FORTON, MICHEL, gold – and silversmith, maker and seller of jewellery, and engraver; b. 25 Nov. 1754 at Quebec, son of Jean Forton, a pulley maker, and Louise Chamard; d. there 12 Feb. 1817.
Michel Forton’s career cannot be traced further back than 1775, when he signed a document concerning an expedition for Michilimackinac (Mackinaw City, Mich.) that had been fitted out by Joseph Schindler*, a specialist in trade silver. As an apprentice to Schindler he gave evidence in a lawsuit brought against the silversmith at Detroit in 1776. Forton may have known him through his brother Jean Forton, a first cousin by marriage of Joseph Lucas, who had also been Schindler’s apprentice.
In 1790 Forton was in Quebec, where he had a shop at 19 Rue de la Montagne. In March 1795 he hired 14-year-old James Sullivan as an apprentice for a period of six years. In accordance with an unusual and interesting condition that Sullivan’s father had put in the apprenticeship agreement, Forton immediately had the boy attend drawing classes given by François Baillairgé*. Moreover, Forton undertook to send him to the school for a year. Baillairgé’s diary reveals that he produced for Forton many little wood carvings which the latter probably used as models in making silver pieces or jewellery: a squirrel, heads of a griffin, a stag, and a unicorn, a half-length figure of a griffin, a bull, a dog, a rooster, and numerous other models including a crown and a star. In his diary Baillairgé also calls Forton an engraver.
The Court of General Sessions of the Peace in 1795 ordered that from 21 October anyone using a forge or an oven would have to do so in premises entirely finished in stone or brick. Quebec silversmiths Michel Forton, François Ranvoyzé, James G. Hanna, Laurent Amiot*, James Orkney*, Jean-Nicolas Amiot, and Louis-Alexandre Picard* signed a petition demanding exemption from this regulation because of their particular working conditions: no accident could be caused by their forges, since they used very little fire at a time and never for a sustained period; moreover, according to the testimony of Picard, who had engaged in his craft at Quebec for 40 years, there had never been an accident in any workshop and it would be detrimental to silversmiths to have to work on pavements, because they would inevitably lose their gold and silver clippings in them; finally, since they had to remain seated most of the time while working, their health might be damaged irreparably by the insalubrious dampness of the paved premises. It is not known if anything came of the petition.
The 1798 census was the first document to list Forton as a jeweller. Sullivan was still with him. In 1805 Forton bought for £400 a property on Rues “St. George and de Laval,” which he rented to Charlotte Duchouquet. After adding a storey and an attic to this house, he rented it to lawyer Andrew Stuart* in 1811, and then to merchant James Tod in 1813. He also rented a property, with houses and outbuildings, on Rue Saint-Vallier in the faubourg Saint-Roch, to merchant Joseph Fournier in 1811. Furthermore Forton lent at interest sums ranging from £50 to £150. Clearly he was a rich man by the time of his death on 12 Feb. 1817.
Michel Forton’s social life was as ordered and quiet as his professional activity. He was a member of the Quebec Fire Society, which counted the local élite in its ranks, and he did not hesitate to show his loyalty to the British crown upon occasion. The mark identified with his initials is found on numerous household articles and a few snuff boxes. But his shop also carried gems and jewellery, as well as arrowroot, a “very useful and very scarce article.” Limited in quantity, his work is sober, unpretentious, and free of major defects; in short, an average production of reasonable quality.
Works by Michel Forton are to be found in Quebec City at the Musée du Québec, the Séminaire de Québec, and the Hôtel-Dieu, in Montreal at the Hôpital Général, and in Ottawa at the Henry Birks Collection of Silver at the National Gallery of Canada.
ANQ-Q, CE1-1, 25 nov. 1754, 13 févr. 1817; CN1-26, 27 sept. 1804; 23 oct., 25 nov. 1805; 21 mai 1806; 23 mars, 3 déc. 1807; 5 mai 1809; 30 janv., 6 févr. 1811; CN1-27, 18 févr. 1813; CN1-92, 27 mars 1795; CN1-189, 20 déc. 1766; CN1-205, 21, 23, 25 mars 1775; CN1-230, 3 juill. 1806, 14 oct. 1818; P-398, journal, 1784–1800: 158–59, 166, 171–73, 175–77, 180–81, 185. MAC-CD, Fonds Morisset, 2, F74/M623; R213.5/F825; S336/J83. “Les dénombrements de Québec” (Plessis), ANQ Rapport, 1948–49: 126. Quebec Mercury, 18 Feb. 1817. Langdon, Canadian silversmiths. F. W. Robinson, “Silversmiths of early Detroit,” Detroit Hist. Soc., Bull. (Detroit), 9 (1952–53), no.2: 5–8.