The Secret Bench of Knowledge on 395 Wellington Street

 

Have you recently walked past the Library and Archives building on Wellington Street?

There is the much-loved sculpture of a boy and a girl sitting on a bench together, him holding his left arm around her shoulder and whispering something into her ear. He is holding a half-eaten apple in his hand. All over the bench are inscriptions, only visible by closer inspection.

 

 

What is the sculpture telling us? Is it a charming depiction of two young people in love? Why is he holding an apple in his hand? Why the title “Secret Bench of Knowledge”?

All very intriguing. The apple of course reminded me immediately of the most famous apple in the history of mankind, the apple which Eve ate against the wishes of God which she then gave to Adam for him to eat from. The title also hints at the biblical story. It was originally called “The Secret Bench. Lost Paradise.” Before we find out more about the history of the piece, I wanted to look at other depictions of the story in the history of art. The first that came to mind was Albrecht Dürer’s famous engraving of the subject.

 

 

In Dürer’s work Eve is clearly the culprit. She is holding one apple in her left hand while she is feeding the serpent with another apple in her right hand.

The Ottawa sculpture is not following the traditional way of depicting the scene. The young boy is holding the half-eaten apple. Is he whispering into her ear that she should eat from it to discover the wonderful world of knowledge, the world of reading, of books?

It’s time to explore the history of this Secret Bench. It was placed in 1989 during the night by the artist Lea Vivot from Kleinburg, Ontario. She claimed that she was not prepared to go through the hassle of applying for a grant and that she wanted the public to have a chance to see it. After a year she removed it.

Four years later, the Toronto businessman and philanthropist Eugene Boccia commissioned a copy of the work and donated it to the National Library and Archives in Ottawa where it has graced the entrance ever since.

There are copies of the work in several other cities such as New York, Toronto, Montreal and Prague, the Czech Republic’s capital. Lea Vivot was born in Czechoslovakia and came to Canada after experiencing a traumatic childhood and being separated from her parents at an early age. Her sculptures can be seen all over the world: in Canada she may be best known for her bronze of Tommy Douglas.

There is another sculpture in Ottawa in the back of the library in Rockcliffe on Springfield Road. It is much smaller in size and shows two children reading a book together. The artist seems to be unknown.

 

 

It is very tempting to assume that the work is by Lea Vivot. I have not been able to find out if that is the case.