Margot Brunn

I

n the decorative arts collection of the Royal Alberta Museum the gilded frames of the Reed family collection stand out. More valuable than the paintings they were meant to enhance
at the time of purchase, in the late 1860s, the hand-carved Italian frames reproduce the delicately pierced or overly broad styles of the 17th and 18th centuries. They frame copies of famous Renaissance paintings and family portraits that had been commissioned by the Reeds, a prominent Kentucky family, while taking the Grand European Tour at the end of the American Civil War, and were hung in the parlours of the Reeds’ Louisville mansion. The eleven paintings at the Royal Alberta Museum were inherited by son Paul Booker Reed (b. 1842).


Elected mayor of Louisville in 1885, Paul Booker Reed ran on a platform of fiscal restraint and creating a competitive business environment. This put him into conflict with powerful railway interests; loss of this support base ended his political career. After the death of his mother in 1898 he relocated his family to Seattle, Washington.

In 1907, Paul Booker Reed purchased the Pioneer Ranch near Fort MacLeod, Alberta. Like thousands of other immigrants, he was responding to the promotion of southern Alberta as the last open frontier for settlement in the West. Investing in property in this thriving region created a new opportunity for the 65-year-old Reed, and a homestead for his 20-year-old son, Paul Booker Junior. In 1911, in anticipation of a railroad hub that would make Fort MacLeod the region’s economic powerhouse, the Seattle household was packed into several train compartments for the move to Alberta. In the Pioneer Ranch’s 12-room log house interior, wife Ida and her three debutante daughters recreated a “poetic home” decor reminiscent of the 19th-century Gilded Age mansion their grandmother had furnished in Louisville half a century earlier.

Two years later, the southern Canadian railway junction was awarded to Lethbridge. Financial and real estate speculations in Fort MacLeod collapsed. Tragedy hit the Reed family in 1913 as well when Paul Booker Reed passed away, followed by the suicide of his son, Paul Booker Junior, 14 months later. The Reed women adjusted to their circumstances by leasing the ranch to neighbour Bob McLean. A few years later, Hettie Reed married Bob McLean, thus keeping Pioneer Ranch in the family.

For sixty years, the Reeds’ European artwork formed the interior decor of the Pioneer Ranch—a living microcosm of the Gilded Age despite the family’s change in fortune. unlike copies of work by Renaissance painters such as Raphael that were commissioned for European palaces, the paintings displayed in the intimacy of the Alberta ranch house were linked to the optimism of a young province, the realities of settlement in the West experienced by many immigrants, and a stubborn sense of ownership of a fragile heritage. Hettie Reed McLean preserved a part of the 19th century when she resisted dispersing oversized furniture, large paintings in fragile frames, textiles, and the many household and decorative arts objects from her family’s ostentatious past. The Pioneer Ranch in southern Alberta preserved examples of the traditional skills of Florentine framemakers, skills that often did not survive the changing interior decorating fashions represented in galleries and museums. Within the patchwork that is the Alberta immigrant experience, the family’s journey might have been forgotten if not for the Reed-McLean estate’s donation of the collection to the Royal Alberta Museum in 1972.

Margot Brunn, in her work as objects conservator at the Royal Alberta Museum, discovers collections that surprise and astonish.

1. Frame and painting
Madonna of the Veil
Unknown copyist, after S. Bollini, 1806/Carlo Dolci,
circa 1640.
Openwork water gilded frame in the style of the late 17th century.
Carved European lime wood, gesso, yellow bole, 24-karat gold leaf.
Italian, 19th century. Conservation by Izabela Krol of Iza Goldleaf.

2. Frame and painting
Madonna della seggiola
Unknown copyist, after Raphael, 1513-14.
Original at Pitti Palace, Florence.
Carved fruitwood, water and oil gilt. Italian, 19th century.

3. Frame and painting
Madonna with Child, Saint Elizabeth and Saint John
Egisto Manzuelo, after Andrea del Sarto, 1529.
Original at Pitti Palace, Florence.
Openwork frame with swept edges in the wide style of the 1780s-1840s, including acanthus
leaves, volutes, and Tritonhorn shell elements.
Carved European lime wood, gesso, yellow bole, 24-karat gold leaf, water gilded. Italian, early 19th
century. Conservation by Izabela Krol of Iza Goldleaf.