Manitoba History: A Fallen Splendour: The Challener Murals of Winnipeg’s Royal Alexandra Hotel
by Susan Moffatt Rozniatowski
On a spring evening in the late 1950s, a little girl, peered curiously into the ornate dining room of Winnipeg’s Royal Alexandra Hotel. Her astonished gaze took in a high paneled ceiling, a glittering chandelier, but most of all, a series of immense paintings on the wall. The paintings were her introduction to two areas of knowledge that were to be a focus of interest in her later life—the visual arts and the history of Manitoba. The magical paintings were the work of Frederick Sproston Challener, a British-born artist whose talent in figure and landscape painting found expression in the creation of magnificent murals based on literary and mythological, but more frequently, historical subjects.
Born in England in 1869, Challener came to Canada in 1883. After studies at the Ontario College of Art, followed by a sojourn in England and Europe, he lived and worked in Toronto, Conestoga, and Winnipeg. He was never in doubt about his ambition or his career. “Even when I was a child, I wanted to be a painter,” he wrote, “but my father had too many children to educate me in art, so I had to make my own way. I taught myself by copying everything thatcame under my eye, then outside help and prizes made it possible for me to continue in art.”  An example of the latter incentive was a bronze medal from the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904. 
Challener is represented by his works in the Ontario Legislative Building (The Fathers of Confederation after Robert Harris), the Royal Alexandra Theatre, Toronto (proscenium arch decoration on the theme of Venus and Adonis), the King Edward Hotel, Toronto (Trading at Fort Rouille), The McDonald Hotel, Edmonton (a second version of the Fathers of Confederation), and murals in the Chateau Laurier Hotel in Ottawa, as well as works for the Canadian War Memorials.
After settling in Winnipeg with a home on Salter Street and a studio on Main Street, Challener obviously developed strong ties with the artistic community. In a letter of 24 February 1913, he mentions that he had been elected Secretary-Treasurer of The Manitoba Society of Artists.  Although his works in Winnipeg included a portrait of Thomas Powell Deacon, mayor of the city during 1913-14, and a drop curtain for the Walker Theatre, his magnum opus was undoubtedly the series of murals created for the Royal Alexandra Hotel.
The Royal Alex, as it was affectionately known to generations of Winnipeggers, stood at the corner of Higgins Avenue and Main Street. Described as a palace and the largest hotel in Canada, on its opening on 19 July 1906 it was hailed by the Winnipeg Tribune as a “guarantee in brick and stone that the future growth of Winnipeg is assured.  It was one of Canadian Pacific Railway’s chain of great hotels, noted for its cuisine (it introduced Lake Winnipeg goldeye as a local delicacy) and the quality of its service. It was a hub of Winnipeg social life where dignitaries and celebrities stayed and orchestras played in the ballroom. The title page of the hotel’s brochure ambitiously proclaimed “CANADIAN PACIFIC—The Expression of a Nation’s Character.”  The Challener murals were an appropriate visual expression of that statement.
Commissioned by CPR, the Murals for the Royal Alexandra Hotel were intended to depict uniquely western themes in an epic style to match the ambience of this grande dame of hotels in western Canada. It was a massive project which would require six years from 1906 to 1912 for its completion. The murals were to be placed in the hotel’s main dining room which could seat four hundred guests. Oak paneling, a moulded ceiling and a polished maple floor contributed to the opulent setting. The prominent feature of the east wall was a deep fireplace with a richly carved wooden mantle.
To enhance this setting, Challener composed eight murals of scenes from the life of aboriginal peoples as well as settlers. The titles of the works originally displayed were: Indian Sun Dance; Sacred Pipe Dance; Buffalo Hunt; Indian Encampment; Government of the Indian Tribes; Transportation across the Great Prairie; Upper Fort Garry; and Fort Douglas. Painted on canvas attached to the walls, each mural measured approximately fourteen feet vertically by fourteen feet horizontally. Although there have always been some questions about the historical accuracy of the murals, they were, nevertheless, a remarkable artistic accomplishment. Although all eight murals were removed from the walls, only four of them were restored. Also in existence is an oil sketch which was a preparatory study for the Buffalo Hunt. 
The restored murals do give us an idea of Challener’s ability to depict large scale panoramic subjects. The mural of Upper Fort Garry showed the fort as it appeared in 1839. Determined to achieve as much historical authenticity as possible, Challener searched for contemporary illustrations of the fort, and even located a photograph, dating from the period in question in the warden’s office of the penitentiary.  This photograph became a model for the Fort Garry mural. Upper Fort Garry was erected in the 1830s at the junction of the Red and Assiniboine rivers, and was named after Nicholas Garry, one of the Hudson’s Bay Company directors. The view of the fort shows the fort buildings enclosed behind stone walls and bastions. A bell tower can be seen to the left of the gateway. The factor’s residence, with the gabled windows of its upper story showing above the wall, was also the first court house for Assiniboia from 1835 to 1870.  It was this building in particular that was occupied by Louis Riel and his followers until the arrival of Colonel Wolseley and his troops in 1870.  The residence then served as officers’ quarters until its demolition in 1875. In 1882-83, the rest of the fort, with the exception of the gate which still stands, was sold and dismantled. The Challener mural of this monument of Manitoba history is presently located in the Provincial Archives of Manitoba.
Perhaps the most dramatic of the murals is The Buffalo Hunt. The buffalo were an important resource to the aboriginal peoples of the plains, both as a source of food and clothing, and the buffalo hunt was a focal point of their lives. The hunt required the fastest horses and the most expert and skilled of riders and hunters. The strategy of the hunt called for the buffalo to be driven into an enclosed area, or to be pursued over a precipice where they would be killed by the fall. The women would skin and butcher the carcasses and transport the remains to camp.
Challener achieves amazing freeze-frame effect with a comparative economy of means. The colour range of The Buffalo Hunt remains within the brown, green and blue which dominate many of his works, but subtle graduations of colours give the impression of a more extensive chromatic (in the visual sense) scale. The depiction of the hunt captures a dramatic moment in time as the buffalo are driven towards a precipice. The hunters are portrayed not only as skilled archers (lower left), but also as expert riders, leading the buffalo in the direction they want them to go. The drama of the event is intensified by the placement of the horizon line at a very low level, so that the cloud-piled sky becomes a dominant feature, which, in turn, emphasizes the vastness of the prairie itself. The cloud formations convey an impression of gigantic figures-detached Olympian spectators, adding an eerie, spiritual atmosphere, so that the hunt becomes more than an event and is raised to the level of ceremony and ritual.
It is fortunate that this magnificent and dynamic work also exists in a smaller format, an oil sketch, possibly a preparatory study for the larger work. The sketch is in the collection of the Winnipeg Art Gallery, and was donated by Arnold Brigden, a well-known Winnipeg collector and businessman whose photo-engraving and printing firm was prominent in Winnipeg for many years. Brigden himself commented on the “exceptional character and interest” of the sketch.  In spite of the much smaller size, the sketch still has much of the energy and power of the full scale work, and exudes the same feeling of a captured moment in time.
After the turbulent dynamism of The Buffalo Hunt, the Indian Encampment comes like the slow movement of a symphony. There is a thematic link with the hunt mural in the use of buffalo hides for tipi coverings and in the recurring presence of the immense prairie sky. The standing figures may be a chief and elders in conversation, but neither they nor any other group dominate the mural, so skilful is the integration of all its compositional elements, and indeed Challener probably intended the picture to be simply a representation of one aspect of aboriginal social life.
The last mural to be considered here is one entitled Government of the Indian Tribes. Aboriginal government was essentially patriarchal, each man ruling his family, but the government of the tribe was by a hereditary chief who was highly respected. The scene that Challener has depicted here is the construction of a central meeting lodge. The framework of the tipi at the left gives an idea of the greater size of the lodge, and also a concept of its importance in the social and political life of the tribe. The covering of the framework consists of buffalo hides which, after the hair is removed, were partly dried and then rubbed to leave the skins soft and pliable. As in the Indian Encampment, the scene is relatively static—only one figure appears to be in motion—but the tranquility is appropriate. The placement of the lodge near a grove of trees and the pervasive element of the sky suggest a feeling of harmony with nature, and remind us that the lodge would be a focal point not only for meeting of a political and social nature, but for ceremonial and spiritual purposes as well.
The Challener murals and their palatial setting have both suffered from the vicissitudes of time and circumstance—in the case of the Royal Alexandra Hotel, terminally.
When it opened, the Royal Alex was acclaimed as a symbol of progress. Sadly, by the late 1960s, much had changed. The advent of cheaper motels, the increase of air transport, and the decline of the area in which the Royal Alexandra was built, created a lack of business. In December 1967—ironically the end of Canada’s centennial year—the Royal Alexandra Hotel closed. Years were to pass before plans were underway for the revitalization of this area. In 1971, the hotel was demolished. At that time, the murals were gifted by the CPR to the Province of Manitoba. It is fortunate that the murals did not perish, although they did become the subject of controversy and, ultimately, mystery. How they could be removed, how much it would cost to remove them, who would pay for the costs of removal, where they could be stored and displayed, and to whom they would be consigned, were questions which raged for three years. The cost of removing the murals from the hotel was estimated as $30,000 in 1970.  It was hoped that a permanent home could be found for them but no satisfactory solution appeared.
The removal and restoration of the murals posed a challenge. Decades of exposure to dust, smoke, varying degrees of heat and cold, as well as dry air had left them coated with a film of grease. Furthermore, the placement of the murals in front of heating and water pipes promoted deterioration of both paint and canvas. In fact, at the time of the hotel’s closure, the murals had almost become embedded in the plaster walls.  To accomplish their removal, the murals had to be cleaned and coated with a protective substance. Despite their fragile condition, the physical removal entailed chiseling, hammering, pulling and turning. The murals were taken to the former Fort Osborne barracks for plaster removal. They were then treated to make them pliable, and rolled onto rollers for storage.  Eventually the murals were transferred to the studio of an art restorer, Ferdinand Petrov. Placed on a specially built 18 foot by 18 foot table, the murals were heated and cleaned. Cracks were filled in. Drying and the application of a coat of protective varnish completed the complex process.  Art restoration requires a unique talent, special equipment and painstaking work over an extended period of time. Four restored murals appeared in an exhibition held at the Winnipeg Art Gallery from 18 June to 15 July 1973.
The Challener murals portrayed a way of life that had disappeared, but at the time of their creation Winnipeg was still a very young city, not far removed from the buffalo hunt and the trading post. The murals were an outward and visible sign of the city’s heritage. They were not necessarily historically accurate, particularly in their portrayal of the aboriginal way of life, and they have , on at least one occasion, been patronizingly dismissed as “calendar art”, but as visual images, they did bring history to life.
What has happened to the murals since their restoration and the Winnipeg Art Gallery Exhibition? One of them, the Upper Fort Garry mural, hangs in the Provincial Archives of Manitoba. The three other restored murals rest in a provincial government warehouse where they are inaccessible. The location of the four non-restored murals, Fort Douglas, Transportation across the Prairies, Indian Pipe Dance and Sun Dance, remains a mystery. It is not even certain that they were sent for restoration at the same time as the other four. From the former Fort Osborne barracks they seem to have vanished into oblivion.
It is sad that the existing murals cannot be publicly displayed. Apart from their size and the difficulty of finding an appropriate exhibition space for them, arguments against their display are rather specious. Ironically, some of the paneling and chandeliers of the Royal Alexandra Hotel have been used to decorate the dining room of the Cranbrook Railway Museum in British Columbia. Fortunately, the murals at least have remained in Manitoba.
Years ago these murals inspired a little girl to become interested in history. How many more people have they affected in some way? The child who was fascinated by the murals is still very much present—still wondering, still curious. May we all be so.
4. Val Werier, “Anything from Pheasant to Buffalo Steak.” Winnipeg Tribune, 5 February 1966.
9. Thomas Flanagan ed. The Diaries of Louis Riel. Hurtig Publishers. (Edmonton). 1976. pp. 10-11.
14. Eileen Pruden, “The Restoration of Works of Art.” Winnipeg Free Press, 2 June 1973.
Page revised: 3 November 2012