ALL HAIL THE ‘GROUP’ (YOU KNOW WHO WE MEAN)
With a bold collection philosophy that values contemporary Canadian art, Gallery director Eric Brown seeds the immortalization of Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven. Also on Brown’s watch: the first catalogue, first Saturday classes, first exhibition program, plus a move to new digs—nicknamed “The Castle”—but fire on Parliament Hill interrupts these heady times.
Eric Brown is appointed as National Gallery of Canada’s first, full-time curator. Brown’s consistent efforts to balance the educational and cultural importance of Old Masters with an unwavering support for contemporary Canadian Art, particularly the work of Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven, were to have an enduring impact on both the Gallery and Canadian art in general.
The National Gallery of Canada is transferred to three floors of the newly-constructed Victoria Memorial Museum on Metcalfe Street, sharing space with the Department of Mines and the Geological Survey. Nicknamed “the castle,” the Museum was designed by the Dominion’s Chief Architect, David Ewart, as a tribute to the 64-year reign of Queen Victoria.
Reportedly, some three hundred Scottish stonemasons had been transported to Canada to work on the Museum’s construction (begun in 1905 and completed in 1911). Indeed, the building’s stately stone walls, corner turrets, and arched windows evoke a sense of grandeur and history that had not been possible in the Gallery’s previous home. As the Globe and Mail predicted in August of 1910, “the splendid new national museum” would “give space and dignity to the national pictures.”
Eric Brown has secured an annual appropriation for acquisitions, initiated an exchange program, and began the systematic retention and organization of the Gallery's records. This effort will lead to the appointment of a record keeper and the establishment of the National Gallery Archives.
The upper floor of the Victoria Memorial Museum, or “gallery proper,” is devoted to the display of original works of art from the Gallery’s small but growing collection. In the lower galleries, a series of arches bearing such illustrious titles as Court of Parthenon, Hall of the Busts, and Court of Madonnas to signify the different schools of art, lead audiences into alcoves containing reproductions of masterworks of ancient, medieval, and modern sculpture. According to Mr. Brown, such arrangements were designed to “instruct” and “provide pleasure” to “connoisseurs of art, art lovers and the general public.”
Eric Brown becomes first director of the National Gallery of Canada.
“The purpose of the National Art Gallery is mainly educative, as a knowledge and understanding of art is only to be gained by the comparison of one work of art with another,” Brown wrote in an article published in the Toronto Globe on 4 May. “We must have, in addition to our own Canadian pictures, the best examples we can afford of the world’ artistic achievements by which we may judge the merit and progress of our own efforts.”
Audiences respond favourably to the Gallery’s new location: attendance figures rise dramatically, increasing from 356 to 1004 within just six weeks during July and August.
The Gallery launches what will become a long-standing commitment to educational programming with initiatives such as Saturday art classes for children. Mr. Brown also oversees the preparation of the Gallery’s first catalogue with biographical notes on the artists, and implements a national loans program, making the national collection available to institutions across Canada.
Shepherded through Parliament by Sir Edmund Walker, the first National Gallery of Canada Act is passed. It establishes the Gallery as a legal entity responsible for the expenditure of annual appropriations from Parliament and gives the Gallery some measure of independence from both the Department of Public Works and the Royal Canadian Academy.
To replace the Advisory Arts Council, an independent Board of Trustees is constituted, and Sir Edmund Walker is appointed as its first chairman. The mission of this three-member Board is to encourage artistic taste and public interest in the arts throughout Canada.
In recognition of this milestone, the government makes a substantial increase in its annual appropriation, granting a handsome $100,000 for the fiscal year 1913-14. Eric Brown refers to the act as “by far the most important event in the history of the National Gallery since its inception, greatly widening its sphere of usefulness in encouraging and co-operating with the art interests of the Dominion.”
An accession register for books is purchased to document the functioning art library, and a bookplate is commissioned for the Gallery Library from Alfred H. Howard (1854-1916), a member of the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts.
In one of their earliest joint ventures, Mr. Brown and Sir Walker acquire Canadian etchings and a group of 17 Old Masters prints. These purchases will form the basis of the Department of Prints and Drawings.
The Brown-Walker collaboration also results in the purchase of works by major European masters, as well as 19th- and 20th- century French paintings.
Mr. Brown develops the Gallery’s Exhibition Program. The Trustees of the newly constituted Gallery decide the best way to encourage Canadian artists is to purchase their works. They also determine that the most effective means of advertising the quality of such works, of encouraging a purchase by private individuals, and of furthering the development of public art societies is through loans.
Therefore, the National Gallery begins to loan its possessions, for a stated period, to any society that has the proper facilities for showing them. This policy is inaugurated in December.
Photo © MBAC
The Gallery purchases A.Y. Jackson’s The Red Maple, the same year he paints it.
Despite resistance from the Academy, Eric Brown and Sir Walker consciously foster the first national school of modern painters, the Group of Seven, thus establishing a commitment to buying contemporary Canadian art and laying the basis of what would become a collection of historic Canadian art.
After a fire destroys the centre block of the Parliament Buildings, the Gallery must vacate the Victoria Memorial Museum building to make space for Parliamentarian meeting rooms. The Gallery staff works long hours to dismantle paintings, casts, prints, and sculptures, placing them in hastily-constructed storage rooms in the Museum’s basement.
The Gallery closes its doors to the public until construction of the Parliament Buildings is completed in 1921.
Eric Brown focuses on developing the Gallery’s national program of exhibition loans, in which each exhibition consists of 10 to 20 works on loan for a specified period.
Applications begin pouring in from libraries, struggling art galleries, provincial colleges, high schools, and private clubs across the country. Between 1916 and 1921, the Gallery sends out 94 exhibitions to Halifax, St. John, Montreal, Sherbrooke, Toronto, Collingwood, Winnipeg, Moosejaw, Regina, Saskatoon, Edmonton, Fort William, Calgary, Brandon, Prince Albert, Port Arthur, and Vancouver.
The Gallery’s collection survives its many journeys relatively unscathed, even in the face of disaster: only three of 33 lithographs on loan to a Halifax gallery incur any damage (a few minor scratches) during an explosion which destroys the very building in which they are exhibited.
The first travelling exhibition program, features a first exhibition The War Memorials, opens in Montreal and Toronto. It features works by A.Y. Jackson, David Milne, Wyndham Lewis and Paul Nash