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Merle Fabien

The Ontario Collection, Fern Bayer, Fitzhenry & Whiteside, Markham, Ontario, 1984, 389 pages (500 illustrations of which 100 are in full colour).

The Ontario Collection testifies to both provincial government commitment and lack of commitment to the visual arts in Ontario from the 1850s to the present. Along with a series of informative essays to describe this journey, the book also provides a detailed catalogue of the art works acquired by the province. The author, Fern Bayer, who is the Curator of the provincial art collection seems to have functioned as much as detective as curator as she tracked down not only missing individual works but whole bodies of objects and information that had disappeared. What she has produced is a document that reveals the changes in taste, sophistication, and values among Ontario's citizens over a period of 130 years.

The first of four essavs entitled "Objects of Tastes" deals with the efforts of the Rev. Dr. Egerton Ryerson, to build a fine art collection for Upper Canada in the mid-nineteenth century. It was Ryerson's view, not uncommon at the time, that the collection should begin with copies of Old Master paintings, plaster casts of ancient statues, portrait busts of famous individuals and architectural ornaments. The hundreds of objects that he assembled on his tours of Europe formed the basis of the first fine art museum in Canada. This chapter describes in some detail Ryerson's own background, attitudes toward art and education at the time, the actual assembling of the collection, and the development of the museum. Bayer credits Ryerson with encouraging sufficient interest in government support of the arts that by 1875 there was a formal acquisitions policy that provided for annual purchases from the Ontario Society of Artists.

The second essay, "Politics and Painters," is devoted to that thirty-nine year period, beginning in 1875, when the government, through the Education Department, acquired contemporary works of art from the annual exhibitions of the Ontario Society of Artists. By the time the last selection was made in 1914 several hundred works had been acquired, of which only forty are still in the collection. Bayer recounts both the assembling and the dissolution of this part of the collection as well as the difficult relationship that existed between the government and the Society. A key figure in this period was the Hon. George William Ross who, as the new Minister of Education, inaugurated new art acquisition policies in 1895. Among his important contributions were providing increased funding for purchases, acquiring portrait busts of important Canadians, and commissioning portraits of political figures for the Legislative Building. Bayer suggests that Ross and Ryerson were "the most important figures in the formation of the art collection as a whole." This phase of government purchasing ended in 1914 and was not resumed again until 1966. Decentralization of the collection, begun in 1912, and poor record-keeping led to the disappearance of most of the works.

The development of a collection of portrait paintings and plaster busts of leading politicians and other important figures was a more traditional role for a government to play and most of this collection, as descri6ed in the third essay, "Faces of History," has survived. Portraits were commissioned of lieutenant governors, governors general and speakers of the legislature as well as of figures of historical importance. The chapter describes in some detail, events surrounding individual commissions and the backgrounds of both the artists and the subjects. Portraits are still commissioned of the lieutenant governor, the premier and the speaker of the legislature.

The revival of the provincial commitment to collecting fine art, under the leadership of Premier John Robarts in 1966, forms the subject of the fourth and final essay, "Robarts ,and Renewal." The new program rose out of a decision to allocate a percentage of the construction costs of the Macdonald Block (Queen's Park) to commission murals and sculptures by Canadian artists for public areas. When it was completed, $328,550 had been spent on 23 murals and 6 sculptures the beginning of what is now a collection of over 500 works of contemporary art. Again Bayer describes the political as well as the artistic issues involved in the selections which now grace government buildings throughout the province, including the Middlesex County Court House in London, the Ontario Police College in Aylmer and the Land Registry office in Kitchener. Although the Macdonald block project was a national competition, the current policy of the "art-in-architecture" program is to support the work of Ontario artists. The scope of purchasing has also been broadened to include original prints, other works on paper and other smaller works of art.

The catalogue portion of the book is divided into four sections as well, each supporting the text areas described above. The 1100 works that comprise the Ontario Collection are described in detail medium, size, method of acquisition, catalogue number, and brief information on the artist. More detailed discussion is provided for some works, especially in the portrait section where there are extensive notes on the sitters. Many of the considerable illustrations are in colour. There are a series of useful appendices, a detailed bibliography arranged by chapter and an index covering both artists and subjects. Fern Bayer's scholarly and handsome book will be appreciated by professionals and amateurs alike.

Merle Fabian, Librarian Canadian Embassy, Washington D.C.

Canadian Parliamentary Review Cover
Vol 9 no 2

Last Updated: 2020-09-14