Beauty’s Awakening: Dennis Lanigan’s Superb Collection

Edward Burne-Jones, Study for “The Wedding Feast of Sir Degrevaunt” (for William Morris’ Red House) [1860], watercolour, gouache and pen and violet ink over graphite on wove paper, 26.2 × 29.5 cm. Lanigan Collection, Saskatoon. Promised gift to the National Gallery of Canada. Photo © NGC

The National Gallery of Canada is home to an extraordinary collection of 19th-century British drawings, thanks in part to a generous donation from collector Dennis T. Lanigan. A selection of works from this collection is on view at the Gallery this fall in Beauty’s Awakening: Drawings by the Pre-Raphaelites and their Contemporaries from the Lanigan Collection.

Organized by Sonia Del Re, Associate Curator of European Prints and Drawings at the NGC, the exhibition features drawings by Pre-Raphaelites Edward Burne-Jones, John Everett Millais, William Holman Hunt and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, as well as Edward Poynter, Frederic Leighton and other artists of the Aesthetic and Arts and Crafts movements. Ranging in subject matter and intention, they include simple figure drawings, medieval scenes from literature, and Renaissance-inspired compositions, created as spontaneous sketches or as highly finished works of art. The era’s technical developments are also on display: steel-nib pens, commercially manufactured watercolours and sophisticated papers. In effect, Beauty’s Awakening charts the evolution of British drawing through the 19th century.

Burne-Jones’ magnificent Study for the Slave in “The Wheel of Fortune” (c. 1875–1883), which recalls Michelangelo’s famous slave sculptures, is one of several beautiful nude studies on view. Women feature strongly in the selection, in touching portraits of artists’ wives and lovers, and in sensual images, such as Frederic Leighton’s Study of the Head and Arms of Iphigenia for “Cymon and Iphigenia” (c. 1883) and John William Waterhouse’s Study of the Head of Lamia for "Lamia" (c. 1905). Frederick Sandys’ magnificent King Pelles’ Daughter Bearing the Vessel of the Sangreal (1861) is one of the highlights of the works on display.


Frederick Sandys, King Pelles' Daughter Bearing the Vessel of the Sangreal (1861), pen and black ink on wove paper, 32.2 x 23.5 cm. Lanigan Collection, Saskatoon. Promised gift to the National Gallery of Canada. Photo © NGC

Dennis Lanigan, an oral and maxillofacial surgeon by profession, has been collecting 19th-century British art for forty years, ever since receiving a $500 graduation gift from his parents for finishing dental school. That gift, he recounts in the exhibition catalogue, allowed him to buy a mid-19th-century Minton parian porcelain sculpture entitled The Lion in Love, which he saw in the window of a Toronto antiques shop.

At the time, he knew almost nothing about Victorian art, or art in general for that matter, but soon set about applying his well-honed research skills to reading, visiting galleries, studying the international art market, and building connections with dealers and scholars. “I think if you’re going to be a serious collector you have to educate yourself,” he said over the phone from his Saskatoon home, “but you also have to reach out to other people who can teach you things. You can only get so much from books. You need to look at things. And having advice from dealers and scholars is equally important.”


Frederic Leighton, Study of the Head and Arms of Iphigenia for “Cymon and Iphigenia(c. 1883), black and white chalks on brown wove paper, 22 × 29.5 cm.  Lanigan Collection, Saskatoon. Promised gift to the National Gallery of Canada. Photo © NGC

One of Lanigan’s early connections was with Douglas Schoenherr, former Associate Curator of Prints and Drawings at the National Gallery and an expert in Victorian art. The two met in 1986, when Lanigan visited Ottawa and asked to see some of the major Pre-Raphaelite drawings in the collection. He was impressed. “The National Gallery had some magnificent Victorian drawings,” he says, “some of the best drawings by the artists I admired: Rossetti, Millais, Holman Hunt, Sandys.” Over the years, Schoenherr and Lanigan developed a close friendship based on their shared passion and scholarship. Eventually, when Lanigan started to think about donating parts of his collection, the Gallery was the obvious recipient. “They already had the basis of a great collection,” he says. “It just needed to be filled out.” Indeed, since 1997, he has donated 74 prints and drawings, and has promised dozens more to come.

Although Lanigan’s collection also includes sculptures, paintings, stained-glass windows and decorative objects, fairly early on in his collecting career he began focusing primarily on drawings. “I guess I’ve always been interested in drawing,” he says, “even when I was a boy. It gives you insights into the creative process, the mind of the artist at work — how the painting develops, how the artist changes the position of an arm or a leg or the entire pose of a model, how things evolve in his mind until he reaches the final design.”


John William Waterhouse, Study of the Head of Lamia for "Lamia" (c. 1905), charcoal and white chalk on wove paper, 32.3 x 26.5 cm. Lannigan Collection, Saskatoon. Promised gift to the National Gallery of Canada. Photo © NGC

The walls of the Lanigans’ Saskatoon house are richly adorned with works of art by about 100 British artists whose vivid personalities seem almost to inhabit the rooms. “I see them grouped together and I think, well, all these people knew each other, they had dinner parties together, they had conversations. Sometimes I wish I could have been a fly on the wall at the dinner party, just to listen to the conversations. They were great personalities, great storytellers, great raconteurs. It would have been fascinating to know these people.”

Art historian Christopher Newall, who wrote an essay for the exhibition catalogue, and who was also co-curator of the Gallery’s 2014 John Ruskin exhibition, praises Lanigan for his intellectual rigour and foresight as a collector of Victorian drawings, and for his extraordinary gift to the Gallery. “This is a superb, absolutely unrepeatable collection,” said Newall on the phone from his home in Suffolk, England. “It means that the National Gallery’s collection will be unrivalled, that you have the most remarkable, complete, complex collection of British 19th-century line drawings in North America.”

Beauty’s Awakening: Drawings by the Pre-Raphaelites and their Contemporaries from the Lanigan Collection is on view in the Prints, Drawings and Photographs galleries of the National Gallery from October 9, 2015, to January 3, 2016. An exhibition catalogue is available from the National Gallery of Canada Bookstore.

As well, visitors won’t want to miss these upcoming events:

  • The Lanigan collection of illustrated books and magazines, a talk by Dr. Dennis Lanigan — October 29 at 12 pm in the NGC Library
  • Kathleen M. Fenwick Annual Memorial Lecture — "The Daydream of Painting: Drawing in Victorian England,"  presented by Christopher Newall — October 29 at 6 pm in the NGC Lecture Hall
  • Meet the Experts Tour, with Dr. Lanigan and Associate Curator Sonia Del Re — October 30 at 12 pm

About the Author