An Artist, Curator and Historical Pioneer - Jenny Russell Simpson

Jenny Russell Simpson

- Section 41, Lot 120 NW

Jenny (Jeanette) Russell Simpson was born in Montreal in 1847 to Andrew Russell, commissioner of Crown Lands. She was an artist, and sometimes employed as a copyist by the Public Archives of Canada. Russell was taught to paint by her uncle, Alexander Jamieson Russell, an artist who used his skills to illustrate articles and a book he wrote. His sketches also appeared in the Canadian Illustrated News and other publications.

Gatineau river falls

She demonstrated her artistic abilities in her portraits of her father-in-law in 1879 and her father in 1880, and in View Taken from Wright’s Island on the Gatineau River at Farmer’s Rapids, 1879.

Simpson came to Ottawa in 1866, and married John Barker Simpson, son of the Hon. John Simpson.

She acted as English secretary of the Historic Landmarks of Canada (part of the Royal Society of Canada) from 1915-1921. Simpson also began working as a copyist for the Dominion Archives, commissioned to provide watercolours based on printed sources. Her lasting contributions to the arts were administrative. The male-dominated Royal Society of Canada, founded in 1882, created an initiative called the Historic Landmarks Association of Canada (HLA) in 1907 to prepare for the Quebec Tercentenary the following year.

The organization then languished until Simpson was hired in 1914 as its only paid employee (at an annual salary of $50) to revive its fortunes. She initiated annual reports in 1915 and increased the membership almost fourfold in just four years. Upon her retirement in 1921, the HLA president acknowledged the association’s debt to her.

From 1923-1932, Simpson was curator of the Bytown Museum in Ottawa, then called the Women’s Canadian Historical Society of Ottawa. She greatly enhanced the collection and one of the Museum’s most notable works, the bust of Lady Macdonald, 1874, was acquired during her tenure. She was also responsible for writing the Museum’s first collection catalogue entitled Guide to the Bytown and Ottawa Historical Museum.

Bytown m

The first edition was published in 1926, Ottawa’s centenary year, and was republished in 1929, when it listed 481 artefacts. It was largely through Simpson’s efforts that the WCHSO was able to take possession of the Registry Office, which helped turn the little institution into a notable municipal museum.

In 1909, Simpson represented the WCHSO at the American Historical Association in New York —the first time a Canadian society was officially represented at this prestigious meeting. She died April 25, 1936.

Jenny Russell Grave