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Bringing Art to Life

Bringing Art to Life: A Biography of Alan Jarvis

Andrew Horrall
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  • Book Info
    Bringing Art to Life
    Book Description:

    Only thirty-nine when he took over the National Gallery in 1955, Jarvis already had an extraordinary record of achievement and social mobility at home and in England: he had trained with Canada's greatest artists, won a Rhodes scholarship, lunched at the Algonquin Round Table in New York, managed an aircraft factory, written a bestseller, produced films, run a slum settlement, and moved in a London social circle that included Noël Coward and Vivien Leigh. As head of the National Gallery, Jarvis was a provocative public educator, advocating his idea of "a museum without walls" in countless public appearances. Instrumental in bringing modern art to the National Gallery, he shook artists and the art-minded public out of a period of national complacency. This first detailed account of the controversy surrounding his time at the gallery provides an important context for the ongoing and contested role of publicly supported arts and art institutions in this country.

    eISBN: 978-0-7735-7583-7
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xiii)
  5. Selection of Work Acquired during Jarvis’ Time as Director
    (pp. xiv-2)
  6. CHAPTER ONE “A Walking Work of Art”: Introduction
    (pp. 3-7)

    Civil servants are supposed to be dull and inconspicuous.

    Alan Jarvis’ triumphal return to Canada to head the National Gallery in May 1955 defied this acknowledged truth. He had been chosen to inspire and embody a far-reaching cultural initiative through which the government aimed to transform a complacent, conservative, dour country. Because Jarvis had spent the preceding thirteen years in England, the government hired public relations experts to help broadcast stories of his extraordinary beauty, wit, and polish. In an era when many Canadians venerated British ideals and institutions, Jarvis recounted anecdotes about that country’s most prominent cultural, political, and...

  7. CHAPTER TWO “A Curiously Mixed Background”: Family and Childhood, 1915–1934
    (pp. 8-26)

    Lawren Harris, one of Canada’s most renowned twentieth-century painters, once proclaimed that the three most important people ever to emerge from Brantford, Ontario, were himself, Alexander Graham Bell, and Alan Jarvis.¹ A modern wit would give third spot on this list to hockey legend Wayne Gretzky. So Harris’ quip illustrates the esteem in which Alan was held during his lifetime, the oblivion into which he has fallen in death, and some fundamental misconceptions about his background.² Alan was at least partially complicit on each count. Few of his friends and acquaintances knew much about his early life, because he mentioned...

  8. CHAPTER THREE “Douglas Duncan Invented Me”: Undergraduate, 1934–1938
    (pp. 27-54)

    In September 1934, Alan Jarvis entered University College, or “UC,” the largest and only secular institution affiliated with the University of Toronto. It was a key choice because much of an undergraduate’s life revolved around his or her college. The University of Toronto had traditionally drawn students from throughout Ontario, though by the 1930s most of the 4 per cent or so of the province’s young men and women who attended university did so in their hometowns. UC’s undergraduates bore out this trend; about half hailed from Toronto and like Jarvis, a majority of them lived at home throughout their...

  9. CHAPTER FOUR “I May Come Home with an Accent – God Forbid”: Europe, Oxford, and Dartington, 1938–1939
    (pp. 55-84)

    The most crucial fifteen months of Jarvis’ life began when he and Douglas Duncan drove out of Toronto in late June 1938, bound for New York City and Europe. During this period, he matured intellectually, socially, and sexually, distancing himself permanently fromhis family’s narrow Sabbatarianism. In the process, he further refined the sophisticated public persona that his undergraduate acquaintances had encountered. The naive tone and immature language of Jarvis’ letters home glossed over many of these emotional experiences, and especially helped conceal his sexual growth. For a biographer, the friendships he made during this period were like a painting’s vanishing...

  10. CHAPTER FIVE “The Dead Days”: Toronto and New York City, 1939–1941
    (pp. 85-104)

    The twenty-seven months between Jarvis’ departure from Oxford and his return to England in January 1942 are the most obscure part of his life. Jarvis left almost no written traces of this period and excluded at least one key set of correspondence from his voluminous archives at the University of Toronto.¹ Nevertheless, shards of information from printed sources, interviews, and a few letters in Jarvis’ and other collections can be pieced together to create a picture of a frustrating and protracted, but nonetheless critical, interregnum between his youthful study and the mature application of his ideals. Broadly, Jarvis lived at...

  11. CHAPTER SIX “Up to My Ears in the Business World”: England, 1942–1945
    (pp. 105-135)

    Bob Borley and Jimmy Knapp-Fisher, two of Jarvis’ Dartington friends, met his ship as it docked on New Year’s Day 1942. This was the first sign that, despite Martin’s warning, the social and professional networks that Jarvis had begun building while at Oxford remained relatively intact. They provided Jarvis with a sense of support and offset the challenges he was about to face in helping to run an aircraft factory. Such fellowship was doubly important because the immensely heavy workload at Parnall Aircraft jolted Jarvis out of the inertia and frustration that he had experienced for the preceding two years,...

  12. CHAPTER SEVEN “To Build a New Kind of Society”: The Council of Industrial Design, 1945–1947
    (pp. 136-158)

    The general election of 26 July 1945, in which Labour trumped the Conservatives by more than 150 seats to win its first majority government, was one of the biggest political upsets in British history. Fighting in Europe had ended in early May and even though Japan’s surrender was still three weeks away, voters looked to the peace as they marked their ballots. In doing so, they shunted the aristocratic war leader Winston Churchill aside in favour of a Labour Party that they believed would champion wholesale social reform. The new government’s goal of establishing an equitable society was embodied in...

  13. CHAPTER EIGHT “A Break in a Million”: Pilgrim Pictures, 1947–1950
    (pp. 159-188)

    From the autumn of 1946 until early the following year, Jarvis lived with Sir Stafford Cripps at Whitehall Court, an imposing, grey French Renaissance block of flats that overlooks the Thames. Jarvis had been asked by Isobel Cripps to act as Sir Stafford’s confidante and companion while she and Peggy were on a prolonged humanitarian mission to China. Healthful considerations may have been part of Isobel’s motive for suggesting the arrangement, because she knew that Jarvis would have to adopt Cripps’ habit of getting to his desk before dawn to put in several hours work, followed by an ice cold...

  14. CHAPTER NINE “I Certainly Hope 1950 Will Be Different”: Oxford House, 1950–1955
    (pp. 189-216)

    Jarvis had tried to save Pilgrim Pictures from Del’s erratic leadership in the hope that this young venture would grow into a swan whose golden eggs would reform public taste, please the Crippses, and earn him a fortune. But the company’s disintegration in 1949 proved it to be the goose its critics had predicted. Pilgrim’s demise also interrupted Jarvis’ ascent, which, with the exception of the frustrating months in wartime Toronto, had been almost unbroken in the twelve years since he had won the Rhodes Scholarship. As Sir Stafford Cripps’ personal emissary, he had played small but important roles in...

  15. CHAPTER TEN “A Museum without Walls”: The National Gallery of Canada, 1955–1956
    (pp. 217-263)

    Canada had changed significantly in the thirteen years that Jarvis had spent in England, thanks in no small part to the Second World War. Just over 1 million Canadians – about one tenth of the population – served in uniform between 1939 and 1945. In order to equip the forces and steward an expanding and diversifying national economy, experts were lured from the private sector to the civil service, which tripled in size. At the same time, the country was drawn more closely into the American orbit through cooperation in defence, strategy, and the development of the atomic bomb. At war’s end,...

  16. CHAPTER ELEVEN “A Chamber of Horrors”: The National Gallery of Canada, 1957–1959
    (pp. 264-298)

    An optimistic National Gallery annual report – written by Jarvis and illustrated, for the first time, under Paul Arthur’s direction – was tabled in the House of Commons in early 1957. The report rebutted Conservative charges of snobbery and elitism by proclaiming that the Gallery had moved beyond the cautious “interregnum” of Jarvis’ early days to a period of “expansion” as it evolved “from a relatively minor institution into a truly national one.”¹ Jarvis used the report to address the public debate over the latest Liechtenstein purchases, while defending the Gallery against accusations that it ignored Canadian works.

    The confidence was ill-timed....

  17. CHAPTER TWELVE “Canada’s Most Outspoken and Witty Man About the Arts”: Toronto, 1960–1968
    (pp. 299-336)

    Ottawa, which had only just dug out from one of the heaviest snowfalls in memory, hummed on the evening of 18 February 1960. Red-coated Mounties and local constables controlled the traffic that choked Elgin Street on that Wednesday night as some 2,500 invitees, led by Prime Minister Diefenbaker and his wife, were deposited at the new National Gallery. Once inside, guests to the building’s inauguration discarded their overcoats and galoshes – as the cloakroom filled, outerwear was dropped unceremoniously in the Design Centre’s new exhibition space – to reveal white ties and tail coats, gowns and satin gloves. The mid-winter glamour, rare...

  18. CHAPTER THIRTEEN “We Have Lost Our Sheep Dog”: The Last Years, 1968–1972
    (pp. 337-349)

    New opportunities for Jarvis appeared in early 1968, in the form of a February grant from the Canada Council to restart his sculpting practice.¹ While waiting for the council to judge his application, Jarvis observed, but did not actively participate in a four-day Toronto seminar exploring the question “Are art galleries obsolete?”² A decade earlier he would have been offered, and relished, a central role in such a palaver. No longer.

    His work for Rothmans continued, but he wanted to be an artist. Once the seminar ended, he set out on a rare, nostalgia-laden holiday. He saw his one-time love...

  19. Conclusion
    (pp. 350-354)

    Alan Jarvis was endowed with such glittering gifts of wit, intellect, and artistic skill that one friend summed him up as a “gay kaleidoscope personality.”¹ He was as handsome as a movie star and won a Rhodes Scholarship without being an athlete. Innate talent allowed him to sculpt and sketch with some of Canada’s best artists, while his charm impressed prime ministers and poets. So it is not surprising that Jarvis’ friends, admirers, and colleagues used superlatives to describe him. Until the last years of his life, they believed there was little to which he could not turn his hand....

  20. Notes
    (pp. 355-426)
  21. Bibliography
    (pp. 427-446)
  22. Index
    (pp. 447-458)
  23. [Illustrations]
    (pp. 459-474)