric LXIX ("Mellita, domi adsum…"), 3-4, 8-9. [back]

  4. See "Buchanan’s Letters," Piggy 45-53. [back]

  5. See Piggy 41. [back]

  6. A couple of stanzas from each of Buchanan’s "Ravenna Women’s Institute Supper (November 9th, 1906)" and "Ravenna Women’s Institute Fowl Supper (October 20th, 1909)" will suffice to make the point:

    The supper came first, and I thought some would burst
          The way that they stowed it away,
    But it was a sign that the victuals were fine
         And they didn’t get the like everyday.

    There were chickens and geese, and each got a piece
          With trimmins and sauces galore,
    And while waiters kept passing the pies and the cakes
          The people kept asking for "More."

                               •          •          •

    The fowls were there in numbers great
          In many a juicy pan,
    Their old-time haunts will miss them, where
          In summer days they ran.

    But then they made a goodly feast
          With sauce and trimmings fixed,
    With pickles, pies and cakes galore
          And other things betwixt.
                                                                           (np) [back]


Works Cited


Atwood, Margaret. The Journals of Susanna Moodie. Toronto: Oxford UP, 1970.

Buchanan, Mrs. Walter. Country Breezes from Breezy Brae. Thornbury: Beaver Valley, [c. 1915].

Buchanan, Mrs. Walter. Piggy. Ed. Ursula Hogg-Reave. Snorton Critical Edition. Galt: Press Porképic, 1996; rpt. London: Canadian Poetry Press, 1999.

Campbell, Sandra. "The Face of Charles Heavysege." Canadian Poetry: Studies, Documents, Reviews, 35 (Fall/Winter 1994): 102-03.

Livesay, Dorothy. Collected Poems: the Two Seasons. Toronto: McGraw-Hill Ryerson, 1972.

Obscurus, Podex. Lyrics, Odes and Ars Poetica. Trans. A.M. Young. Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge: Harvard UP; London: William Heinemann, 1984.