Canadian Art History and Robert Stacey in the 2017 National Gallery of Canada Review

In the world of Canadian art history, it is hard to imagine a more encyclopedic or prodigiously active mind than that of author-curator Robert Stacey. Now, in the recently launched 2017 Volume 8 of the National Gallery of Canada Review, Stacey’s towering intellect and breathtaking range of knowledge are on full display for a new generation.

The issue features a series of nine essays by Stacey, selected from the National Gallery of Canada (NGC) Robert Stacey fonds by freelance archivist Jim Burant. Published here for the first time, the essays explore such things as the depiction of Indigenous men and women by early European photographers, a bizarre yearlong feud between writer John Reid and painter Wyndham Lewis, and 19th-century Canadian portraiture. 

As Burant noted in an interview with NGC Magazine, “In terms of his brilliance and the debt we owe him, this project cannot even begin to capture what he did in a career spanning four decades.” 

Charles W. Jefferys, Horse and Cart, 1894, pen and black ink on wove paper, 19 x 14.3 cm irregular. National Gallery of Canada. Gift of Katherine Helm, Kneeland, California, 1981 (no. 26921). Photo © NGC

Robert Stacey was born in Toronto in 1949 to well-known designer and metalsmith Harold Stacey and schoolteacher Margaret Jefferys, daughter of famous Canadian illustrator C.W. Jefferys. From an early age, Stacey was surrounded by art and artists, who also impressed upon him the societal importance of art and craft.

He studied English Literature at the University of Toronto but, according to his longtime partner Maggie Keith, refused to write the essays assigned to him, preferring instead to pursue his own areas of scholarly research. After graduating in 1972, he became manager of Toronto’s Pan Gallery — which focused on small-press ephemera and commercial graphics such as posters — organizing eighteen exhibitions over eighteen months.

Cover of The Canadian Poster Book: 100 Years of the Poster in Canada, by Robert Stacey (Toronto: Methuen Publications, 1979). National Gallery of Canada Library and Archives. Jack Shadbolt © Courtesy of Simon Fraser University Galleries, Burnaby, B.C.

In the years that followed, Stacey — a prolific writer — would undertake research on Canadian art, write numerous reviews, and edit several publications. He also became widely renowned for his knowledge of images, and became the go-to resource for anyone contemplating an illustration-rich publication on Canadian history or art. Popular works such as The Illustrated History of Canada and The Canadian Encyclopedia benefited greatly from Stacey’s ability to recall and suggest appropriate paintings, drawings and photographs, as well as commercial works such as posters and advertisements.

Reading Stacey’s work is a bit like listening to a virtuoso jazz performance. It starts out being about one thing, has a large section in the middle about something else entirely, dekes into various side avenues, then ends with something reminding the reader of the opening premise. “Bob did very much possess the kind of mind that was always bursting at the seams,” says Burant. “He read about, did research on, and viewed much more Canadian art than so many of his contemporaries, and tried to make connections about the various levels of engagement between artists, patrons, writers, governments, and the public in everything he wrote.” 

Antoine Claudet (after), The Ojibbeway Indians, Now in London (from Daguerreotype Portraits, taken by M. Claudet), engraving by Vizetelly Bros. & Co., Printers and Engravers, after a daguerreotype, reproduced as frontispiece to Charles Stuart, A Short History and Description of the Ojibbeway Indians (London, 1844). Canadian History Department, Metropolitan Toronto Reference Library (BR [S] 970.3 S35). Photo: Courtesy of Toronto Public Library

He was also a complicated and sensitive man. In an essay he wrote on Egerton Ryerson, included in the Review, Stacey wrote: “Students of his life and work, however, will recognize . . . the lineaments of a character that combined modesty with ambition, determination with self-doubt, a sense of the futility of human endeavour and of the evanescence of worldly fame with an astute political appreciation of the necessity of putting on a good show and drowning the complaints of critics with the cheers and applause of a well-entertained crowd.” Stacey may as well have been speaking of himself. 

Although curatorial tenure eluded him, Stacey was never short of projects. Friends describe a series of small offices in downtown Toronto, packed to the rafters with ongoing research. As historian Christopher Moore once wrote: “In a series of offices . . . he maintained the most extraordinary archives: seemingly every art catalogue and illustrated book ever published, and a vast collection of reference works, offprints, posters . . . It was always a mystery who was going to pay the rent, who was going to support the fifteen projects he had in the air, who would do the cataloguing, who was ever going to appreciate the riches available here.”

Michael Ayrton, Portrait of Wyndham Lewis, 25 January 1955, graphite on wove paper, 40.2 x 50.6 cm. National Gallery of Canada, purchased 1968 (no. 15576). Photo © NGC

Much of that material is now housed at the National Gallery. The Robert Stacey fonds contain 26.29 linear metres of textual records, 26,751 photographs, and approximately 40 Mb of electronic records, focusing on the years 1974–2003 in particular. It is an extensive and invaluable resource, and owes a significant debt to NGC archivists Phil Dombowsky and Shane McCord, as well as to Burant himself, who helped bring order to the electronic material in particular.

Robert Stacey died in Toronto in November 2007 at the age of 58. At his memorial service in February 2008, he was eulogized by a who’s who of the Canadian cultural landscape — as befitted a man who was, in every way that matters, an éminence grise. 

Photo of (left to right) Maggie Keith, Robert Stacey, Margaret Stacey (née Jefferys) and Callie Stacey, October 7, 1983 at the unveiling of the C.W. Jefferys plaque at University College, University of Toronto. Photo: Robert Lansdale Photography. Callie Stacey fonds, National Gallery of Canada Library and Archives, Box 3

Writing in the Review of a man he considered a friend, Burant notes, “He was an amusing, articulate and outrageous person to work with, and had a charm and wit that was both attractive and, if you were the subject of his wit, uncomfortable.” And again quoting Moore: “But we would go for a beer, and he would be entertaining and funny and mordant. Knowledge and passion about Canadian art history would flow from him. I would go away inspired every time, wondering if sometime Robert Stacey would have his breakthrough to recognition and applause.”

Perhaps, with this publication, he finally will.

The bilingual online National Gallery of Canada Review is the official scholarly journal of the National Gallery of Canada, and is published by the University of Toronto Press. The Robert Stacey issue can be read or downloaded here

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