Nota Bene – From the Archives Artists + donors: The provenance of some paintings at Trinity College

From the Archives

Artists + donors: The provenance of some paintings at Trinity College

By Sylvia Lassam, Rolph-Bell Archivist

At times of great upheaval and turmoil, one of the things that helps, as Mrs. Kirkwood knew [Dr. Mossie May Kirkwood was the third Principal and Dean of Women at St. Hilda’s College from 1936 to 1953, but preferred to be known as “Mrs.”] is the presence of beauty. With gratitude we acknowledge the foresight of those who shared their affection for their College by leaving gifts that have given pleasure to us all…

Earlier this year I gave a talk to the Friends of the Library about the collection of paintings accumulated by the College, exclusively through gifts, over the course of its history. Because of the ad hoc nature of its creation, the “collection” is a charmingly diverse assortment of Western art from the 17th to 20th centuries, strong on portraits of unknown people, and moody landscapes. The one area of consistency is a small but outstanding selection of mid-20th-century art, most acquired soon after the work was created. The paintings include a number of works by the Group of Seven, and this is the selection I’ll focus on here.

Visitors to the College these days are treated to the sight of one of A.J. Casson’s best paintings, Long Lake, Haliburton, from 1938, at the Welcome Desk (formerly the Porter’s Lodge). If they venture into the Student Services Centre, they will see, flanking either side of the entrance, A.Y. Jackson’s Alberta Rhythm, painted in 1948, and Franklin Carmichael’s 1938 masterpiece, October Haze. Those who have meetings further into the suite of offices may glimpse Arthur Lismer’s Bright Morning (1935), Brink of the Falls, Moon River (c.1931), and Charles Comfort’s End of the Lake (1949). Elsewhere in the College we have two Frederick Varleys, a small Lawren Harris, and a David Milne. Many of these paintings have been exhibited by Canadian art galleries and are included in artists’ monographs. They are iconic pieces by artists whose lives and trajectories are well known. The interesting question to me is: How did we get them?

The “we” in this questions applies, to be clear, to St. Hilda’s College. Most of the works mentioned above were gifts specifically to St. Hilda’s. As many alumnae but perhaps not all recent graduates know, the worlds of St. Hilda’s and Trinity were separate, even though classes and examinations were shared. Residential life was strictly segregated and the Deans of Men and Women were powerful figures. In 1938 the students of St. Hilda’s moved into the current building at 44 Devonshire Place, after living in houses on St. George Street since the move from Queen West. There was, I expect, a great deal of pride and satisfaction in the new residence, and a natural inclination to decorate the facility. Another factor was the creation of a fine art department at the University of Toronto beginning in 1934, with more faculty added quickly, including Charles Comfort. A number of St. Hildians were enrolled in this department.

The earliest Group of Seven paintings to come to St. Hilda’s were, I believe, the Arthur Lismers. Mrs. Kirkwood (although she had an earned PhD she preferred to be addressed as Mrs. rather than Dr.), Dean of Women from 1936 to 1954, had instituted a picture loan arrangement at St. Hilda’s, likely inspired by art dealer Douglas Duncan’s Picture Loan Society. With this arrangement, artists could loan their recent work to the College and receive a small payment. In return, the students at the College lived with a rotating display of original art. Mrs. Kirkwood’s report to the St. Hilda’s College Council suggests raising funds to rent works by living artists “from which should come a better interest in and knowledge of art and a sense of beauty” [May 1937]. Lismer’s daughter, Nora, noted that Brink of the Falls, Moon River, had been sent to St. Hilda’s in 1938. The painting had a value of $350, and presumably someone, or a group of graduates, more likely, paid for the painting to stay. In 1940, Nora Lismer writes of a payment of $50 from the St. Hilda’s Alumnae Association, the second payment for Bright Morning.

The Dean’s Report for December 1938 mentions a dinner party for “most of the artists who have loaned pictures and we found them most entertaining. Mr. [Franklin] Carmichael spoke after dinner.” Carmichael’s October Haze was painted that same year, exhibited at the Annual Exhibition of the Ontario Society of Artists, and purchased by the undergraduates of St. Hilda’s for $400. The Artist’s Dinner Party became a yearly event in November or December, throughout Mrs. Kirkwood’s tenure. Unfortunately, her reports do not always list the artists in attendance, but some of the names mentioned over the years include Charles Comfort, Mr. [Frederick] and Mrs. [Yvonne McKague] Housser, Doris McCarthy, Mr. Brigden, Mr. Casson, and others.

In 1948, St. Hilda’s received a David Milne painting from Alice [Mrs. Vincent] Massey. The Masseys had acquired 300 paintings by Milne in the mid-1930s, paying a small price per painting in an effort to help the artist stay afloat financially. They donated many of these paintings to Canadian institutions, and despite the fact that the Masseys were Methodists, not Anglicans, and had no ties to the College, one of these paintings was given to St. Hilda’s. Thus came about our ownership of Cabin Interior, Temagami, painted around 1929, that graced the mantle of the Stedman Library for many years until its escalating value caused its removal to a safer location.

The 1950 Minutes of the St. Hilda’s College Council recorded thanks to Mrs. Kirkwood for the gift of a painting by Charles Comfort. Earlier minutes confirm loans of his work for display in the College, and he and his wife seem to have been frequent dinner guests at St. Hilda’s. The painting acquired in 1950 is presumably the 1949 watercolour, End of the Lake, now in an office in the Student Services Centre. Mrs. Kirkwood’s official portrait, a wonderfully lively representation, was painted by Charles Comfort when she retired.

Also in 1950, the Council minutes noted the death of Mrs. Curry, a former President and Treasurer of the Alumnae Association. A 1930 graduate of St. Hilda’s, Mary Lillian Jane Dickinson married Gerald Curry shortly after leaving the College and was an active volunteer at her alma mater. Her sister, Judith Elliott Dickinson, graduated in 1933 and immigrated to the United States, where she was a stenographer at the British Embassy in Washington DC and later a librarian at Sweet Briar College in Virginia. Both sisters died in 1950, at the ages of 42 and 39 respectively. In their memories, Mina (St. Hilda’s class of 1891) and Lillian Elliott, their maternal aunts, gave money to the College and instructed that two paintings should be purchased. The 1954 Annual Report of the Administrative Committee of the St. Hilda’s College Council noted that Mrs. Kirkwood had chosen one painting and would look for another. The two paintings she selected were A.Y. Jackson’s Alberta Rhythm (1948), and Yvonne McKague Housser’s The New Bonnet (1947), two of the finest paintings in our collection.

Another outstanding painting given as a memorial is A.J. Casson’s Long Lake Haliburton, painted in the 1930s. In 1957, Col. P.A.T. Sneath, a distinguished physician who had a career in the third world as an infectious disease specialist, and who was responsible for preparing Canada’s first tetanus vaccine at the Connaught Labs, wished to donate $1,000 for the purchase of a Canadian landscape painting for the College in memory of his wife, Audrey Idelle Galvin Sneath, who had lived at St. Hilda’s as a Don during the War. The Minutes of the 1957 Annual Meeting of the St. Hilda’s Council states that “the Council was asked to administer this gift. A committee was set up to do this with Mrs. Morrow as convenor, Mrs. Sabiston, Mrs. Kirkwood, Mrs. Linell and Miss Darroch. Mrs. Morrow reported that $1,000 was difficult to spend on a picture but that a Canadian landscape by A.J. Casson had been selected and was then hanging in the dining room of the College.” The final purchase price from the Laing Gallery was $675.

Our two paintings by Frederick Varley came at different times. Erica, painted in 1940, was a bequest from the estate of Gerald Larkin, our great benefactor, in 1961. For those younger alumnae who only know the name because of the Larkin Building, I’ll point out that Mr. Larkin paid for the Chapel in 1955, much of the 1942 addition to the College, routinely picked up the deficit at the end of lean fiscal years, and left us $6M in his will. The College would be a very different place if Mr. Larkin, not a graduate of the College, hadn’t taken an interest. We also have him to thank for the tapestry in Strachan Hall, and the Varley portrait. The sitter was unknown until 2006 when Erica Leach was identified by Christopher Varley, the artist’s son, and confirmed by Erica herself when she visited the College that year. The other Varley in our possession is Mountain Road, Lynn Valley, BC, painted in 1949. This painting also came to us through a bequest from the Wasteneys family. Hardolph Wasteneys, a biochemistry professor at the University of Toronto beginning in 1918, was involved in many volunteer activities including the University Settlement movement. In 1951 he was given the painting on his retirement from the Board of Stewards and Finance Committee of Hart House. His daughter, Hortense (1923-1996), was a 1947 graduate of St. Hilda’s College, a committed volunteer, and a friend to many in the St. Hilda’s community. The painting came to Trinity in 1999 after the death of John Gervaise Wasteneys, when the family home in the Annex was sold.

The final painting I’ll mention here is our Lawren Harris sketch, Lake Superior, likely painted in the early 1920s. At some point the painting was acquired by Doris Hyde (4T0) Bryant, a philosophy major who became an art history instructor in Los Angeles. In 1995 she gave the painting to Trinity College. Mrs. Bryant is one of two art historians I know of from the Kirkwood days at St. Hilda’s, the other being Jean Sutherland Boggs (4T2), the distinguished Degas scholar who became the first woman Director of Canada’s National Gallery in 1966, then director of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Mrs. Bryant’s gift was in honour of her class, many of whose members fought in World War II, and its Rhodes Scholar, James George, who recently passed away.

This last gift, and the group of people it memorializes, provides a link to our present times. As I write this we are all dealing with the effects of Covid-19 on the Trinity community. Yesterday was terribly sad as we watched students leaving residence before the end of their academic year, in an effort to stay safe. When I think of the broader context of the time in which our paintings were created and collected, I realize it was a world in which students went to war, young girls from St. Hilda’s School in Whitby, England, left their parents behind and moved into our St. Hilda’s in an effort to ensure their safety, and many of the painters mentioned here served as official War Artists. At times of great upheaval and turmoil, one of the things that helps, as Mrs. Kirkwood knew, is the presence of beauty. With gratitude we acknowledge the foresight of those who shared their affection for their College by leaving gifts that have given pleasure to us all.

As published in Trinity Magazine Fall 2020

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