At the time this article was written Fern
Bayer was curator of the Ontario Government's art collection and author of The
In recent years, the Ontario government has
rediscovered a part of its cultural past a part that it had almost accidentally
lost. The story of the rediscovery and the restoration of the Ontario
Collection is one of the most fascinating chapters in Canadian art history. It's
a Story that dates back to the 1850s when Ontario was still called Canada West,
a remote outpost of the British Empire in its early stages of development.
Under the leadership of the legendary
Egerton Ryerson, the Chief Superintendent of Education from 1844 to 1876, the
Ontario government began acquiring a remarkable collection of paintings and
sculptures. These "objects of taste," as Ryerson called them, formed
the nucleus of the first publicly-funded art collection in all of Canada and
the initial holdings of Canada's first art gallery, Toronto's Educational
Museum, opened in 1857.
The government's art acquisition program
continued until 1914 and following a fifty-two year hiatus resumed in the
1960s, with the introduction of the "art-in-architecture" program
under Premier John Robarts. Under this program, original works of art were
commissioned for new government buildings constructed throughout Ontario. The
program continues to this day. One half of one per cent of the construction
cost of major new provincial buildings is set aside for the commissioning of
large-scale works of art for public areas of the buildings.
Because of the long pause in government art
collecting from 1914 to the mid 1960s, the Ontario Collection consists of two
quite distinct elements. There is the "historical" collection,
amassed between 1855 and 1914, and the "contemporary" collection
acquired from the 1960s.
The Ontario Collection is quite literally a
"museum without walls". While most art collections are housed in one
location, the Ontario government's holdings, now numbering in excess of 1500
works of art and valued at over $10 million, can be seen in provincial
buildings across the province.
The Legislative Building at Queen's Park is
the main focus for the historical collection of paintings and sculptures. In
its role as the seat of government the Legislative Building at Queen's Park
also informally functions as an art museum dedicated to Ontario's political
history. Outside, on the grounds is a collection of late Victorian public
sculpture of considerable artistic merit. Sir John A. Macdonald, Canada's first
prime minister peers down University Avenue from the edge of the park,
clutching the British North America Act. Not far away, Queen Victoria sits
regally upon her throne. Nearby are some of her nineteenth century Ontario
first ministers: Among them are Sir Oliver Mowat and Sir John Sandfield
Macdonald. Even the "great rebel", William Lyon Mackenzie, one of the
founders of responsible government, has a place of honour.
Inside the Building, lining the Grand
Staircase and decorating the state rooms, is a remarkable group of political
portraits of Ontario's governors, premiers, speakers of the Legislature, and
such famous historical figures as Major General James Wolfe, Sir Isaac Brock
and Laura Secord.
In the Lieutenant Governor's Suite are
portraits of all the province's vice-regal representatives beginning with
Colonel John Graves Simcoe. This collection was instituted in the 1880s by
Lieutenant Governor John Beverley Robinson to decorate the halls of the old
Government House which once stood at King and Simcoe Streets but was demolished
in 1915. Coincident with the opening of the new Legislative Building at Queen's
Park began the tradition of commissioning portraits of former premiers and
speakers of the Legislature.
Political portraits constitute the core of
the historical collection but although they are the most visible part of the
government's collection at Queen's Park, they are not the most significant element
of the Ontario Collection. Throughout the Legislative Building the intrepid
visitor will likely stumble upon Old Master paintings or early Canadian works.
These are the famous 1ost pictures" those artworks purchased by Ryerson
and successive administrations between 1855 and 1914. The story of first their
acquisition, then their loss, and finally their rediscovery, constitutes one of
the most extraordinary tales in the history of Canadian art and an essential
chapter in Ontario's cultural development.
If any single individual can be called the
"father" of the Ontario Collection, it is Egerton Ryerson. This
remarkable man is widely acknowledged as the architect of popular education in
Canada. Less well known is the role he played in founding the province's major
art museums and schools. In executing this task he was a true son of mid
In the mid-1800s, in both Europe and North
America, art was viewed as an indispensable tool in teaching history,
literature and culture. Traditionally, men of breeding finished their studies
by making the "Grand Tour" of Classical and Renaissance art in Greece
and Italy. Nineteenth century educators like Ryerson believed that if the
masses could not journey to Athens and Florence, they would bring art of these
centres of European culture back home to the people. Throughout Europe and
North America "educational" museums full of copies of Old Master
paintings and plaster casts of antique sculpture were established. To this day,
the statuary hall of the world-renowned Victoria and Albert Museum in London,
England is full of copies of such masterpieces as Michelangelo's David.
In 1855, Ryerson travelled to Europe for the
express purpose of bringing back a treasure trove of such copies and casts to
Canada. (He purchased 236 copies of Old Master paintings and over 1000 plaster
casts of antique statuary.) The booty was installed in the new museum, the
Educational Museum of Upper Canada, opened in 1857 and located in the Toronto
Like most of Upper Canada's mid-Victorian
public figures, Rverson was essentially a "colonial" who looked to
England and Europe as his cultural home. Within a generation, however,
Confederation created a new Canada, and Ontario became the centre of a much
more mature and self-confident society.
By the 1870s, the government began buying
Canadian art for the first time. This second more "nationalistic"
phase in the history of the Ontario Collection owes its impetus to the
successful lobbying efforts of the Ontario Society of Artists. This unique
organization of professional artists was formed in Toronto in 1872 to hold
annual exhibitions of its membership. Indeed, in lateVictorian Toronto the art
world was a "closed shop". To exhibit, it was necessary to be a
member of the OSA.
Between 1873 and 1914, the government
continued to purchase works from the annual exhibitions of the Society. During
this forty-year period an outstanding collection of late nineteenth century
Canadian art was acquired. Although many of the artists whose works were
acquired never became famous William Blatchly, Frederick M. Bell-Smith and
Robert Gagen, for example others like the Group of Seven's J.E.H. MacDonald and
Arthur Lismer became major figures in the history of Canadian art. These
"modern" paintings and watercolours were exhibited at the Educational
Museum alongside the collection of copies and casts acquired by Egerton Ryerson
years before. Together they constituted the first phase of government art
collecting in Ontario.
Fiscal austerity caused by the Great War
forced the government to abandon its art acquisition program. New purchases
ceased at that time and active collecting did not resume until the 1960s. In
the ensuing years there were a few additions, notably the collection of C.W
Jefferys drawings commissioned to illustrate the provincial history text books
and the donation of 459 works of art by the artist, George Agnew Reid, in 1944
on the proviso that the majority of them be circulated to the various secondary
schools in the province. Such additions were, however, rare and idiosyncratic.
The ending of the active art acquisition
program coincided with a period of official neglect of the collection the
government already owned. For a sixty-six year period from 1914 to 1978 the
Ontario Collection lacked any central curatorial control. This neglect actually
began with the closing of the art galleries in the Educational Museum in 1912
and the dispersal of Egerton Ryerson's collection and the collection of early
Canadian paintings to the six provincial normal schools.
Once they left Toronto the pictures quickly
fell into disrepair. No funds were allocated to maintain them. Most were either
misplaced, damaged or destroyed. By the middle of the 1970s the government had
virtually forgotten they once owned a significant collection of art.
The final chapter in the story of the
Ontario Collection began in the late 1970s when the government, almost by
happenstance, put in motion a chain of events that resulted in the rediscovery
of the collection. Curiously, the project was inspired by a group of government
auditors. Keen to document the government's art assets, the auditors suggested
that an inventory of the pictures at Queen's Park be made. The last such list
was completed in 1905. The author was hired to undertake this project.
It quickly became evident that the art at
Queen's Park constituted only a small portion of the collection that historical
documents suggested the government once owned and I set out to discover the
whereabouts of the 1ost pictures". Several years of searching uncovered
only a fraction of the original collection. Of the 1000 or so works acquired by
Ryerson in 1855, only thirty-six remain. Of the several hundred early Canadian
pictures bought from the annual exhibitions of the Ontario Society of Artists,
only thirty-nine are now in government hands. Less than two hundred of the four
hundred and fifty-nine George Reids remain. The 1ost pictures" were found
in basements and in closets, in attics and boiler rooms of government buildings
and schools across the province. Most of them were in appalling condition.
Since then, all the rediscovered pictures
have been painstakingly restored and catalogued. This important legacy of
Ontario's cultural history is now on public exhibit in the Legislative Building
at Queen's Park. In pure art historical terms, of course, the Ontario
Collection is not remarkable in any particular way. But, as a manifestation of
a pioneer society's struggle to achieve a cultural maturity, it: is a
collection of outstanding historical importance. Together with the political
portraits at Queen's Park and the contemporary collection housed in government
buildings around the province, the 1ost pictures" form a corpus of
artworks that vividly demonstrate Ontario's cultural development from a
colonial outpost to a dynamic centre of Canadian cultural life.