Mary Palliser portrait finds its way home to Ireland after living in Saskatchewan’s archive

A painting by Victoria-era artist Sir Frederic William Burton has been returned to Ireland on a long-term loan from the Saskatchewan government. 

The watercolour portrait is of Mary Palliser — widely known as the sister of John Palliser, a famous Irish explorer who mapped Canada in 1850, according to the government. 

“She was quite close to him and a number of descriptions say you can see the family resemblance between them quite remarkably,” provincial archivist Linda McIntyre said. 

John Palliser often visited an area that is now known as Regina. But how the portrait came to Canada remains a mystery. 

In 1994 the painting of Mary was bequeathed to the provincial archives by a friend of the Palliser family. 

Painting of Mary Palliser by Victorian-era Irish artist Sir Frederic William Burton. (Provincial Archives of Saskatchewan)

And now, for the second time, the 149-year-old painting has returned to Ireland. The painting made its first trip back to Ireland in 2017, and was in Dublin for the Frederic William Burton: For the Love of Art exhibition at the National Gallery of Ireland.

For the next five years it will live at the Waterford Art Gallery as part of a major in-house exhibition. 

“The Government of Saskatchewan is happy to share the Palliser painting with the Irish public and strengthen our shared connections around the world during a time when physical travel is a challenge,” Minister responsible for the Provincial Archives of Saskatchewan Jim Reiter said in a statement. 

“The people of Waterford, Ireland, will enjoy viewing the painting and Saskatchewan’s contribution to archival history.”

A love connection

It’s been an often-reported rumour that the painting was initially gifted to Mary as an engagement gift from Burton. 

The two were engaged for 10 years but they never married. Mary died in 1879 due to pneumonia, and Burton never got engaged again.

Mary is buried in Comeragh Cemetery in Waterford, and having the painting returned means a lot to the locals. 

“People in Waterford know of her and her family quite closely,” McIntyre said. “It’s very definite the painting will be most enjoyed locally so I’m quite happy to have it shared with the Irish people.”