Remember: A portrait of Robert Graham

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In this week’s Remember This, Mary Harris tries to figure out which Robert Graham is in this photo

Will the real Robert Graham please stand up? As I left the antique shop, I assured the staff that this mystery would be solved quickly. Finally, the photo is signed by a well-known Barrie photographer and the subject’s name is clearly noted on the back.

A little over two years ago I had the great pleasure of researching the original owner of a beautiful collection of postcards. I wrote a story about the project and was delighted when a relative offered to take care of these treasures. In return, he sent a thank you card and enclosed $20.

Since then I’ve been looking for a way to pass it on and use that money to send another family heirloom back to people who would enjoy it. Personally, I would be very happy about such an offer out of the blue.

The beautifully matted portrait, framed in wood, is quite large. In it, a young and confident man looks straight into the camera. A straight part cuts through his dark, curly hair. He wears a well-fitting three-piece suit with narrow lapels.

My first guess, based on his assumed age, hair and dress style, and type of frame, is that Robert Graham is in his twenties and the portrait was made shortly after 1900. So I’m looking for a gentleman of that type name born in the 1880’s. At least I think so.

What if he is 17 or 35 years old? Is he dressed in the latest fashion or a little behind the times? Did Robert live in Barrie or did he come into town from a remote area one day to sit for a formal portrait?

I’m beginning to think that a name like Robert Graham is only slightly rarer than John Smith. A few Robert Grahams have been suggested to me, but which of them, if any, is the man in this portrait?

The time of the session can be narrowed down somewhat by looking at the time when John Francis Jackson, better known as J. Frank Jackson, ran a photography studio in Barrie. Jackson came to Barrie in the late 1880s and worked as an assistant to photographer John Stephens before going to Kansas City to work on his own account.

In 1891 Jackson returned to Barrie, took over the photography business from Mr. Stephens and soon thereafter married Stephens’ only daughter. From then until 1921, J. Frank Jackson was considered one of Canada’s finest photographers.

It remains a mystery as to the identity of the young man with the steady gaze who one day sat for Mr. Jackson in his studio over 100 years ago.

Maybe it was Robert Graham, the prospector. In 1914, Robert and his brother George left their hometown of Barrie and headed west. They were in Flin Flon, Man., when the zinc, copper, silver, and gold of which that town is composed was discovered. Robert stayed there for the rest of his life.

It was probably not Robert Graham, a farmer from Innisfil, as he was 38 in 1901. Perhaps it was Robert Graham, another Elmvale farmer, who enlisted in the Canadian Expeditionary Force in 1918. His hair color, as listed on his certification papers, was light brown. It was definitely not Robert Henry Graham as his hair, which was described on the same form, was presented as “slightly bald”.

Then there was Robert Graham, who was once known as one of Canada’s finest horse breeders and trainers. This man was instrumental in the success of Dyment racehorses and show horses at Brookdale Stables, where he was manager in the 1920’s. This Robert Graham was born in the late 1860s and was probably too old to be our man.

Bob, as I now call him, stares at me every time I walk past his portrait, which now sits on my dining table, leaning against the wall.

“Yes, Bob, I’m working on it,” I say as I walk by.

Each week, the Barrie Historical Archive offers BarrieToday readers a glimpse into the city’s past. Featuring photos and stories from years past, this unique column is sure to appeal to the historian in all of us.

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