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Anna Leonowens in later yearsWith the release of yet another movie ("Anna and the King" - Fox, 1999) telling the tale of Anna Leonowens' 19th century employment at the King of Siam's court, the world's attention turned again to Anna, the woman who wrote of her experiences in 1870 and captured the imagination of the arts and entertainment industry more than a century later. Yet few know that Anna Leonowens lived for more than two decades in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

The accuracy of Anna's memoirs, "English Governess at the Siamese Court" is as hotly debated now as in decades past, but there is little controversy surrounding her initiative to establish the Victorian School of Art and Design in Halifax 17 years later.

After Anna's departure from Siam (now Thailand) in 1868, she travelled to the U.S. and pursued a career as a writer. Anna only wrote two books (see below) before moving north to Halifax in 1876 where she lived until 1897, but in them, her understanding of artistic license and promotion was apparent. Originally understood to be historical documentations of life in 19th century Siam, it is now apparent that Anna, not a governess, but an English teacher at the King's court, was a creative spirit who took a great story and made it more saleable to a 19th century public that was clamouring for information on the mysterious 'far east'.

Having already achieved a measure of fame as a woman of adventure, an author, a vocal supporter of women's rights and abolution, it's no surprise that Anna recognized an opportunity to become the cause célèbre of Halifax's small but growing arts community.

Anna's chance to do something enduring for the seaport city presented itself on the occasion of Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee in 1897. The Jubilee, which celebrated the aging Queen's 60th year of reign, caught the imagination of the industrialized world. Projects of all description marked the event, and Halifax was not to be left out if Anna had anything to say about it.

A Young Anna LeonowensAlready a prominent Halifax citizen for more than twenty years, and known for her feisty campaigning on behalf of Nova Scotian women and blacks, Anna was instrumental in establishing what is now the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, a degree granting institution with more than 700 students. NSCAD as its known, hosts over 130 exhibitions per year, and welcomes more than 20,000 visitors to its Anna Leonowens Gallery openings.

In honour of the woman who started it all, NSCAD opened the Anna Leonowens Gallery in l968. The Gallery was to be indicative of the progressive spirit embodied in Leonowens. Its mandate states, "Anna Leonowens was a party to the founding of the institution and the history of her life is a testament to a probing, creative spirit directed towards service".

Anna Leonowens left Halifax, Nova Scotia for Montreal shortly after the original college was established. She died at the age of 84 and is buried in Mount Royal Cemetary. Gone but never forgotten, Anna's legacy lives on in the vitality of Halifax's arts community, and the Gallery that proudly bears her name.

Books by Anna Leonowens

The English Governess at the Siamese Court (l989)
The Romance of the Harem (1991)

More from About:

  • Anna Leonowens biography, from your About Guide to Women's History, Jone Johnson Lewis.
  • A comprehensive list of Anna Leonowens Netlinks, from Jone Johnson Lewis.
  • Jone Johnson Lewis discusses the fact and fiction of Anna Leonowens' life in "Anna and the King: True Story?"

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Highway7 E-zine, a publication of Hatch Media, is an electronic journal with a focus on commercial, historical, cultural and ecological issues concerning the Eastern Shore of Nova Scotia in Canada. Topics include a growing resource of currently more than 300 articles. More articles and image galleries are added frequently as new material is brought to our attention. With Highway7.com, our primary aim is to serve, inform and reflect the rural communities on the Atlantic Coast of Nova Scotia, as well as to acquaint new residents, visitors, tourists, and investors with the special beauty and enormous potential of our region.
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