Century old hidden wall murals discovered

Region of Waterloo Museums staff have discovered wall murals, dating back over 100 years, at McDougall Cottage.

One of the most unique and intriguing architectural features of McDougall Cottage is its hand-painted friezes and ceiling and newly revealed wall murals.

Created circa 1906-1907 by John “Jack” Baird (1862-1922) older brother of the Cottage’s second owner, James Baird, in the trompe l’oeil style (French meaning to deceive, or trick the eye). This type of hand-painted room embellishment served as an alternative to wallpaper which was more expensive than paint and canvas at the time. This kind of adornment was more frequently found in the homes of well-to-do families; it is unusual to find decoration like this in the home of a working class family.

For many years, only the ceiling murals and friezes were visible. However, anecdotal evidence, provided by descendants of the Baird family and others, suggested that additional murals  existed on the walls of the Cottage’s dining room, but that they had been, at some point, concealed by paint.

Michelle Bartlett, McDougall Cottage Historic Site Supervisor, said “staff were very excited and intrigued to find out whether these additional paintings did indeed exist” and so the decision was made to investigate their potential presence.

To that end, various investigative methods were employed.  Initial analysis included cross-section analysis of paint and infrared photography, however these tests proved to be inconclusive.

Region of Waterloo Museums conservator Roberta Sealy initiated further investigations on sections of the dining room walls: “My process involved carefully removing the upper paint layers through chemical and mechanical means. This proved successful, revealing sections of mural showing a striped motif of cream, brown, and maroon faux wood graining and large sections of blue-green on the upper wall.”

Roberta’s investigations not only verified the existence of the “hidden” wall murals in the dining room area; additional concealed murals were found on the walls of the adjoining room as well. An unexpected and exciting revelation!

Encouraged by these results, Region of Waterloo Museums hired Toronto Art Restoration Inc. to remove the various layers of paint that covered the murals.  This endeavor was highly successful and in early 2020, the beautiful more than 100-year-old wall murals were returned to their former glory.

McDougall Cottage, a circa 1858 granite and limestone labourer's home, is located in downtown Cambridge in the historic factory district on the banks of the Grand River. This Cottage was home for more than a century to two families of Scots, the McDougalls and the Bairds.

Open to the public since 2002, the Cottage now serves as a historic site celebrating Cambridge's proud cultural heritage.