The Palace on the Rideau

Many Canadians are unaware of The Queen's Ottawa Residence, Rideau Hall. This fault is being partly overcome by the publication of a sumptuous 'coffee table' volume about Government House, co-authored by its recent Chatelaine Mrs. Gerda Hnatyshyn. Here's John Aimers' review of the book, which first appeared in the April, 1996 edition of Monarchy Canada.

Gerda Hnatyshyn and
Paulette Lachapelle-Belisle
Friends of Rideau Hall, P.O. Box 7158,
Vanier, Ontario, Canada K1L 5A0, 1995,
148 pp., illus. in col. & b. & w., $85.00

It is perhaps both commentary and criticism of Canada's national character in the last days of this millenium to observe how little its inhabitants know of the Dominion's National Home, Rideau Hall. Americans -- and much of the world -- troop through the White House by the millions. The severe lines of the Elysée Palace typify the French administration, while Buckingham Palace is a magnet for the Commonwealth as well as the average Briton, witness the most recent memorable crowd scenes during the V-E Day celebrations in May.

Of course Rideau Hall is a modest establishment in comparison to these edifices. And, unlike them, it does not lie in the centre of the country's capital city. Ottawa's bustling tourist route is centred on Parliament Hill and its environs, giving onto the Byward Market and then down Sussex Drive only as far as the Royal Canadian Mint and the War Museum.

The advantage of this relative isolation is perhaps to give Government House more the character of a private home. And a home it certainly is: first and foremost, it is the Canadian residence of Her Majesty the Queen, and thus the dwelling-place of her representative, the Governor-General and his family during his time in office.

Many Canadians have taken what little they know of Rideau Hall from brief news reports when Cabinets are sworn into office, or possibly by a recollection of the Queen strolling its grounds with a viceregal occupant, or only in the context of the quite justified tumult when its grounds were closed to the public.

Happily, in a magnificent and sumptuously-produced book on Rideau Hall, one of its most recent occupants, the former chatelaine, Mrs Gerda Hnatyshyn, with her collaborator, an advisor to Rideau Hall on history and architecture, have removed any excuse for such ignorance or lack of pride on the part of Her Majesty's anadian subjects.

One of the very best aspects of this 150 page work is its constant and unapologetic focus on the house's royal character, and thus, on the primary function of the Governor-General: to represent the Queen. One of the first full-page colour plates is captioned "Rideau Hall's facade features an intricately carved facade portraying the Royal Arms". How good to see the arms identified correctly! Other pictures (all are in colour and of a breathtaking vibrancy and quality) find their captions mentioning the Order of Canada's "Royal Crown, symbolising the Sovereign as the fount of Canadian honours", the representation of "The Queen's Baton" en route to the Commonwealth Games, "The royal window" commemorating "the 40th anniversary of the accession to the Throne of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II" and so on to the array of royal and viceregal portraitures, wherein our British governors are given their full recognition (for instance, Lady Aberdeen is described as "an exemplary woman who was active in many phases of Canadian life") as are loans from the Royal Collection of portraits of King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra. So it is that in visual terms the book celebrates Canada's royal heritage, and links it in the most natural way to the living operation of Government House today.

The work is divided into four principal sections. An introduction entitled "Focal Point of the Nation" concentrates on the viceregal office. It begins with the BNA Act's statement that "the Executive Government and Authority of and over Canada is hereby declared to continue and be vested in the Queen". And it moves on to explain -- oh that Post Office clerks, teachers and broadcasters had these two sentences laser-etched onto their muddled minds -- "The Constitution Act of 1982 provided for the first time in our country's history, a way of amending the Constitution without having to obtain the approval of the British Parliament. This Act did not alter the status of Queen Elizabeth II as head of state in Canada".

This section then proceeds to a brief and copiously illustrated account of the Governor-General's various responsibilities. The monarchical correctness of the references to The Honours System is commendable. It is particularly pleasing to find that the text acknowledges The Royal Victorian Order (in the personal gift of Her Majesty) as "part of the national honours available to Canadians". (Mrs Hnatyshyn might have mentioned The Order of the Companions of Honour in this context, Messrs Diefenbaker and Trudeau each having received it from their Sovereign.) And that the Victoria Cross is accorded a full explanation and its proper place as Canada's pre-eminent decoration for military valour. Just one quibble -- Her Excellency uses the unliterary passive voice to describe the creation of an indigenous Heraldry: "The Canadian Heraldic Authority was established...", curiously avoiding the fact that it was the Queen who authorised its establishment by Letters Patent, and that its legitimacy for Canadians rests on its being seen simply as a geographically more-convenient and appropriately nationally-focused continuation of the Crown's heraldic authority hitherto exercised by Garter or Lyon Kings of Arms. In any event, the section ends on a positive note, the author tracing the history of the New Year's Levée from the time of French royal government to today, and marking it as an occasion where all can wish "the representative of the Crown a Happy New Year".

The second, and by far the lengthiest section of the work I found utterly fascinating. "Inside the House" takes the reader on a thorough tour of Rideau Hall, commencing with a picture of the Front Entrance Hall with its regimental honours and polished brass, an imperial portrait of Edward VII presiding. Royal stained glass, royal portraits, "Colours of the illustrious Queen's and Canadian Guards" [actually the Queen's and Regimental Colours of the Canadian Guards] set a regal tone for all that follows.

Of special interest is the evolution of the Long Gallery's recently re-established Oriental decoration. "Fresh from a stint in China and laden with treasures, Lady Willingdon transformed the room into an exotic Chinese gallery". Your reviewer's grandparents, posted to Ottawa in the U.S. Diplomatic Service, often spoke of the Willingdons' generous hospitality, and of Their Excellencies' passion for chinoiserie. Under Mrs Hnatyshyn, the Gallery was restored to a room of the Chinese period of the late 1920s -- the book reveals some of its exquisite furnishings, including five carpets given by the Hongkong Bank of Canada. So it is that one important component of Canada's diverse populace was and remains reflected in the Queen's House!

A host of other interesting associations and treasures is revealed as the authors lead us in words and pictures through the public and private areas of the house. For instance, did you know that the huge Waterford chandelier in the Ballroom was presented on Victoria Day, 1951, by the British Government in gratitude for Canada's role in World War II? Or that Princess Louise herself painted apple branches on a 6-panel Georgian door in the first-floor corridor? We also visited the plum and yellow decor of the Small Drawing Room: "When the Queen is in Ottawa, Her Majesty holds private audiences in these intimate surroundings". And find that the sterling silver on permanent display in the Dining Room is a loan from Buckingham Palace. We catch tantalising glimpses of Their Excellencies' Studies, the chatelaine's "cool, calm and eclectic", the Governor's more traditionally oak-panelled and leather-chaired. Signed portraits of Her Majesty and Prince Philip gaze on His Excellency from his left; and an informal picture shows him receiving therein co-ed representatives of Scouts Canada. We may hope he reminded them of the meaning of their Promise!

The "Upstairs" part of the House is treated next, giving a look into the Royal Suite, a privilege which panders to that curiosity we all feel to know just where the Queen eats, sleeps and carries out her daily routine! It is interesting to read that all these rooms are named for former British Governors, and that their descendants have recently been approached to see whether they might donate historical memorabilia. As a result, the Devonshires presented a Regency mirror once used at Chatsworth. The Royal Suite one might best describe as Victorian, but elegant and almost spare: neutral colours, browns, sepias, ivories.

The final part of this section of the book is entitled "Behind the Scenes", and it focuses on the immense details of housekeeping and hospitality carried out by a comparatively small staff. Many of the housekeepers, footmen, chefs, groundsmen and other domestics are portrayed going about their duties with the high standard and efficiency known well to anyone who has been so fortunate as to enjoy Their Excellencies' hospitality. Readers will enjoy scenes of the viceregal cellars, elaborate floral decorations and the pastry chef's delicacies, not to mention the internal mailman handing over the post under a framed poster celebrating the Queen's 60th birthday. We even spy the valet beside an open closet revealing no less than 11 of the Governor's uniforms and suits -- alas! no official court dress! And I should think that few Canadians know that Rideau Hall produces its own jams, chutneys, and maple syrup for presentation to guests. Unfortunately, no samples were made available to this reviewer...

In the third section, Mrs Hnatyshyn focuses on Rideau Hall's greenhouses, gardens and grounds. One of His Excellency's first and best viceregal commands was to re-open most of the grounds to free public access, and the book well reveals why Ottawa residents so prize their traditional free access to its broad green acres. "One of the many trees planted by distinguished visitors" is the caption of one photo, directing readers to the base of a maple bearing a plaque acknowledging George VI's homecoming in May, 1939. Of course, the King was not in any sense a "visitor", and one might wish another tree -- or term -- had been selected.

Of no less interest is a colourful shot of the totem pole given to Viscount Alexander during what another caption calls his "mandate". This is a term which recurs in not only this work, but much Government House material, and it is to be deprecated. In current use it smacks far too much of the result of an election. Why not use "time in office" (correct, since the Governor serves during pleasure rather than for a fixed term), "viceroyalty", "governorship" or simply, "the Michener years".

A final brief section presents a selection of the many gifts to Rideau Hall under the rubric "Building the Collection". These range from modern Canadian art, the gifts of the painters, to Mrs Michener's donation of Inuit sculpture, John William Buchan's presentation of a portrait of Lord Tweedsmuir in academic dress, and a splendid loon carved by Donald Phalen. Apparently, the hope is that many Canadians will wish to join the Friends of Rideau Hall, under whose auspices this volume was published, and assist in the continual enhancement of both house and grounds.

Clearly, this book reflects a labour of love by Mrs Hnatyshyn and Mrs Belisle and the team who worked with them at Rideau Hall, both to produce this work, and to bring so much intelligent restoration and beauty to the Queen's home during the time Her Excellency was chatelaine. Printed on heavy paper, rich in detail, it is worth every penny of its not inconsiderable cost, with the additional satisfaction of its purchasers' knowing that they are assisting The Friends in their ongoing task of refurbishment and beautification.

The work reflects how all the occupants of Rideau Hall, and the Sovereigns each served, have left their mark on this stately but welcoming edifice. Rich in monarchical resonance, it reveals how there is nothing incongruous or "un-Canadian" in acknowledging the contributions of history and of our British heritage, while of course focusing on the Crown in a more overtly Canadian dimension in the present. Given the authors' clear recognition of the Monarchy's importance, it is perhaps the more surprising that nowhere do they make the explicit statement that Rideau Hall is "the Queen's home". Nonetheless, no reader could think otherwise after spending many enjoyable hours with this book, which every library and school in Canada -- indeed every Canadian -- should buy, read and share proudly with family and friends. This is a must for holiday giving come December!