HARRISON, MARK ROBERT, painter, theatre manager, actor, and teacher; b. 7 Sept. 1819 in Hovringham, England, son of Robert Launcelot Harrison and Anne Bellmore; d. unmarried 6 Dec. 1894 in Fond du Lac, Wis.
Mark Robert Harrison’s family emigrated from England to Westmoreland, Oneida County, N.Y., around 1821. They remained there for 11 years before moving to Upper Canada and settling in Hamilton. Harrison’s mother was a competent artist, and he displayed an artistic inclination early in life. Armed with the support and encouragement of his parents, at age 14 he began studying in Toronto under the American portrait painter James Bowman*. He then received instruction from Colby Kimble in Rochester, N.Y., before moving to New York City, where he was taught by the eminent portraitist Henry Inman.
In the fall of 1838 he travelled to England, spending a year and a half at London’s Royal Academy of Arts; an additional 15 months were passed in the British Museum and in the countryside, where he sketched classical antiquities and architectural ruins. Deriving much of his subject-matter from history, mythology, and religion, he painted original compositions in addition to making copies after the old masters. While abroad he achieved a degree of fame through the sale of a history painting called The charge of Cromwell at Marston. Around 1842 Harrison returned to Hamilton, where he worked as a history, genre, and portrait painter. The death of Abel, painted in 1843 and now lost, was exhibited in both Upper Canada and abroad to much critical acclaim. Unfortunately, most of Harrison’s paintings and sketches were destroyed in a fire in Hamilton in 1844, forcing him to rely on memory and printed illustrations as visual resources for subsequent paintings.
Although primarily an artist, Harrison also played a vital role in Hamilton’s theatrical life. Before going to England he had helped to found the Hamilton Amateur Theatrical Society, also known as the Gentlemen Amateurs. On returning he became the first manager of the Theatre Royal, presenting such works as Alozo the fair and The fair Imogene. Harrison even took to the stage himself and is reported to have appeared at least once with the English actor Junius Brutus Booth. He also produced, in collaboration with his brother John P., a series of “illuminated chemical dioramas” which he exhibited throughout the Canadas until 1849. One of them, a major, four-part work depicting Orléans cathedral, the enthronement of Charles X of France, and scenes from the Bible, prompted a Toronto critic in April 1846 to state that it far exceeded “in beauty and effect any thing of the kind ever exhibited in Toronto.” On 12 June, while the work was being displayed at the Théâtre Saint-Louis, in Quebec, a fire caused by an overturned footlight killed 50 spectators, including Harrison’s younger brother Thomas C. In 1848 Harrison contributed several paintings, primarily portraits, of actors and scenes from the theatre, to the second and final exhibition of the short-lived Toronto Society of Arts.
The following year, Harrison moved to Oshkosh, Wis., joining a brother who had already settled in the area. In 1852, after taking a substantial financial loss in an unsuccessful attempt to establish a steamboat service on Lake Winnebago, he moved to Fond du Lac, remaining there for the rest of his life. He continued to support himself by painting and teaching art. In 1853 the Hamilton Daily Spectator, and Journal of Commerce reported that he was in the midst of preparing a new diorama, assisted by Thomas H. Stevenson, whom Harrison had known in Toronto and Hamilton. This diorama reportedly resembled the one shown in Toronto, but was larger.
Harrison’s history paintings and Indian portraits were in demand throughout the Fox River valley. His Burial of Hiawatha attained special fame and was said to have depicted Indian life so accurately that Longfellow himself wrote to congratulate him. Unfortunately, few of his works are to be found today outside Wisconsin. His theatrical roots, established in Hamilton, continued to influence the histrionic aspect of his painting long after his move to the United States. In the annals of Canada’s cultural history, he emerges as a pioneer in a gradually maturing artistic milieu.
Few of Harrison’s works are extant outside Wisconsin. Representative paintings are in the collections of the Fort Atkinson Hist. Soc.–Hoard Hist. Museum (Fort Atkinson, Wis.) and the Wis., State Hist. Soc. (Madison); a self-portrait in the latter collection is reproduced in C. D. Lowrey, “The Toronto Society of Arts, 1847–48: patriotism and the pursuit of culture in Canada West,” RACAR (Montreal), 12 (1985): 3–44. The current location of The charge of Cromwell at Marston is unknown.
Private arch., Freda Crisp (Burlington, Ont.), Freda Crisp, “Hamilton’s first Theatre Royal” (typescript, n.d.). Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of American Art (Washington), Inv. of American paintings executed before 1914. J. E. Alexander, L’Acadie; or, seven years’ explorations in British America (2v., London, 1849). British Colonist (Toronto), 28 April 1846; 18 Jan., 28 April 1848. Daily Spectator, and Journal of Commerce, 9 March 1853, 11 Oct. 1860. Milwaukee Sentinel (Milwaukee, Wis.), 7 Dec. 1894. Toronto Patriot, 1 May 1846. DHB. Harper, Early painters and engravers. The New-York Historical Society’s dictionary of artists in America, 1564–1860, comp. G. C. Groce and D. H. Wallace (New Haven, Conn., and London, 1957; repr. 1964). Portrait and biographical album of Fond du Lac County, Wisconsin (Chicago, 1889). H. R. Austin, The Wisconsin story: the building of a vanguard state ([Milwaukee, 1948]; repr. 1976). Porter Butts, Art in Wisconsin (Madison, 1936). History of the Fox River valley, Lake Winnebago and the Green Bay region, ed. W. A. Titus (3v., Chicago, 1930). J. M. LeMoine, Quebec past and present, a history of Quebec, 1608–1876 (Quebec, 1876).