Though it’s become common practice for large galleries and institutions to organize exhibitions around the personal tastes of current art collectors—take, for instance, the AGO’s recent “Beautiful Fictions” photography show or this week’s opening of “Skin Fruit,” a selection of works from Greek shipping magnate Dakis Joannou’s collection at the New Museum—it is rarer to get a glimpse of the personalities behind some of the country’s most significant historical collections. The National Gallery of Canada’s exhibition “Lord Dalhousie: Patron and Collector” does just that, however, assembling 94 drawings, paintings, sculptures, lithographs and more commissioned by George Ramsay, Lieutenant-Governor of Nova Scotia from 1816 to 1820 and later governor-in-chief of British North America, during his time in Canada. Currently on view at the Dalhousie Art Gallery—one of the many Canadian institutions Ramsay was responsible for initiating—the exhibition offers a portrait of a unique collector whose aesthetic vision seems ahead of its time. In this email interview with René Villeneuve, associate curator of early Canadian art at the National Gallery of Canada and organizer of the exhibition, Canadian Art’s Gabrielle Moser discusses how the show came together and what lessons Lord Dalhousie’s collection might have to teach us today.
Gabrielle Moser: What initially inspired you to curate this exhibition?
René Villeneuve: I first “met” Lord Dalhousie in 1999, when I researched the silver cup presented to him which we were considering for repatriation and acquisition. (We acquired it that same year.) The Taylor Cup was commissioned by Lord Dalhousie in 1827 while in Québec City from a local master silversmith, Laurent Amiot, and was presented to George Taylor on the occasion of the launch of a ship. It is a magnificent thing. What struck me was that it was highly unusual at the time for a British official, in this case the governor-in-chief himself, to commission such piece from a local artist instead of ordering it from London. I thought it should be researched more deeply, and considered writing an article about it, but I wasn’t sure if there was enough there.
GM: You then spent six years conducting research for this exhibition. What were some of the surprises and discoveries—both pleasant and challenging—that you encountered?
RV: Well, the first surprise was probably the magnitude of Ramsay’s patronage: it was not a footnote in Canadian art history but a rather important contribution. The works were abundant, so I had the luxury of choice to be able to emphasize quality works. One of the highlights during the research was when I met a descendant of Lady Dalhousie in Scotland, who owned key works including an amazing large wash by James Cockburn. It’s one of the earliest views of what became Ottawa, taken near the site of the National Gallery. We have been able to acquire that work as well as 16 others from that collection, all gems of Canadian art.
Another great moment was the acquisition of two exceptional albums by Cockburn and Woolford lent by the Winckworth family, which will now remain in Canada. The current Lord Dalhousie granted me access to the archives of the ninth earl with great generosity. It was a fantastic time, since the archives were very rich in information that helped me to understand the works selected for the show and sketch the figure of the patron and his goals as a collector. One of the challenges was obtaining digital images and basic information about the works. It really conveyed to me how poorly staffed Canadian institutions can be.
GM: Lord Dalhousie comes across as a significant and unusually prolific collector and patron through this exhibition. How might his approach to art resonate with collectors and patrons in the present?
RV: Good question! I really consider Lord Dalhousie as the first patron of art in this country, aside from the Roman Catholic church in Québec. Significant is definitely a good term to use in this case. Others at that time left with some watercolours or objects in their luggage, but he had a firm commitment during his 12 years in Canada. His initiatives are still inspiring in today’s world. He had an open mind, was very curious, was not afraid of taking on bold initiatives. He did not collect art from the past, but just contemporary art, which was very unusual. His take on aboriginal cultures and the concerns he expressed made him ahead of his time.
GM: In contemporary art venues, we seem to have become accustomed to considering private collectors’ personalities through the kinds of works they have acquired, but government and corporate collections often seem impersonal. Was Lord Dalhousie unique in the way that he commissioned and collected artwork? Was it easier to find his personality through the work in his collection?
RV: Lord Dalhousie’s collection had nothing to do with his official role, but was a deeply personal initiative. To look at him from the perspective of his art collecting and patronage turned out to be the best way of appreciating his contribution to this country and demonstrating his unique character. He came as an official from the British government, but that is not where he made his strongest contributions. Until now, historical accounts of Ramsay, such as his entry in the Canadian Oxford Dictionary, only look at the political side of his life and depict a rather boring character. But I think his true contribution was in the fields of arts, culture and education. If we focus on the way he looked at and considered landscape and nature, at how many works he commissioned to depict it, we start to see a completely different figure emerge.