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BAILLAIRGÉ, THOMAS (baptized François-Thomas), architect, wood-carver, and politician; b. 20 Dec. 1791 at Quebec, son of François Baillairgé*, a master painter and wood-carver, and Josephte Boutin, and grandson of Jean Baillairgé*, a master carpenter and architect; d. there 9 Feb. 1859.
Thomas Baillairgé belonged to a renowned family of craftsmen who had been settled at Quebec since 1741. According to his father’s diary, Thomas began to attend the English school at the age of eight. Then he probably studied at the Petit Séminaire de Québec while his father taught him the rudiments of wood-carving and architecture. Young Thomas was undoubtedly in some degree a disciple of Jérôme Demers, a teacher of science and architecture at the Petit Séminaire. Demers, as superior of the seminary and vicar general of the diocese with responsibilities such as supervising the construction of religious buildings in the name of the bishop of Quebec, subsequently granted his patronage to Baillairgé whom he termed the “leading architect in the whole of Lower Canada.” As for his apprenticeship, historian Émile Vaillancourt* points out it is not unlikely that Baillairgé worked with René Beauvais*, dit Saint-James, in Louis Quévillon*’s workshop around 1810. But, since this assertion is not based on documentary evidence and Baillairgé’s whole career tends to invalidate it, it must be called into question. He may, however, have worked with wood-carver Antoine Jacson* in his father’s atelier.
According to Georges-Frédéric Baillairgé, the family’s biographer, Thomas started in the trade in 1812. That year he entered “into full possession of the workshop of his father, [who had been] appointed treasurer of the city.” But in fact it was in 1815 that he really began his career as an architect and wood-carver at Saint-Joachim, near Quebec, where in partnership with his father and under the guidance of Demers he undertook to decorate the interior of the village church.
Baillairgé made his mark primarily as an architect. From 1815 to 1848, the year he retired, he drew up the plans for a considerable number of churches, presbyteries, public buildings, and houses. In the field of religious architecture Baillairgé enjoyed a commanding position because of both the scarcity of French Canadian and Roman Catholic architects and the close relations he maintained with the diocese of Quebec. Yet he did not succeed in gaining recognition in the Montreal region, where he attempted only two ventures: in 1824 when he presented a proposal for the reconstruction of Notre-Dame, which was rejected, and in 1836 when he drafted the plans for the church of Sainte-Geneviève. On the other hand, there is hardly a religious building in the eastern part of the province erected between 1820 and 1850 that does not bear his mark, either because he drew up the plans or because it was constructed by a contractor on the model of one of his churches.
Baillairgé built three types of churches. First, there were small parish churches that followed the architectural tradition inherited from the French régime. They are designed in the form of a Latin cross, with a semicircular apse and a bell tower rising above a façade ornamented only by niches, windows, and portals. In collaboration with Demers, he drafted the plans for a church of this kind at Sainte-Claire in 1823. This building seems to have been a significant accomplishment, since he repeated the design frequently – in 1830 at Lauzon, in 1839 at Saint-Pierre-les-Becquets (Les Becquets), and in 1845 at Saint-Anselme, to mention only a few examples; there were, of course, variations, for no two of Baillairgé’s buildings were exactly alike. On the other hand, several rural parishes wanted a more majestic church incorporating a façade with two bell towers. In 1828 Baillairgé and Demers proposed at Charlesbourg a plan that could satisfy these expectations. At Grondines (Saint-Charles-des-Grondines) in 1831 and at Sainte-Croix in 1835, Baillairgé revived this type successfully: a screened façade enhanced a building that in other respects was rather traditional. But, beginning with the construction of St Patrick’s at Quebec in 1831, Baillairgé developed an entirely new model linked more tenuously with architectural tradition. The nave was divided into three spaces by pillars supporting lateral galleries, and the formal treatment of the façade heralded the new layout of the interior. The architect used this model with some variations at Deschambault in 1833 and Sainte-Geneviève in 1836.
In among these three types of church, a number of other edifices show Baillairgé’s never-ceasing quest for renewal of tradition: for example, the church of Sainte-Luce built in 1836 and that of L’Ancienne-Lorette erected the following year, in which the façade became more monumental even though a central bell tower was retained. But it was primarily through interior architecture that other intermediate variations were characterized. After completing the plans for the interior décor of the church of Saint-Joachim in 1815, Baillairgé repeated the semicircular retable (the structure housing the altar) on several occasions, at Lauzon, Saint-Antoine-de-Tilly, and Saint-François on the Île d’Orléans for instance. Yet, when the retable he carved in 1824 at Lotbinière in the form of a triumphal arch was a success, he proposed the same style for various other churches, notably one at Charlesbourg in 1833 and another at Sainte-Luce in 1845. Lastly, the kind of interior architecture found in St Patrick’s Church occurs again at Deschambault in 1841, at Lévis in 1850, and in the nave of the church of Pointe-aux-Trembles (Neuville) in 1854. But the last two instances must be listed as the work of his school, since the master had retired, making way for his pupils.
Baillairgé also drafted the plans for a number of public edifices, the first and most important undoubtedly being the parliament building begun in 1830 on the present site of Montmorency Park. This was in fact a more elaborate version of the architecture employed for the Séminaire de Nicolet in 1826. Similarly, a simplified form of the bishop’s palace at Quebec, for which the plans were delivered in 1844, can be seen in the convent of Saint-Roch and the Collège de Sainte-Anne-de-la-Pocatière.
In addition to churches and public buildings, Baillairgé drew up the plans for several houses. Research into this aspect of his work has only begun, however, and since neither the plans nor the accompanying contracts are signed, only the architect’s rather unusual penmanship makes it possible to detect that the plans are his. The houses so far identified were principally on Rue Saint-Louis and Rue Sainte-Ursule, but this does not rule out the possibility that similar houses were built in other adjoining parts of old Quebec.
Baillairgé followed the dominant style of his age, neoclassicism. This movement, which equally affected America and Europe at the beginning of the 19th century, was marked by a return to the principles underlying classical architecture and drew inspiration from the new science of archaeology. At the same time, there was growing interest in history, in the epochs which have in turn left monuments on the architectural landscape. That Baillairgé absorbed the neoclassicism introduced into Lower Canada by British architects, treatises, and books with illustrations of models, is clear from his library, which contained Colin Campbell’s Vitruvius Britannicus, James Gibbs’s Book of architecture, and Jacques-François Blondel’s Cours d’architecture. Baillairgé also watched new buildings going up, and it is quite clear that the work of such men as Henry Musgrave Blaiklock*, Frederick Hacker, Richard John Cooper, and George Browne* had an influence on him. But beyond these new developments Baillairgé took into account the architectural heritage of Lower Canada, and it is a synthesis of new influences and acquired knowledge that he expresses in designs and also in techniques and materials. This synthesizing endeavour gives Baillairgé’s architectural production a familiar image that maintained continuity in development, and so distinguishes his work that he can be considered the creator of an original style: the neoclassicism of Quebec.
If the edifices constructed according to his plans testify to this classical renewal, Baillairgé’s style of draftsmanship also represents a development within the architectural profession. By following the precepts in the manual on architecture written by Demers, Baillairgé compels recognition as an architect rather than a master builder. Demers had affirmed that architecture drew its principles from the observation of nature, but that these “natural rules” were little respected in Lower Canada at the beginning of the 19th century. Accordingly, Baillairgé endeavoured to become the architect representing order, an indispensable element in architecture. He prepared more and more drawings, increasingly precise and detailed, to guide the work on site, thus depriving builders and contractors of freedom of choice and hence noticeably weakening the influence of tradition on the evolution of forms and techniques. Between the drawing he completed in 1829 for a house to be built for the Hôtel-Dieu of Quebec and the plans used in 1841 for the construction of the École Mgr Signay in Près-de-Ville at Quebec, this development is clearly discernible. It marked the true beginnings of the architectural profession.
This evocation of order was particularly evident when Baillairgé carried out the interior décor of a church. For example, as early as 1815 at Saint-Joachim, in collaboration with his father, he presented a wholly new decorative scheme, conceived as a unified whole. From then on the architect took the place of the usual ateliers of wood-carvers who scattered their ornamentation throughout the churches. At Saint-Joachim all the carvings are subordinate to an architectural framework that dictates the general arrangement, to fulfil the architect’s desire for a coherent effect. It is not surprising that Baillairgé’s aesthetic notions led him to advocate the use of plaster for ornamental motifs, and that figurative woodcarving declined perceptibly as his career advanced. The interior architecture of St Patrick’s Church was executed in plaster in 1831, with the architect excluding all carved ornamentation.
Baillairgé was, however, a highly skilled woodcarver. The bas-reliefs depicting La foi and La religion in the church of Saint-Joachim, and the statues of La foi and L’espérance in the church of Saint-Louis at Lotbinière, are amongst the great achievements in wood-carving. By using a style of antique inspiration with folds cut closely and deeply, Baillairgé gave evidence of a coherent approach in his neoclassical aesthetics. But there is more to it than this. His art suggests a clear intention to escape from a vision of faith relying on narrative or anecdote. His restrained style dispenses with figurative references; he uses themes which are theological in character and he carefully avoids the descriptive episodes of the Old and New Testaments. He increasingly retained in his plans only non-figurative carving, in particular symbolic ornaments (trophies and instruments of the Passion, for example). In this respect his art was linked with the concerns of the church in Lower Canada, which around 1830 was seeking to reaffirm its position, within a traditional society facing disintegration, by preaching a return to doctrine and to the gospel message. The interior architecture of Baillairgé’s churches was in tune with this reorientation of the church; at least it expressed this intention in the religious iconography employed. The renewal in architectural style, combined with the new iconology, gave significance to interior architecture despite the absence of carved figures, and conferred on Baillairgé a quite special position. Thus it is easy to understand why the church thought so highly of him that it treated him, in effect, as the diocesan architect.
But at the same time Baillairgé was a victim of his own success. Tied to his drawing-board, as much by the volume of work and the care he devoted to it as by his determination to separate himself professionally from those who engaged in construction, he took to giving very liberal and varied interpretations to his plans. As he did not visit the sites and follow the progress of buildings, the work was often quite out of his hands from the moment the structure was begun. At Deschambault the façade was not completed, and at Grondines the bell towers were scaled down. Elsewhere, contractors, who were skilful but insensitive to the aesthetics of the master, cut down his plans to adapt them to parish needs and resources. Baillairgé also showed far too little concern for the developing urban setting. For example his bishop’s palace faces the stables of Notre-Dame and turns its back on the street.
Baillairgé had a number of pupils and as a result he enjoyed unquestionable influence. In his workshop the tasks were specialized, as Georges Frédéric Baillairgé pointed out: Louis-Thomas Berlinguet excelled in colonnades and architecture in general, Joseph Girouard in large-scale constructions, Louis-Xavier Léprohon, André Paquet, dit Lavallée, and Thomas Fournier in the interior ornamentation of churches, André-Raphaël Giroux* in the making of wooden models, Léandre Parent in figures of Christ, and Charles Baillairgé* in the boldness of his conceptions. Of all these pupils it was Thomas’s second cousin Charles who was to leave the strongest imprint on the second half of the 19th century, but at the price of an unavoidable break with the aesthetics of his master. On the other hand, Giroux and Paquet carried on Baillairgé’s work after his retirement, but by 1845 they had been forced out of Quebec by the emergence of Victorian architecture in the urban environment. If Quebec architects such as Charles Baillairgé, François-Xavier Berlinguet, Joseph-Ferdinand Peachy*, David Dussault, and David Ouellet* mostly continued in the vein of Thomas Baillairgé’s work until about 1920, it was precisely because of the renewal that Baillairgé had brought to the profession in preferring the workshop to experience on site, and the plan to the building. But this prolonged survival of French Canadian architects unchanged in an environment subjected to North American eclecticism also caused a distinct sclerosis, since at the turn of the century Quebec was still training architects as Baillairgé had, whereas schools of architecture had sprung up everywhere. And by and large this state of things gave Quebec its image as a traditional city, despite the amount of new construction undertaken in the second half of the 19th century.
Baillairgé was an all-round artist. Like his father, he engaged in architecture and to a lesser degree in wood-carving. He occasionally gave his attention to painting but, like his uncle Pierre-Florent*, apparently preferred music. At least this is a plausible explanation for an interest in organs which led him for some years to serve as the tuner for the organ in the cathedral of Notre-Dame, and also to build himself a similar instrument in his dwelling.
A sober, reserved, pious man, Baillairgé led an uneventful bachelor’s life entirely devoted to his work. He made only one journey, in 1846, during which he stayed a short time in Montreal and then visited his cousin, the notary Jean-Joseph Girouard, at Saint-Benoît (Mirabel). He seems at one point to have been attracted to public life, since on at least two occasions, in 1834 and 1835, he was elected to the municipal council of Quebec representing Séminaire Ward. It is known that he engaged in several land transactions. In 1815 he and his father received a grant of land in Upper Town belonging to the Ursulines. A series of deals he subsequently concluded makes it evident that he was comfortably off, even if he occasionally resorted to loans. Although Baillairgé did not enrich himself through his work, several of his pupils, including Paquet, who worked as contractors, acquired sizeable fortunes.
When Baillairgé retired in 1848 to make way for his second cousin Charles, he drew up his will. He divided his properties among his closest relatives and bequeathed his money to the Hôpital Général in Quebec and to the Quebec Education Society. However, he took care to leave his library, tools, and instruments to three of his pupils, Charles Baillairgé, Giroux, and Parent. He died on 9 Feb. 1859 at Quebec, at the age of 67. There, two days later, he was buried without ceremony in the crypt of the cathedral, the building which was the major achievement of his grandfather and his father, and for which in 1843 he himself had created the façade.
[More detailed information on the life and work of Thomas Baillairgé can be found in the author’s thesis “Le renouveau architectural proposé par Thomas Baillairgé au Québec, de 1820 à 1850 (l’architecture néo-classique québécoise)” (thèse de phd, univ. de Toulouse-Le Mirail, Toulouse, France, 1976), a copy of which has been deposited in the rare book section of the library at Laval Univ., Quebec. l.n.]
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Cite This Article
Luc Noppen, “BAILLAIRGÉ, THOMAS,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 8, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed March 28, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/baillairge_thomas_8E.html.
The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:
|Author of Article:||Luc Noppen|
|Title of Article:||BAILLAIRGÉ, THOMAS|
|Publication Name:||Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 8|
|Publisher:||University of Toronto/Université Laval|
|Year of publication:||1985|
|Year of revision:||1985|
|Access Date:||March 28, 2023|