Personal information about John Lee seems to be nearly as rare as his surviving painting, and much credit is due Greg Campbell, L. P. Fisher Library, for locating and providing newspaper and census data presented here.
The earliest records found, to date, are in the 1851 New Brunswick Census. In the Parish of Kingsclear, Thomas C. Lee is listed with his family. Thomas Carleton Lee was one of the sons of Capt. Joseph Lee, who prior to the American Revolution managed the Union Iron Works in Hunterdon County, New Jersey, and served as Captain in the 2nd Battalion, New Jersey Volunteers. The 1785 muster of the disbanded officers and men of the 2nd Battalion New Jersey Volunteers lists the family of Capt. Joseph Lee as 2 men, 2 women, 4 children above ten years of age, and 2 children under age ten.
Thomas Carleton Lee achieved prominence in New Brunswick, holding the office of Receiver General of New Brunswick. The Kingsclear Census lists his family as Thomas C. Lee, age 65; his wife, Margaret (Margaret Lester Wetmore), 57; son Charles, 24, a clergyman; son John H., age 20, noted as "absent;" son Thomas W., 16, student at college; son G. Deverent, 10, and son Charles Junior, age 5.
In the same Census, in Fredericton parish, John Lee, age 20, is listed as a lodger in the home of Andrew Gregg, painter. While it's tempting, and quite reasonable, to assume this John Lee is the absent son of Thomas, definitive proof has not yet been discovered.
The 1851 Census of New Brunswick contains 13 men named John Lee, ranging in age from 6 to 50, but the only 20-year old men were those listed in Kingsclear, as absent, and Fredericton, providing support for the assumption that John Lee, the painter, was John H. Lee, the absent son of Thomas Carleton Lee.
Andrew Gregg, son of John and Mary Gregg, born 21 November 1818, at Wooler, Northumberland, England, had emigrated, with his parents and siblings, around 1837, to Charlotte County, New Brunswick. Some members of the family soon moved into the Harvey area. About 1839, Andrew removed to Fredericton, there marrying Mary Pick in 1842, and continued to practice his pre-emigration trade as a painter.
How long prior to 1851 John Lee had resided in the Gregg household is not known; perhaps he had served an apprenticeship under Andrew Greg, and one might infer, from the fact that he was not listed as an apprentice in the Census, that such an apprenticeship, if it had existed, was over. Employees who lived in their employer's homes were often classified as lodgers in the Census of that year, and the assumption that John Lee was employed by Mr. Gregg seems sound.
Andrew Gregg performed work at Christ Church Cathedral, painting and gilding some of the larger organ pipes, prior to the consecration of the cathedral in 1853. In all probability, John Lee worked with him on that occasion, but seems to have departed Fredericton before Andrew Gregg died in August of 1856.
John Lee was married and living in Woodstock when his first child, George William Lee, was born on 8 August, 1854. The record of John Lee's marriage to Sarah Blake has not been found, nor is anything known, at present, of her antecedents, although she may have been a daughter of Henry and Sarah (Gray) Blake, of Queensbury. The reason for John's move to Woodstock will likely remain a mystery, but Mr. Lee appears to have been well established as a painter in Woodstock when this advertisement was published in the Carleton Sentinel, 22 August,1857:
Whether Mr. Lee obtained any apprentices is unknown. Periodically, in 1859 and thereafter, the Woodstock Carleton Sentinel cited examples of his decorative art, both on carriages and building interiors, but no newspaper item made any mention of his freehand painting on the ceiling at Connell House. Perhaps by that time, the Connell ceiling was "old news."
Shown above is John Thompson's photograph of the painter's signature, discreetly placed at one edge of the center element of the design. It can be discerned only by very close examination of the painting, and impossible to see from floor level.
John Lee's signature, discovered by Brandi McGuire-Jones in the decorated Connell House ceiling, and shown at right in a digitally enhanced portion of Mr. Thompson's photograph, differs markedly from the manner in which he affixed his name to other works, shown below. It might be assumed, not unreasonably, that his work had not fully matured at this period.
A firmly dated example of John Lee's painting exists in the old Carleton County Court House, where a painted copy of Queen Victoria's coat of arms hangs on the wall behind the judges' bench.
When the old Court House at Upper Woodstock was renovated in 1866, the Carleton Sentinel, in the 29 September issue, described the court room and its furnishings, making particular mention of "the British coat of arms, finely executed in oil, by Mr. John Lee."
John Lee's "signature" appears, discretely, in the lower right corner of the coat of arms, in a much more elegant form than on the Connell House ceiling decoration.
This suggests the painter's work had further matured, and implies that the Connell ceiling is an earlier work, perhaps executed soon after his arrival at Woodstock.
The only other surviving example of Mr. Lee's painting discovered to date, is the adornment of the Sanctuary in Christ Church cathedral, Fredericton, N.B., a portion of which is shown in the photograph, by Bob Power, shown below.
John Lee's signature is located in the lower left corner area, as illustrated in the Bob Power photograph at left. While this specimen is more elaborate than that on the coat of arms, the lettering style has remained essentially unchanged.
From the following news item, published in the 30 December, 1876, issue of the Carleton Sentinel, it appears that Mr. Lee was engaged in work at the cathedral during that year, as well as in 1877.
The reredos mentioned in the newspaper has been replaced. The reredos painted by John Lee is possibly the one that was given to the Church of St. Mark at St. George, N.B., but St. Mark's was destroyed by fire on the last of December, 2001.
John Lee continued to work in Woodstock, and there is some hint that he may have executed the decorative painting in the Orange Lodge that once stood at the corner of Victoria and Boyne streets. He appears to have been concerned with the Woodstock fire department to some extent, and, unfortunately, was involved with the band of the 67th Carleton Light Infantry, an involvement that led to his untimely demise.
The 20 September, 1879, issue of the Carleton Sentinel reported that, "While assisting in swinging a temporary bridge from the main shore to Bull's Island, for the purposes of the Band picnic, on Wednesday, Mr. John Lee got his foot entangled in the warp, and the bridge swinging with the strong current running, so tightened the rope around his leg that had it not been for the presence of mind of one of the young men who with his pocket knife at once cut the warp, Mr. Lee would have lost his leg and perhaps his life. As it was he suffered a double fracture of both bones of his right leg, thus making four distinct breaks, the ends of the bone protruding through the flesh."
Despite the best efforts of Drs. Colter and Smith, who set the broken bones, John Lee died, at age 48, on 22 October, nearly five weeks after the accident. Rev. Thomas Neales, rector of Woodstock, conducted the funeral service on the 24th, and the funeral procession was lead by the band of the 67th Carleton Light Infantry. John Lee was buried in the Methodist Cemetery, off Broadway, in Woodstock, where his gravestone still stands.
John Lee was survived by his wife, Sarah, and seven children, George William, Herbert, Mariam, John H., Charles, Rupert Grover, and Minnie C. His eldest son, George William, evidently inherited his father's talent and learned his trade. G. W. Lee was in business for himself, in Woodstock, at least by 1873.