HALLELUJAH, A GALLERY IS BORN
The new National Gallery is championed by a marquis and poet (also Canada’s Governor General) and shares quarters with the Supreme Court of Canada—a most unwilling roommate. The collection begins with 15 donated oil paintings and early purchases of works by Canadian artists William Brymner, Robert Harris and Paul Peel.
Canadians can thank the Marquis of Lorne, Governor General John Douglas Sutherland Campbell, for initiating the momentum that ultimately led to a National Gallery for all Canadians.
At 34, Campbell was Canada’s youngest Governor General, and described at the time as a sensitive young man, a poet who loved drawing, and a close friend of the celebrated British painters Landseer and Millais. His wife, Princess Louise, was Queen Victoria’s daughter, and a skillful painter and sculptor in her own right. Both were considered rather bohemian for their love and pursuit of art.
On 6 March 1880, the cream of the young capital’s society crowds into the Clarendon Hotel on Sussex Street for the opening of the first official exhibition of the Canadian Academy of Arts. Campbell uses this venue to announce the need for a National Gallery located at the seat of government, and to declare his support for such a gallery. Campbell also states that diploma works submitted by artists upon election to the Academy of Arts will now form the nucleus of a national collection of art, to be administered by the Dominion Chief Architect in the department of Public Works. This marks the beginning of four years of unfailing vice-regal support for a National Gallery in collaboration with Dominion artists.
Sunrise on the Saguenay (1880), by the first President of the Royal Canadian Academy, Lucius O'Brien (1832-1899), is among the works in the new national collection.
The Governor General, the Marquis of Lorne, inaugurates the first official exhibition of the Canadian Academy of Arts (later the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts).
The Department of Public Works provides the Gallery with its first home, located in a remodelled builders’ workshop on Parliament Hill adjoining the Supreme Court of Canada. The Gallery’s space consists of two rooms measuring 10.8 X 6 metres (36 X 20 feet). However small, these rooms mean the National Gallery of Canada can begin holding exhibitions of its growing collection, some two years after its founding.
On the morning of 27 May 1882, the Gallery opens its doors to the public. Among the first guests to arrive is the Governor General, the Marquis of Lorne, accompanied by several friends. He is reportedly delighted with the Gallery’s collection, and newspaper accounts describe the works as having “great merit” and of “attracting a great deal of attention.”
Comprised mostly of donated diploma works from the newly founded Royal Canadian Academy, the Gallery’s embryo collection includes 15 oil paintings (among them is Charlotte Schreiber’s The Croppy Boy), two watercolours, seven architectural drawings, and one life-size plaster by François van Luppen.
The Gallery acquires its first European works: Vilhelm Melbye’s Gulf of Naples (1875), gift of Allan Gilmour, and Frederick Lord Leighton’s Sansone (c. 1858), gift of the artist.
John W.H. Watts (1850–1917)
As Dominion Chief Architect of the Department of Public Works, John Watts was appointed Curator of the Gallery upon its creation in 1880. Under Watts, the seeds for a national collection were planted with the acquisition of such works as Lucius O’Brien’s Sunrise on the Saguenay.
To ensure the collection is stored and displayed accurately, the Gallery appoints its first part-time curator – John W.H. Watts, an English-born architect and member of the Canadian Academy of Arts.
Photo © MBAC
The Gallery purchases its first work, With Dolly at the Sabot Makers, a painting by contemporary Canadian artist William Brymner.
The Gallery’s home is widely recognized as inadequate and unbecoming a national collection. “The halls of the Supreme Court, however well they may echo the sonorous voices of the ermine-clad sages (who, by the way have been worked up to a fine frenzy by the ruthless invasion of their domain), are not adapted to the showing of pictures,” reports The Ottawa Citizen.
Purchasing activity increases in 1886 with the Gallery’s acquisition of The Crazy Patchwork by William Brymner, and A Meeting with the School Trustees by Robert Harris, which, to this day, remains one of the gallery-going public’s favourite works.
The National Gallery of Canada moves to larger rooms above the very popular Government Fish Hatcheries Exhibit on O’Connor Street. The Ottawa Daily Free Press reported on 10 March 1888: “The whole collection is now in one room with ample hanging space for it at present, and being alongside the better-known and more popular fisheries exhibit is likely to receive a greater amount of attention from visitors than has hitherto fallen to its lot.”
Attendance at the Gallery increases from 11,943 in its previous location to a peak of 22,961 visitors in its new space. The Royal Canadian Academy of Arts holds seven exhibitions here between 1889 and 1909.
The Gallery’s collection grows through purchases, gifts, and the deposit of diploma works by Canadian Academicians.
In the earliest recognition of the Gallery’s role as preserver of older works in the country’s heritage, six paintings by Paul Kane, commissioned by the government in 1851, are transferred to the Gallery.
Photo © MBAC
Following its first purchase of works by living European artists in 1894, the Gallery makes its first outright purchase of a work by a deceased Canadian artist, Paul Peel’s Venetian Bather.
Photo © MBAC
The National Gallery of Canada purchases its first historical European painting, The Death of Nelson by George Philip Reinagle. No further purchases are made for the next four years.
L. Fennings Taylor (1864–1947)*
The Quebec-born architect, who later designed the Canada Pavilion at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, Missouri, replaced John H.W. Watts, the Gallery’s first curator, in 1897, when the Gallery was still a fledgling institution with limited resources. No acquisitions were made during the first three years of his appointment.
* Some sources note 1862 as his birthday.