01 November 2009

Meighen as Monster

Arthur Meighen wasn't such a bad looking fellow, and as depicted by the good folks at Crayola he appears quite harmless. Would that the same could be said about his statue, which is a frightening fixture, something akin to a permanent Halloween decoration.

This is Ottawa's reject. Commissioned at the same time as a statue of rival Mackenzie King, it was meant to stand with those of Macdonald and Laurier on Parliament Hill. King's is just north of the East Block, while Marcel Braitstein's statue of Meighen may be found 600 kilometres away in the corner of a small park on a minor street in the town of St Marys.

Why this is so is best explained in Ottawa Boy (General Store, 2000), the biography of Lloyd Francis. Here the late MP for Ottawa West recalls a 1968 visit to a Public Works warehouse to see these tributes:

The statue of Mackenze King was conventional and posed no problem. The one of Arthur Meighen was grotesque, with his arms spread and his face turned to the sky as if he were contemplating Armageddon. The plight of a Liberal minister of Public Works was clear: If he caused the statue to be erected, there would be an outcry, but if he did not, he would be accused of slighting the memory of a distinguished Conservative prime minister.
According to Francis, that Minister of Public Works, George James McIlraith, found a way out of the fix by seeking recommendations from senators Eugene Forsey, a Liberal, and Grattan O’Leary, a Progressive Conservative. Both advised against erecting the Meighen statue. None of this prevented John Diefenbaker from sounding off, describing the statue as "the greatest monstrosity ever produced – a mixture of Ichabod Crane and Daddy Longlegs." A bit over the top, but at the same time appropriate, given Meighen's early career as a schoolteacher.

Meighen's statue remained warehoused until 1987, when efforts of some dedicated locals brought it to town. I've yet to find a single person who cares for the thing. The elongated legs and bulbous face attract the most comment, but what I find disturbing are those hands... those hands... The hands of a murderer, I'd say.

Incidentally, the Crayola people have robbed Meighen of the last ten years of his life; he didn't die until 1960.

I have always argued against the use of colouring books as reference material.


  1. Blimey! Looking up other of Marcel Braitstein's works online, he seems an unusual choice to have gone with in the first place: his Meighen statue seems characteristic of his generally nightmarish work--melting gasmasks, screaming faces trapped in lumps of metal, spiky alien monster things...

  2. Not a surprise that the politicians of the era despised the statue. Wonder what artists and cultural ctitics thought back then? Hard to imagine what good anyone could say about the statue given the subject.

  3. It does boggle the mind that Marcel Braitstein received the commission in the first place. This is no judgement on his work, but an observation that politicians tend to have rather conservative tastes (no pun intended) when it comes to artistic works. I put it down to the 'sixties. I should add that Mackenzie King's statue isn't exactly "conventional" (Lloyd Francis' word), though it fits in very nicely. Strange that four decades have passed and yet there appears to have been no real effort to erect another statue to Meighen.

    1. perhaps its a Dorian Grey thing...he was a Conservative after all

    2. Just think, Rick, one day there will be a Stephen Harper statue. Fortunately, we'll all be long gone.

      That said, I'm hoping to live long enough to see the Kim Campbell statue.

  4. Brian: Meighen piece is spot on and have to agree having seen it...very grotesque. if Marcel Braitstein wanted to sculpt a monster or anything else with exaggerated or abnormal features, why didn't he just give the PM really big earlobes, or just one really big nostril instead of 2 small ones. that might have been less frightening for the kiddies, and for members of parliament as well who seem to have been so scared by it that it has been banished to the corner of dark quiet park in a small Ontario prairie town (increasing its eerie effect). As it is, do school children dare each other to enter the park at night, lay hands on the statue, and chant his name five times? "Arthur Meighen, Arthur Meighen, Arthur Meighen...."