Somerset House Mural

This is at the corner of Somerset and Bank. I wanted to document the mural in case the building gets torn down. I don’t know anything about it, such as who designed it and why. I wish I did.

Updated a little later: I’ve learned that the mural was painted in 1991 by American artist Robert Dafford. Here is his website:

Later still: I emailed Robert Dafford to advise him that the building was set to be demolished. Here is his reply:

Hi Robin Nice to hear from you. Thanks for the update. Its sad, but Ive seen it enough times to just be sad, not outraged. Its too bad there isnt some way to save it, but thats the way it goes sometimes. I have a few pictures of the mural and some good memories. Wish I get there in time to see it go. I have some photos of other buildings with my murals on them being demolished, could you take some for me? Or if its too emotional for you to stand around and watch, could you get someone else to shoot it? Digital is better, but film’s fine. Its easier to send me the digital. This would go into my collection to send to mural organizations who want to try to save worthy paintings from destruction. Thank you. Robert

Here’s the whole thing.


Before I set out to look at it closely, I had the idea that it depicted people lined up waiting for a train at a station. But there aren’t any tracks. Now I see that the people are dressed up and enjoying a nice day on Somerset Street, and if they seem to be peering expectantly at something, perhaps it’s because we have set up an old-fashioned camera on a tripod and we are pointing it at them. But they are focused on the figures in the foreground on the right.

Starting with the distant figures on the left, we see a man with a trumpet and a person with a big hat and a cane. Behind them is the very mural in which they appear. How post-modern! And so the scene is set: we are on the south side of Somerset, looking west toward Bank.


Here is the trumpet player again. We also see a woman sitting on a bench, a man tipping his bowler hat, and a kneeling gardener.


The woman in the green dress introduces the figures in the foreground: Her top-hatted companion, and a man in a bowler hat with a copy of the Free Press.


The foreground couple. The woman is smiling fondly.


And what are they looking at? Their kids, of course. The little girl is listening raptly to a guitar player, but her job is to hold the bubble soap for her brother.


The focal point for the whole scene is the very post-modern guitar player. Using the bottom of the picture frame as a seat, he is partly in the world of the picture and partly in ours. He bridges the two worlds and calls us in.


Behind the guitar player is a woman or girl with a basket of flowers. I think she looks like Ophelia from Hamlet, and if that is so, it means that all the figures at the borderline between our world and the world of the picture are artists, children, and mad people: the natural keepers of the realm of imagination.


That’s it. I like it a lot. I hope it doesn’t get turned to rubble in the next few days.

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  1. Posted November 29, 2007 at 11:17 pm | Permalink

    Wow! I never looked at it that closely – I guess I always just swept it with a glance and missed more than I took in. For example, I had no idea that there was a picture of the mural within the mural.

    Nice work Robin. I hope the artist reveals him or herself. (I remember when the mural wasn’t there, so it’s a relatively contemporary artist.)

  2. Robin Kelsey
    Posted November 30, 2007 at 12:10 am | Permalink

    I didn’t either zoom. It’s hard to slow down enough to look at things.

    The artist’s name is Robert Dafford. I put a link to his web site up above. I found him by googling the mural.

  3. Posted November 30, 2007 at 6:50 am | Permalink

    Tell me what search terms you used, because I spent about 15 minutes googling the mural and came up empty!

  4. Robin Kelsey
    Posted November 30, 2007 at 7:05 am | Permalink

    “mural somerset ottawa”

  5. Posted November 30, 2007 at 1:39 pm | Permalink

    I thought they looked like they were waiting for a parade or a visiting dignitary–which is why they’re all dressed up and going to play music for them and give them flowers

  6. Posted November 30, 2007 at 5:54 pm | Permalink

    Hey! I googled mural somerset ottawa too. Maybe I didn’t dig deeply enough…

  7. Posted November 30, 2007 at 5:56 pm | Permalink

    I just double-checked – I had googled mural “somerset street” ottawa. Sometimes it doesn’t pay to be thorough.

  8. Robin Kelsey
    Posted November 30, 2007 at 8:25 pm | Permalink

    UP, you could be right.

  9. Posted November 30, 2007 at 9:12 pm | Permalink

    Robin – great post. I’ve always wondered about this mural, thanks for digging into the details.

  10. Posted December 1, 2007 at 9:19 am | Permalink

    Thanks for close look at it.

  11. Jennifer
    Posted December 1, 2007 at 10:00 am | Permalink

    Robin, I love your post. You would probably be a great person to take to the art gallery to explain things. I usually just look at pictures and think they look nice.

  12. Robin Kelsey
    Posted December 1, 2007 at 11:02 am | Permalink

    Jennifer, that’s ok too :) But thanks, I’m glad you like it.

  13. Posted December 2, 2007 at 12:30 pm | Permalink

    Robin, I’m going to try to be there for the demolition. Last I heard it was “Tuesday or Wednesday.” I could probably duck out of work for an hour or so, but not for two days. ;)

    I’m pretty sure there will be some news photographers on the scene too. Maybe they’d be willing to share their photos with Robert. (And they’d have telephoto lenses too…I expect the crowd will be kept way back from the wrecking ball.)

  14. Mille Sabords
    Posted December 4, 2007 at 9:04 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for the great photo essay. Amazing how well preserved it is, knowing it’s about 17 years old. Ottawa would be a lesser place if we lose this building and its mural, although I’m cautiously optimistic that it’ll somehow be restored.

  15. Joel Charlebois
    Posted December 7, 2007 at 5:47 am | Permalink

    Impressive analysis of the mural, Robin. I look forward to seeing it “live” again soon with fresh eyes.

    What sort of momentum is there to fight for this work? What is being proposed for this site instead?

    That intersection is notorious in my books for such acts of destruction. I am still aghast that not a stone was saved of the Somerset Theatre… not even a plaque to commemorate the site.

    Such a shame that these things keep on happening…

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