Fonds RC0132 - Gisela Commanda

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Gisela Commanda

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  • 1937-1993 (Creation)

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2.08 m of textual records, graphic materials and realia

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Biographical history

Gisela Commanda was born Gisela Almgren in England on 9 December 1908. Her father was a Swedish artist, Per Johan Hugo Almgren and her mother was Antonia, née Cyriax (1881-1927). Her parents married when both were art students in Sweden; they separated in 1912. Known as “T” (for Tony/Antonia), Gisela’s mother was a friend of David Garnett and D.H. Lawrence; she adopted the pseudonym “Mrs. Anthony” or “Antonius” after separating from Almgren, in the belief that he was pursuing her. Under the name Tony Cyriax she published Among Italian Peasants in 1919, illustrated with her own watercolours. She and her daughter Gisela stayed close to the Lawrences in Italy in 1913 (see The Letters of D.H. Lawrence, ed. James T. Boulton. Cambridge University Press, 1979, vol. 1, 520; vol. 2, 139).

Gisela’s life was no less dramatic, although entirely different from that of her mother. Trained as an artist, she was inspired by hearing Grey Owl speak about the aboriginal peoples of Canada during a tour of England, likely during his first British tour in 1935-6. She travelled first to a USA reservation for indigenous people in 1939 and then came to Canada the following year. Wanting to learn Ojibwa, she had been in touch with Grey Owl’s canoe man in the making of his 1937 Mississagi River film, Antoine Commanda (see Donald B. Smith, From the Land of the Shadows: the Making of Grey Owl, 1990, 308). She visited Commanda at Bisco and married him in 1942. The couple seem to have separated after a short time (although they were not divorced until 1975) and Gisela Commanda, now afforded First Nations status as a result of her marriage, lived on a series of reserves, including Brantford, Ontario and Cardston, Alberta, documenting her travels and the stories of those she met in her lengthy series of notebooks. She worked as an advocate for and promoter of native culture, teaching native crafts and often dressing as an aboriginal person, just as Grey Owl had done.

None of her written work seems ever to have been published and much of it seems to have been lost during her frequent moves. Always prone to “nervous indisposition” (a depressed state which descended whenever she lacked stimulation), she was restless, rarely living in one place for long. After some years at a nursing home in Cornwall, Ontario during the 1970s, she moved to Woodlands Villa, Long Sault, Ontario, where she died on 22 March 1993.

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The fonds (07-2004) was acquired in March 2004. It had been given to the Leeds-Grenville Historical Society, housed in the Brockville Museum. The Museum disposed of the material to a bookseller, David Ewens of North Gower, Ontario, who kept it for some 6 or 7 years before giving it to Gord Russell of the Alexander Gallery. Mr. Russell then donated it to McMaster University. A second accrual (2022-045) mostly consisting of letters to Gwen Potter was donated by Potter in 2022.


The fonds has been arranged into five series: correspondence, autobiography/journal notes, “books” and notes for books, personal material and photographs, graphic materials and realia.

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