Canadian War Museum raises curtain on restored artifact from post-First World War Alberta

October 30, 2015

Ottawa, Ontario, October 30, 2015 — A historically significant but badly damaged theatre curtain — once the pride of Penhold, Alberta — has a new lease on life thanks to the Canadian War Museum and a local businessman and philanthropist who was determined to save it. The newly restored Penhold curtain will be unveiled at a special commemorative ceremony on Thursday, November 5, in the community of Penhold near Red Deer.

“When I first saw the curtain, I recognized it as a valuable piece of Penhold’s artistic and civic heritage,” said Penhold businessman Stewart Ford, who meticulously studied the curtain’s history and funded its restoration. “I think it’s wonderful that 12 years after the discovery of the curtain and its donation to the Canadian War Museum, we will have it, in all of its conserved glory, back in Penhold for display. It’s wonderful to be part of making this possible.”

The massive drop curtain, measuring 3.7 by 6.3 metres, was commissioned in 1920 as the centrepiece of Memorial Hall, a community centre built by the local Women’s Institute to honour those who had served in the First World War. The front depicts an iconic scene associated with the 1916 Battle of the Somme, where many soldiers from the Penhold area died, were wounded or went missing.

The curtain’s creators, Arthur England and Harold Haste, both veterans of the war, hand-painted a scene of the bombed ruins of the Notre-Dame de Brebières Basilica in Albert, France and the legendary Golden Virgin statue that hung precariously from the spire — a familiar sight to Allied soldiers on their way to the Somme. Many believed the war would end when the Madonna fell, but although she came down during the German 1918 Spring Offensive, fighting raged on for another half-year.

The back of the curtain, once blank, was covered over the next 40 years with names, drawings, jokes and other inscriptions left behind by members of local and travelling theatrical and musical productions that performed in Penhold’s Memorial Hall.

“The Penhold curtain is a rare artifact that embodies both the sacrifice of Canadians who served in the First World War and the cultural life of Alberta towns in the years following the war,” said Mark O’Neill, President and CEO of the Canadian War Museum and the Canadian Museum of History. “When Stewart Ford contacted us about donating the curtain to the National Collection, with his support, we welcomed the opportunity to restore this important part of Penhold’s community history and, by extension, our national heritage.”

After hanging in Memorial Hall for more than 40 years, the curtain was taken down in the 1960s, stored away in a locked attic and forgotten. It resurfaced during renovations in 2004 — dirty, stained, faded and fragile. In 2006, the Penhold town council agreed to donate the curtain to the War Museum, where conservators began the long process of documenting its history, evaluating the extensive damage, and meticulously planning every step of its restoration.

It took four months for contractor Legris Conservation to clean and stabilize the fabric, using rubber sponges and scalpels to remove the dirt, then mending tears and patching holes before retouching the paint to restore the curtain’s original, vibrant colours. One hole, however, was left intact: the original peep-hole in the middle of the curtain, through which actors could watch the audience.

Meanwhile, Museum staff developed a new crank system for displaying the curtain and for safely transporting it back to Penhold, where it will remain on display for six months at the Penhold Multiplex.

The Canadian War Museum is Canada’s national museum of military history. Its mission is to promote public understanding of Canada’s military history in its personal, national, and international dimensions. Work of the Canadian War Museum is made possible in part through financial support of the Government of Canada.


Media contacts:

Yasmine Mingay
Director, Public Affairs
Canadian War Museum
Telephone: 819-776-8608
Avra Gibbs Lamey
Senior Communications and Media Relations Officer, Canadian War Museum
Telephone: 819-776-8607

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