Peter C. Newman November 22 1958


Peter C. Newman November 22 1958

In the three years he's been director of the National Gallery, Alan Jarvis has bought foreign works like these with almost all the million-and-a-quarter he’s spent on new art. Some traditionalist critics and many taxpayers think paintings like the Picasso behind Jarvis' head are “incomprehensible blobs.” Jarvis answers: “We aren’t hillbillies. Our artists must set world standards.”

Controversy has stormed around the National Gallery ever since Alan

Jarvis has spent most of the relatively small amounts he has invested in Canadian works on abstract modern paintings, like all but one of these. "A farce,” traditionalists charge. “The most creative work being done in Canada today,” Jarvis snaps back. The single traditional landscape (lower left) he bought for historical value; abstracts, for their “emotional content.”


Peter C. Newman

Jarvis refuses to spend a nickel on more pictorial

works like these, which the Gallery

once bought in large numbers. He says they’re in

"the chocolate-box tradition"

that insists art must be pretty. Jarvis contends

horror, disgust and pity are artistic subjects

too. Senator Pouliot counter-charges:

"Jarvis is ashamed of the prices he pays for those disgusting horrors he buys."

Jarvis toolc over. On tlie evidence, liow would you answer this question:

MOST GOVERNMENT employees stubbornly adhere to the creed that the less you say publicly, the less trouble you get into. A spectacular exception is Alan Hepburn Jarvis, director of the National Gallery of Canada, who passionately insists on saying the unconventional. the controversial and the unexpected.

Jarvis enjoys tossing verbal firecrackers at the timidity of Canadians in everything from architecture to cooking. Our suburban homes, he claims, resemble nothing so much as rabbit hutches. Most of our food, he has said, tastes rather like Kleenex. He is the first government employee publicly to classify a whole region of Canada, the Maritimes, as a cultural backwater, or to refer to a particular city—Saint John, N.B.—as one of the ugliest in the world.

While the National Gallery is by far the biggest patron of Canadian art, all but ninety-one thousand dollars of the million-and-a-quarter which Jarvis has paid out for paintings since he became director has been spent on foreign canvases. Some of these have been bought at prices that seem to the ordinary taxpayer to be enormous, and many of them, in the opinion of the same

taxpayers, are incomprehensible blobs. But Jarvis asserts resolutely: “Canada is no longer a country of hillbillies and chaps with axes on their shoulders. Canadian artists must set standards for themselves that are world standards.”

Jarvis was appointed to the more than $ 12.500-a-year top job in Canadian art by Gallery trustees almost four years ago. Their choice was influenced by his strong interest in contemporary art, his knowledge of traditional painting, and his conviction that he could sell Canadians the idea that art is for everybody.

“I don’t want a cozy, pensionable job.” he told the trustees. “1 want to be free to say what I please.” He signed a five-year contract instead of assuming the lifelong civilservice status of his predecessors. “That w'ay you’ll be able to fire me,” he told J. W. Pickersgill, the minister then responsible for reporting to parliament for the Gallery. “After all, I could easily run the Gallery into the ground in a few years.”

“If there’s any excuse at all for my having this job,” he says, “it’s the wide variety of experience I’ve had.” Jarvis has been a fashionable sculptor, a personnel executive in the aircraft

continued on page 40

Is Jarvis mis-spending our art millions?

continued from page 21

“Art is not beauty,” he says. “It can work on any emotion, including horror, disgust and pity”

industry, a film producer, a best-selling writer, the dean of a slum settlement house, and an international bon vivant. He has dined alone in candlelight with Greta Garbo ("the most beautiful woman I’ve seen”), played croquet with Noel

Coward, danced with Gene Tierney, sipped tea with Somerset Maugham, traded anecdotes with James Thurber and was one of the favorite escorts of Signe Hasso.

In his direction of Gallery affairs, Jar-

vis has adopted the tactics of a dignified but crowd-happy carnival operator. He compares himself to the boy from southern Ireland who got a job with a Canadian wrecking company, and wrote home: “Dear Mom: I’m tearing down an Orange

Hall, and I’m being paid for doing it.”

“Jarvis has altered the character of the Gallery. He has a most decided flair for the best.” says Lawren Harris, one of the Group of Seven, now a Gallery trustee. Others disagree. “Jarvis has been over-rated,” Senator Jean-François Pouliot stated last winter during a debate on the Gallery. “He is ashamed of the prices he pays for those horrors that arc so disgusting.” A few days after this attack, Jarvis completed the arrangements for purchasing La Guéridon, a cubist painting by Picasso, from a Swiss art dealer for fifty thousand dollars.

When Kenneth Forbes, a traditionalist Toronto portrait painter, called the Gallery’s choice of abstracts for the Brussels World Fair “a farce which the Canadian people would not tolerate if they knew the details,” Jarvis replied with uncharacteristic calm. "The paintings going to Brussels,” he said, “represent the most creative work now being done in Canada.”

Canada cannot achieve artistic vitality, according to Jarvis, until more Canadians have strong opinions and are willing to express them. "There is no good criticism,” he complains. “Let a picture deviate from the chocolate-box tradition, and you hear the angry cane tappings on the floor, see the eyes pouting, and the mustaches twitching in protest.”

Once on stage was enough

He thunders against what he calls “the Bunny school of art” which contends that all paintings must be pretty. “Art is not beauty,” he insists. “The purpose of art is to enlarge our emotional experience, and this includes the emotions of horror, disgust and pity.”

Jarvis has the handsomeness of a James Stewart suddenly turned boisterous. In 1941 a Warner Brothers talent scout spotted him in the audience of a New York theatre and offered him a screen test. Six years later he was asked by the J. Arthur Rank organization to try for a role in a British adventure picture. Jarvis turned down both offers, partly because his most memorable previous stage appearance was an impersonation of a fading chorus girl reminiscing about the old days of musical comedy, at a summer camp show in the town hall of Port Sydney, in northern Ontario. The skit was climaxed abruptly when his bodice slipped, revealing the boxing gloves he had tied around his neck as bosoms.

Now forty-three, Jarvis has the bearing and manners of a prince very much aware of his royal heritage. None of his elegantly greying hair has receded; a luxuriant eyebrow thatch shields the stubbornness in his green eyes. His erect carriage makes him seem taller than his six feet, and more powerful than his one hundred and seventy-five pounds. His mouth is expressive, but his many gestures leave the impression that he speaks almost entirely with his hands. He wears the advertising man's buttondown shirts set off with boldly striped ties.

Jarvis chain-smokes cork-tip Craven A so continuously that when he’s sculpting he lights five cigarettes, places them in strategically located ash trays, then reaches out for a puff from whichever position is closest.

He can display mandarin impassivity if necessary, but resists compromise on any matter involving taste. When Pietro Annigoni’s portrait of Queen Elizabeth arrived in Ottawa last winter, Jarvis labeled it an inartistic effigy and refused to grant it Gallery wall space. The painting had to be hung outside the House of Commons library.

Soon after he was named director the needlepoint carpet made by Queen Mary, which had been donated to the National Gallery by the Imperial Order of the Daughters of the Empire, vanished from its display box. “I was astonished to find the beautiful carpet our late and beloved Queen Mary made replaced by one of the director’s pet blobs called modern art. The impudence of the fellow!” complained Charlotte May Montgomery, an Ottawa housewife, in an angry letter to the Ottawa Citizen.

Jarvis calmly explained that' the Queen’s rug was in fact still on exhibition. Because he does not class it as art, he has mounted it behind golden drapes on the main floor of the Gallery. Whenever visitors ask to see “the carpet,” guards are instructed to draw the drapes, then quickly to slam them shut again. Jarvis once irreverently suggested that this ceremony should be accompanied by a hidden phonograph playing God Save the Queen, and that all IODE ladies should be charged twenty-five cents a peep.

He becomes quickly furious with the many letters he gets from miffed matrons who criticize modern art by asserting that their three-year-old daughter could have done as well with a burnt stick and a rotten orange. “I’m often tempted,” he says, “to send these people an easel, and to tell them to go ahead and try. Then we could form a new group of artists known as the ‘We-Tried School.’ ”

A great respecter of professionalism in all things, Jarvis sympathizes with the amateur willing to study and learn techniques, but detests the untrained, pretentious dabbler. At the conclusion of his many speeches to women’s art groups, at least one lady artist usually sidles up to him asking for his candid opinion of her latest canvas. Jarvis’ reaction seldom varies: he’d be charmed to look at it. After he carefully inspects the canvas, stooping to view it properly from all angles, he stands back, arms folded, and in his most erudite National Gallery manner, declares: “That is a picture.”

Privately, he’s even less charitable. “There are too many women who paint piffling, fiddling, bloody little things which are really needlepoint,” he says.

Who is it?

She’s at least three up on Emily Post. Turn to page 60 to find out who this young lady grew up to be.

“I have absolutely no sympathy for the housewife who uses cake mixes, then goes and dabbles in paints.”

Jarvis is himself a passionate amateur of architecture. He can read construction blueprints, and believes that what men build is even more important than what they paint, and as important as what they sing. He once spent a brief holiday in Bermuda. "It’s my idea of hell,” he told a friend afterward. “There are no interesting buildings to look at.” He thinks that the best example of contemporary Canadian architecture is

the new permanent home of the Shakespearean Festival at Stratford, Ont. "We need many more theatres with dressing rooms that don’t smell of gym suits and old running shoes,” he says.

At last year's annual meeting of the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada, Jarvis so shocked the audience that his remarks were edited out of the official transcripts. "Architects who build ugly buildings,” he had proclaimed, “should be fined heavily for committing a public nuisance. It’s like allowing a bad smell to come from a factory.” He suggested

that the Massey Medals for architecture be expanded to include a category for the year's silliest building.

His chief nomination for this award was the million-dollar Provincial Museum in Regina, opened in 1955. “It,” said Jarvis, "is the most bastard creation I have ever laid my eyes on.” Told about the remarks, Saskatchewan Premier T. C. Douglas defended his museum: “Most modern paintings look like scrambled eggs and if Mr. Jarvis wants the building to look like that, I'd prefer the museum the way it is.”

Jarvis had specifically condemned the row of sculptured ducks squatting in a stone band inset around the top of the museum's face. “I hope the natives go and shoot at them,” he said. When he went to Saskatchewan a year ago to open the Norman Mackenzie Gallery at Regina College, gallery trustees had mounted a row of papier mâché ducks along the rooftops of their building, and jokingly suggested Jarvis might like to shoot them down. He was willing, but the officials decided not to trust his marksmanship.

Since he took over the National Gallery, Jarvis has more than doubled its staff to sixty-five. To make room for them, he has converted some display rooms into offices, and sent the paintings on tour. This manoeuvre plus a doubled budget has allowed him to extend substantially the number of traveling Canadian art exhibitions, begun by Eric Brown, the first director, in 1916. Fortyfive mobile exhibits of Canadian art now journey as far away as Hobart, Tasmania.

In the summer of 1957, as part of his determination to take art out of the rarefied atmosphere of evening gowns and tuxedos, Jarvis starred in The Things We See, thirteen half-hour national television discussions of painting and sculpture. To open the series, he persuaded the Ottawa police department to drag into the studio and operate a full-size stop light. He used it to demonstrate the everyday importance of color. After the camera briefly focused on the changing lights, it moved on Jarvis, saying: “Color—our very lives depend on it.”

The highlight of the television programs was a twenty-minute live sequence showing Jarvis sculpting a complete bust of Julie Devlin, his young niece. What his viewers didn’t realize was that he had previously prepared a semi-finished sculpture, which was substituted while the camera was trained on Julie.

His bad-boy outbursts frighten some federal politicians, but he’s one of the most sought-after guests at Ottawa cocktail parties. His home is the least pretentious of the large houses lining Rockcliffe’s fashionable Manor Avenue. Grey slacks and a faded blue turtleneck sweater with protruding elbows are his uniform for free evenings, but he cannot simply flop down and relax. Currently he spends most of his spare time writing a definitive study of war as a subject

in Western art. He reads sixty periodicals a month and romps through a book every two days. His large library ranges from Good and Evil by the British philosopher, C. E. M. Joad, to The Case of the Substitute Face by Erie Stanley Gardner. He can’t take a bath without a book.

Reading constituted most of Jarvis’ early education. He is the son of a Brantford, Ont., optometrist who died when Alan was three. The family moved to Toronto where Jarvis attended Parkdale Collegiate. Although he read beyond his years—at fourteen he had completed all the works of Thomas Hardy—his grades were so poor that the University of Toronto would not admit him to its course in architecture. He studied philosophy and psychology instead, and never wrote an exam without getting firstclass honors. Despite his refusal to participate in sports, he won a Rhodes Scholarship in 1937. “Jarvis was a witty, slightly cynical, god-like figure that floated fourteen inches above everyone else on the campus,” recalls G. H. Southam, a fellow student now with the externalaffairs department in Ottawa.

Jarvis had started sculpting at twelve and painting at thirteen. During his first year at university he became a protégé of Douglas Duncan, a Toronto art patron and founder of the Picture L.oan Society. Duncan gave him a sculpting studio and introduced him to gallery owners and painters. In the evenings Jarvis studied sculpture techniques at Central Technical School under Elizabeth Wyn Wood Hahn, who calls him her most intelligent pupil. In the summer, Duncan and Jarvis often went to Six-Mile Lake, near Gravenhurst, to visit the oneroom hut of David Milne, a then littleknown still-life painter whose tormented water-color canvases have influenced Jarvis more than the work of any other artist. Five Milnes now hang above his bed, there’s a Milne in his private study, and two in his living room.

The year before he took up his Oxford scholarship, Jarvis motored through Europe with Duncan, photographing Romanesque church sculpture. He left Oxford without a degree at the outbreak of the war because the Rhodes Committee advised the repatriation of its students, took another postgraduate year at Toronto, then won a fine-arts fellowship at New York University. On the recom-

mendation of an Oxford friend, he joined the personnel department of Parnall Aircraft Limited, the primary manufacturer of Lancaster bombers.

His work was noticed by Sir Stafford Cripps, then Minister of Aircraft Production, who brought him into his office first as a special assistant and later as his private secretary. Cripps chose him to edit Democracy Alive, the collection of his political speeches. Jarvis next became public-relations director for the Council of Industrial Design, a group set up to improve the appearance of Britain’s export goods. His new interest prompted him to write The Things We See, published by Penguin as the first in a seven-volume series on design. The book has sold seventy-five thousand copies.

A film Jarvis produced about design, starring the English comedienne Joyce Grenfell, attracted the attention of Fillipo Del Giudice, the Italian-born producer of such epics as In Which We Serve, Odd Man Out, Henry V and Hamlet for the J. Arthur Rank Organization. When Del Giudice established his own Pilgrim Pictures Limited, he hired Jarvis as his personal assistant, later promoting him to executive director. Pilgrim Pictures made three films with such stars as Peter Ustinov, Richard Attenborough and Kenneth More — all critical successes and commercial disasters.

Because of his film contacts Jarvis became a popular young bachelor in London society, and a member of the exclusive Athenaeum, Sir Winston Churchill’s club. He was quizmaster on a BBC program called Under Twenty Questions, and chairman of London’s Group Theatre, an experimental stage venture whose governors, serving under Jarvis, included Graham Greene, T. S. Eliot and W. H. Auden.

Few of his London cocktail-party confidants realized that Jarvis was at this time undergoing a religious conversion. Discussions with the Rev. Mervyn Stockwood, a friend of Cripps, changed his lukewarm atheism into a doctrinaire faith in high Anglicanism. In June 1951 he suddenly severed his film connections, gave his valet notice, and moved out of his plush west-end apartment into a whitewashed flat in a Chelsea barracks, used a hundred years previously by Crimean War troops.

Jarvis spent the next five years as head of Oxford House, a drab, three-story settlement house in Bethnal Green, an East London slum, at a salary of five hundred pounds a year. This position was customarily given to an Anglican priest as the last step before his elevation to bishop.

In his spare time he resumed his sculpting. His posthumous head of Sir Stafford Cripps was shown at a Royal Society of British Artists exhibition. Those who sat for him included Peter Ustinov, singer Kirsten Flagstad, U. K. auto maker Sir William Rootes, paper magnate Sir Eric Bowater and Dr. Cyril James, principal of McGill University. The bronze bust of James, now in McGill’s Redpath Library, is the only one of Jarvis’ works currently on public view in Canada.

In the decade after World War II Jarvis crossed the Atlantic thirty-six times, returning to Canada at least once a year. In 1954, when he heard that Dr. H. O. McCurry, the National Gallery director, was retiring, he applied for the job and was picked over two other candidates. He took up his appointment on May 1, 1955, a date he refers to as “the day of my coronation.” Two months later he married Elizabeth Devlin, a widow with three children. He had known her since he was ten.

During his first year at the gallery Jar-

vis criss-crossed Canada, giving one hundred and fifty-eight speeches. “This almost incredible speaking campaign altered the character and activities of the gallery,” says Board of Trustees Chairman C. P. Fell.

After his speaking tour he called Saint John, N.B., “one of the ugliest cities in the world.” Tom Bell, the local MP, angrily demanded that parliament investigate Jarvis’ right to make such remarks. ‘That’s free speech,” replied Pickersgill. Jarvis enjoyed the row, but about Saint John, he admits ruefully: “I shan’t be able to go back there.”

Jarvis claims that his present job gives him a life with the scope and stimulation he needs, but he admits that he may get restless by 1960, when the Gallery has completed its move into a new eightmillion-dollar home in downtown Ottawa. The seven-story structure now under construction will provide hanging room for two thousand paintings—five times the wall space available at the Gallery’s current home in the east wing of the Victoria

Memorial Museum. The Gallery was “temporarily” moved into the museum in 1910.

When the new National Gallery building was being planned, Department of Public Works architects firmly decided against including the restaurant requested by Jarvis. He was told government regulations specifically state that the only federal buildings which can have public eating facilities are transportation terminals.

Jarvis insisted. “A restaurant,” he said, “is an absolutely essential antidote to museum feet.”

Government officials again ruled no restaurant.

Eyebrows quirked, Jarvis calmly replied: “No restaurant, no Jarvis.”

When Canada’s new National Gallery is officially opened two years from now, Alan Jarvis, the elegant host at the ceremonies, will welcome his guests in a penthouse restaurant seating a hundred and twenty-five on a sculpture-lined terrace. ★