In Pursuit of French Masters: the Family of Gordon C. Edwards
On 3 January 1934, more than 1,000 guests attended the opening of the French Painting of the 19th Century exhibition at the National Gallery of Canada, an event for which Director Eric Brown had assembled more than 100 canvases in the east wing of the Victoria Memorial Museum building, the premises occupied by the Gallery until 1959. In a letter addressed to the director of the Chicago Art Institute, Brown claimed that, incredibly, French avant-garde art from this period had as yet not been shown in Canada, and he therefore wanted to make "a very outstanding show," unprecedented in theme and scope. Claude Monet, Vincent van Gogh and Auguste Renoir were among the names of the star-studded checklist, but bringing together such a high-calibre line up was no small feat, particularly for the young institution in Ottawa. It was possible due to the remarkable collaboration between the Gallery and a collective of European art dealers and, in large part, due to the generosity of local private collectors. In the catalogue, Brown expressed his gratitude to all lenders, and in particular "to Mr. Gordon Edwards, Ottawa, whose collection has been drawn upon for no less than nineteen pictures.”
A member of Parliament, Gordon Cameron Edwards (1866–1946) came from a successful lumber trade family. He acquired a large part of the collection of his uncle, the politician and founder of the family business William Cameron Edwards (1844–1921), when it was put up for auction in 1923. The elder Edwards had shown much interest in Canadian art, specifically works by Cornelius Krieghoff and Franklin Brownell, but also landscapes by European artists, such as Gustave Courbet, Johan B. Jongkind and J.M.W. Turner. Gordon Edwards honoured the philanthropic spirit of his deceased uncle and aunt by donating three Canadian landscape paintings to the Gallery that year.
The younger Edwards inherited the family property at 24 Sussex, overlooking the Ottawa River. The Victorian building, today the official residence of Canada’s prime minister, had been built in 1868 by Joseph Merrill Currier and purchased by William Edwards in 1901. It was here that Gordon Edwards began to expand his uncle’s art collection according to his own taste: he filled the large mansion with predominantly French 19th-century works purchased from such prominent European art dealers such as Bernheim-Jeune and E.J. van Wisselingh & Co. Canvases by Paul Cézanne, Honoré Daumier, Henri Fantin-Latour, Édouard Manet and Alfred Sisley found their way to the Canadian capital, and by the early 1930s Brown was soliciting them as loans for his exhibition.
It was Daumier's Third Class Carriage – now in the collection of the National Gallery of Canada – that attracted most attention. Painted around 1863–65, the canvas embodies perfectly his sensible eye for societal intricacies, depicting a reality beyond the glamour and elegance of the bourgeoisie and offering a unique glimpse into everyday life in industrialized 19th-century France. Inside a crowded railcar, the three passengers in the foreground are the focus of the composition. Sunlight streams through the windows, illuminating the otherwise dark interior and directing our gaze towards the hooded elderly woman clasping a basket. Introvert and weary, she is flanked by a young woman cradling an infant and a sleeping schoolboy with a hat and coffer next to him. Behind the group are rows of seated passengers, all male, some dressed elegantly in suits and top hats, others in traditional working-class clothes. Daumier’s psychologically complex composition convincingly develops its protagonists with stirring immediacy, making palpable the sounds, motions and atmosphere of the rush-hour train ride. Most remarkable, however, is the humanism with which the artist depicts the most vulnerable of society.
As a graphic artist and illustrator, Daumier's biting satire and critical renderings of the ruling regime and elite during the July Monarchy in Post-Revolution France had elevated his reputation as a political caricaturist. By contrast, he did not gain recognition as a painter during his lifetime. A year before Daumier's death in 1878, the artist's influential network tried to help him – by then blind and impoverished – with a solo exhibition at Galerie Durand-Ruel. It was here that The Third Class Carriage was exhibited publically for the first time.
Passing through the hands of several illustrious Parisian art dealers, the painting entered by 1889 the collection of Count Armand Doria and later the Parisian intellectual Paul Gallimard. Some ten years later it passed into the possession of James Murray, chairman of the Aberdeen Art Gallery in Scotland, and in 1927 it returned to Paris where the Van Wisselingh & Co dealership was responsible for its overseas sale to Gordon Edwards.
Daumier’s reputation had risen steeply after his death and his realist canvases had turned into sought-after collectibles. Once on North-American soil, The Third Class Carriage immediately caused a stir and was one of the masterpieces of Brown's travelling exhibition, also shown in Toronto and Montreal. Eighteen other masterworks from the Edwards collection were also on view.
When in 1939 Harry Orr McCurry took over as the Gallery's director, he instantly pursued the acquisition of Daumier's irrefutable masterpiece, but his efforts were stalled by the onset of World War II. Edwards on the other hand, albeit wealthy and influential, was facing an awkward predicament: his Sussex Drive property was being expropriated by the Canadian government to prevent the commercialization of that particular stretch of land (it was declared crown land on June 12, 1943), and even though Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King had agreed that Edwards could remain in the house until its future use was decided, the expellee inevitably sought alternate accommodations for his art collection. He had sent a selection of his works for exhibition in New York and purchase offers arrived shortly thereafter. Knowing of the Gallery’s interest in his works, Edwards wrote in May 1944 to Harry Stevenson Southam, chairman of the Gallery’s board of trustees and newspaper magnate: "I am sure you will understand that there is a natural desire on my part to have the matter definitely closed, in view of the position in respect of my residence and the demand which has arisen for these pictures from other sources." The message was clear, Edwards wanted to sell – and fast. Aware of the cultural loss a sale in the U.S. would represent for the Gallery and Canadian audiences, Southam contacted the prime minister urging him to give Edwards assurance of the Canadian government’s purchase intentions.
Even though the Gallery was operating with a severely reduced acquisitions budget and exhibition program during World War II, it was still able to organize a second loan exhibition of the Edwards collection, displaying 21 of his modern French canvases in the fall of 1944. Returning from New York, these canvases had been previously selected by McCurry, and the Gallery's exhibition may have provided an opportunity to convince the prime minster of their high calibre and the urgency to acquire these works. At the time, Canadian Art reported on the “little known collection” from “behind the fret-saw woodwork and embellished façade of a late Victorian stone mansion” on view at the National Gallery. The article noted that many Canadians may have seen reproductions of Daumier’s Third Class Carriage before, yet did not know that this work was in the possession of an Ottawa resident. Despite positive reactions, the Canadian government was still not able to make the financial commitment to acquire the works and, at the end of the exhibition, the entire lot was returned to New York to be put up again for sale.
By July 1945, only 10 of the 21 masterworks originally selected by McCurry remained unsold. To his chagrin, the Gallery had missed the chance to acquire Auguste Renoir’s Portrait of a Young Woman, which had been included in both the 1934 and 1944 exhibitions. The Gallery did not own any painting by this artist and this lost opportunity unequivocally proved no more time could be wasted. By February 1946, a supplementary fund was provided by the government and on March 6 the Gallery was successful in acquiring six paintings: Honoré Daumier’s Third Class Carriage, Camille Pissarro’s Rue de l'Hermitage, Pontoise and Hay Harvest at Éragny, Claude Monet’s A Stormy Sea, Paul Cézanne’s Road at Auvers-sur-Oise and Gustave Courbet’s The Waterfalls.
When Gordon Edwards died in November that year, his children notified McCurry that it was their late father’s intention to donate a second canvas by Courbet, La Dame aux Bijoux, to the Gallery. With the lost opportunity of acquiring a Renoir still fresh on his mind, McCurry was at this time approached by the Van Wisselingh & Co dealership about a Renoir canvas titled Claude and Renée that was available for purchase. With full knowledge and support of the Edwards heirs, a trade deal was negotiated to exchange the donated Courbet for the Renoir. It was understood that McCurry’s overarching goal was to refine and improve the Gallery's collection and that this trade would fill the agonizing gap. To honour Edwards’ generous gesture and the family’s support, it was agreed to cite Edwards in the credit line of the initial Courbet painting acquired in 1946 instead.
Fifty years later, the Edwards family’s philanthropic support was demonstrated one more time when the four granddaughters of Gordon Edwards presented the Gallery with the painting Tobias and the Angel, painted in 1845 by French artist Alexandre-Gabriel Decamps. This canvas had initially been part of the William Edwards’ art collection and its donation perpetuates the family’s longstanding support and legacy of philanthropic spirit that had started four generations earlier in 1923. Due to this extraordinary commitment and the perseverance of the Gallery's leadership, part of the once “little known collection” from 24 Sussex is today displayed at the National Gallery of Canada.
Several of these works are currently on view in C210 and C213 at the National Gallery of Canada; for further details on individual paintings, see the Gallery's collection online. Share this article and subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest articles, Gallery exhibitions, news and events, and to learn more about art in Canada.