On the surface, Douglas Duncan is an absentminded, rich man’s son who hardly bothers administering his own dingy gallery. But to those in the Know he has been No. 1 Backroom Boy of Canadian art for thirty years. Here’s a portrait of the country’s most delightfully colorful éminence grise

BARBARA MOON January 4 1964


On the surface, Douglas Duncan is an absentminded, rich man’s son who hardly bothers administering his own dingy gallery. But to those in the Know he has been No. 1 Backroom Boy of Canadian art for thirty years. Here’s a portrait of the country’s most delightfully colorful éminence grise

BARBARA MOON January 4 1964
DOUGLAS MOERDYKE DUNCAN, a sixty-one-year-old Toronto bachelor, is a very tall, narrow man with a shrewd, whimsical face and a swift, self-conscious walk that suggests someone practised in avoiding projections such as table corners or packing crates. He is proprietor of the Picture Loan Society, which offers original art work for rental by the month (at two percent of the assigned value, minimum rental one dollar per month), and also sponsors about ten small one-man exhibitions and sales of paintings a year.

The enterprise is so modest as to be nearly clandestine. It is open only nine months of the year, and then only in the afternoons and one weekday evening. An exiguous weekly newspaper notice is its only public advertisement. Direct-mail notices also go to a constituency of about five hundred but Duncan wants to prune the list. “It's too much nuisance and costs ten cents a notice just to pamper their egos by getting lots of mail,” he says tartly.

The actual premises seem almost deliberately concealed. They consist of the third story of a dingy downtown building that also houses an accordion school and two studios of the dance, and the street entrance, on a rundown sidestreet. gives no floor directions and no hours of business. The stairwell gives no directions either

The double flight of stairs that in fact leads to the Picture Loan rooms at the top is so steep that at least one collector, a downtown lawyer, sent word that, while interested in a specific purchase from a particular show, he couldn’t face the climb. Duncan replied, in effect, that a serious collector could. On the other hand Duncan has been known, in a pang of realistic concern, to pack down a selection of pictures to street level to spare an ailing art critic the same climb.

For the faint-hearted the gallery itself is almost equally disconcerting. The display space — a narrow hallway and four rooms opening from it — is as formidably cluttered as a lumber room in a turn-of-the-century mansion, a jungle of paintings hung, unhung, stacked, piled-up, propped behind doors and leaning against baseboards. It is marvelous for people who like treasure hunts; Duncan himself does not always seem to know exactly what is where.

The Picture Loan is never very busy, even at exhibition openings, when domestic rosé is not served. It is never very businesslike either. One young couple who hired a picture for the usually assumed period (five months) neglected to return it for so long that, like delinquent letter writers, they grew too ashamed. They have now had the picture five years and the only thing they can think of doing is to set up a secret rendezvous with Duncan’s assistant, pay him what is rather more than the face value of the picture in rentals, hide the canvas in the general disorder, and flee. Duncan has never once dunned them for either picture or money, which is what makes it impossible to face him.

It goes without saying that the Picture Loan has never been a moneymaking operation since its founding in 1936.

In these days of the eight-million-dollar Canadian art boom, of carpeted galleries with glamour lighting and smart addresses and of much art-market talk by knowing people, Duncan might well seem an unworldly old party and his shop a quaint backwater.

But to those in the know — to everybody who is anybody in Canadian art — Douglas Duncan is a Cultural Force, maybe even a Major Influence. For, like Sir Robert Watson-Watt in wartime Britain, like the late Senator Brunt in the Conservative party, like Norman Urquhart in Bay Street. Duncan is one of those eternally fascinating unofficial figures, a backroom boy. “Duncan has been tremendously important,” says Charles Comfort, director of the National Gallery in Ottawa. “A key figure,” agrees Alan Jarvis, Canada’s best-known cultural impresario. “Vital,” says Harold Town, one of Canada’s top living artists. Johnny Wayne, of Wayne and Shuster, is even more sententious. “When the definitive history of Canadian art is written,” Wayne said recently, “Douglas Duncan will go down as one of the really great men in it.” Wayne was not speaking as a comic but as someone who wandered into the Picture Loan fifteen years ago and learned from Duncan that there were good living Canadian artists who couldn't get a showing, couldn't get a sale and sometimes didn’t have the price of a meal. Wayne vowed on the spot that he'd hang nothing on his walls but Canadian art and has since built a very respectable collection, most of it bought through Duncan. And he has recently taken his first steps into even more active patronage, having informally sponsored — and talked up a lot — a young comer named Richard Gorman. Thus, though he is not in Duncan's stable of artists, Gorman indirectly owes something to Duncan, which is one way a backroom hoy has Cultural Force.

There are other ways. For example, the Picture Loan was started explicitly as a showcase for living Canadian artists and for almost twenty years was the only commercial gallery in Canada so to specialize. “He, to me. is the pioneer,” says Dorothy Cameron, whose appetite for contemporary Canadian art had been whetted at the Toronto Gallery and soon grew overpowering. “I used to haunt the Picture Loan. This was literally the only place you could find out what was going on.” Miss Cameron now has her own — chic, successful — contemporary gallery in Toronto and there are nearly two dozen more flourishing across the country. “Without Douglas, none of us would exist,” says Miss Cameron.

Or take Harold Town, who is the top-priced abstract artist in Canada and has a growing international reputation. Town says, “Any real interest in my work begins precisely with the moment 1 first met Douglas Duncan.” Town was a commercial artist nine years out of art college, had sold only three serious paintings, had never had a one-man show and had never been given space in a commercial gallery when he humped into Duncan in the doorway of a framing shop in 1953. Duncan looked at the print of a horse that Town was carrying and promptly arranged a Town exhibition at the Picture Loan two months thence. “You've got to understand what that means.” Town says now. “In the first place, just that someone cares enough to show you . . .”

In fact Duncan has launched so many now-well-known Canadian artists into the crucial Toronto art market that even a partial list rounds like wilful name-dropping. As well as Town it includes Carl Schaefer, Will Ogilvie, Lemoine Fitzgerald, Jack Nichols, Andre Bieler, Henri Masson, Kazuo Nakamura, Robert Hedrick, “Scottie” Wilson, Scott Medd, Louis Muhlstock and Paul-Emile Borduas. In addition he was in very early indeed with Emily Carr.

He is not just a good handicapper; he is very much an active bettor — in many ways a more effective art patron than some highly visible big-league collectors or than the Canada Council, which also gets a better press. (Duncan does not like to talk about his subsidies.) He unfailingly gives his help when it’s going to count the most — usually at the discouraging outset of a career. For example, of the six prints sold from the first Town show, four were bought by Duncan for his personal collection. This not only gave Town a little folding money but also boosted Town's morale, since Duncan’s reputation as a connoisseur is firm.

Though Duncan’s collection, in this way, includes Emily Carrs bought for $75 and $175 that are now worth anywhere up to $5,000, and a Borduas bought for $45 that would cost ten times as much today, his interest is not speculative or even status-slanted. “The way you hear about ‘The Mellon Collection,' you’d think Mellon had painted it,” says Professor Norman Endicott, a lifelong friend. “There’s none of that kind of nonsense about The Duncan Collection.’ ”

Duncan does not look on his purchases as philanthropy — “I won't take a picture just to help out,” he says severely — but if an otherwise promising beginner has nothing he wants to buy, he is apt to make what he calls “financial arrangements.” This turns out to mean putting the artist on a sort of retainer under a range of tactful guises. Sometimes it’s understood to be a mortgage on choice future output, sometimes an advance against possible sales and rentals, sometimes it’s salary for acting as Duncan’s assistant. Since Duncan is fiscally blithe to the point of scattiness, there are graduates of such arrangements who have not learned to this day where they stand. “I think I must still owe him money,” says Robert Hedrick doubtfully. Hedrick, who has moved to another dealer, is at a loss to balance possible sales and rentals on work still lodged at Picture Loan, plus unknown personal purchases by Duncan, against informal cash handouts over more than a year. He can’t get Duncan around to drawing up a statement, either.

In much the same tactful way Duncan also supports mature artists whom he considers neglected, under-appreciated or financially ill-used. For example he bought a great deal of work from Wyndham Lewis, the hitter and erratic British writer-painter, who was marooned in Toronto without funds during the Second World War. (Lewis repaid him strangely in Self Condemned, his scathing novel about his sojourn in the New World: the book was received hereabouts as a roman à clef and. though every major detail missed the mark, his savage and perverse account of the patronizing aesthete-benefactor was taken to be his caricature of Duncan.)

In fact for an artist on whom he is sold, there is almost nothing Duncan won’t do. The case in point is David Milne, the hermit-genius of Canadian art. Duncan spotted his work at a Toronto gallery in 1934, sought him out in the Muskoka wilderness in 1935 and in 1938 became his agent. For the next fifteen years he gave Milne an annual one-man show at Picture Loan and for the last thirteen years of Milne’s life guaranteed Milne's income by making purchases for his personal collection to augment regular sales. In addition he became so devout an evangelist for the artist that a volatile Slavic painter in the Picture Loan group, Paraskeva Clark, burst out discontentedly, “Agh. Duncan. With heem it’s all Meelne, Meelne, Meelne, Meelne, Meelne, Meelne!’’

Duncan ran errands for Milne, brought comforts to his cabin in the bush, respected his fierce need for privacy by acting as a mail-drop, fronted for him even in so intimate a matter as divorce and astonishingly — perhaps because Milne was even more impatient of bookkeeping than he — performed as a canny business agent and an artistic auditor. As a result he has photographic records of every extant Milne he has seen and intends to present this unique catalogue of artistic development to the National Gallery, along with his own hand-picked collection of 160 Milne drypoints. It is a superb contribution to the Canadian national treasure. “Duncan would be important in Canadian art for the Milne thing alone,” says Alan Jarvis who, as the controversial director of the National Gallery at a crucial moment, has himself been important in Canadian art.

It was, after all, Jarvis who, having taken over as director two years before the art boom was due, helped prepare for it in people's minds by buying ninety-one thousand dollars' worth of abstracts for the gallery, stumping the country with speeches about the exciting new art and sending off, over hot public protests, some of the most avant-garde paintings available to represent Canada at the Brussels Fair. What has Duncan to do with this? Jarvis is vehement: “Douglas invented me,” he says, quite seriously.

He explains that he met Duncan while an undergraduate at the University of Toronto in the Thirties; he had been sculpting since he was twelve and painting since he was thirteen and Duncan took him on as a protégé, giving him free studio space for some years and finally showing him round the treasures of Europe in a summer-long tour just before Jarvis took up a Rhodes scholarship at Oxford.

“Let's face it,” Jarvis says. “I was an over-produced young man from Parkdale Collegiate when I met Duncan. He civilized me, set me his ideals of elegance, introduced me to genuine scholarship, forced me to form tastes.”

In a way Jarvis regards himself as an explicit public expression of Duncan's behind - the - scenes influence. There are other public expressions. For example, two phenomena commonly held to have paved the way for the art boom were the start of annual art auctions by the women's committees of public galleries, and the spread of the picture-rental idea. Though it seems hard now to recall, twenty years ago most Canadians had never seen a painting for sale by a living Canadian professional, let alone thought of taking a look at the price tag: it was a kind of disbelief in the possibility of ownership that the low-priced sales and the idea of rentals overcame. One of the few influential art critics in Canada, Elizabeth Kilbourn, began collecting Canadian art in 1957, with the purchase of a Borduas from Duncan; but the idea actually began several years earlier when she and her husband, then a university lecturer, found that even on twenty-four hundred a year they could afford to rent a Borduas.

The picture-rental idea, of course, spread across Canada specifically from the Picture Loan Society, which was the first in the country by a decade. It seems pertinent to mention, though, that the earliest imitation — and still the liveliest of nearly a dozen across Canada—was suggested in Vancouver by the daughter of Duncan’s old friend and customer, the late J. S. McLean of Canada Packers, whose well-publicized art collection was also a public expression of Duncan’s private influence.

As for the women’s committee sales, they were first thought up, for the Toronto Gallery in 1947, by Mrs. Walter Gordon, wife of the present finance minister. Mrs. Gordon, who recently sent an SOS to Duncan for two rented Milnes to brighten their temporary Ottawa flat, is another old friend and long-time customer.

These — ardent testimonials from Alan Jarvis and others plus the frail but significant links between Duncan and many operative figures on the art scene — are really the only proofs of what many consider Duncan's most important form of influence: his creation or guidance of taste. After all, the measure of a backroom boy may be the power he has, but the distinguishing mark is that he wield it unofficially and unpublicly. Thus it is impossible to demonstrate that, for example, Duncan has affected the composition of the National Gallery collection, or has nudged the Toronto Gallery purchasing committee into occasional shows of boldness or even that David Milne wouldn't have been accepted as a genius without him.

But it does seem clear that something about Duncan besides his good performance chart makes people take his aesthetic word. “He is unofficial advisor to everybody," says Pearl McCarthy, dean of Canadian art critics. And it seems probable that the something is partly the kind of man he is and partly the fact that he’s a rich man’s son.

He is, in fact, the son — born in Kalamazoo, Mich, in 1902 — of the late president of Provincial Paper Limited. Duncan claims that until his father’s death last fall his own income never bettered fifty-five hundred dollars a year; still, as he puts it, "I was certain to have a lot of money.” This circumstance offers a kind of reassurance to people that such a man won't make aesthetic concessions to commercialism. It also seems in part responsible for Duncan's antic record of statements unpresented, books unkept cheques uncashed and things generally left undone that ought to have been done. He has not yet got around to framing and sending out any of the drawings sold from a Jack Nichols exhibition of over a year ago. On the other hand he has not cashed any of the cheques for them either. The chances are he will go on overlooking this formality even if he does get the drawings delivered. The chances also are that he has been sending money to Nichols, now in France, and that Nichols, having received no accounting of the show’s proceeds, will have no clear idea if he is Duncan’s debtor or creditor. Many people find this sort of thing maddening but a man who has always been rich may not understand this. What Duncan says, impatiently, is, “For years I have had more to do than I could cope with.”

Since the activity is voluntary it might be considered a manifestation of noblesse oblige, which may also have something to do with the wealth being in the family rather than earned. Certainly even as a youth growing up in Toronto Duncan had a lively disinclination to milk his privileges. Upon graduation from a general arts course at the university Duncan took a job in his father's downtown office. He went to work by streetcar rather than ride with his father in the chauffeured limousine because the limousine would get him there fifteen minutes after his fellow workers were due. In the same way he never mentioned to his parents his burning desire to go to Paris. His mother, a perceptive woman, finally got one of his friends to confirm her suspicions.

He left for Paris in 1925, stayed till 1928 and kept on a flat as a headquarters for annual visits until the outbreak of the Second World War. For part of the time his only sister, Frances, then a brilliant student of the harpsichord, was his companion. His sister is now married and living in Ottawa. Paris seems to have been a central experience for Duncan, confirming in him both the strain of civilized romanticism and the strain of elegant irony that have marked both his taste and his habits. It certainly confirmed in him a severe aesthetic — so severe, it is said, that he will not sell a Milne to someone he feels doesn’t deserve a Milne: in fact he will not sell any picture he likes to someone he doesn't like.

In Paris he read at the Sorbonne, collected first editions, bought French art records, visited museums, made himself an expert in Romanesque architecture, haunted the opera house, (his favorite was Pelléas and Melisande), and once managed to attend thirteen concerts over two weekends. On the other hand he apprenticed himself to, and in two years, mastered, the finicky, fastidious recherché art of custom bookbinding and when he returned to Toronto set himself up in business not far from the present site of the Picture Loan. He once spent twenty-seven straight hours scraping white morocco to paper thinness to bind a keepsake wedding book for the Eaton department-store family. "When I had to decide between the bindery and the Picture Loan," he recalls caustically, "I thought, ‘What was it for?’ Whether it was for the Eatons or the Burtons or the McLaughlins, after all, what was it for?"

In 1936 Duncan heard that Carl Schaefer, a vehement Canadian landscape painter whom he knew, couldn't get his work exhibited. In fact scarcely any of the current painters could. Duncan and a group of his friends in the arts and professions discussed the situation. One of them had heard of an English venture called Picture Hire Ltd. and with only this name as a clue they ad libbed the Picture Loan Society. The cost of display space was to be met by annual dues paid by member artists and member art-lovers, and by modest gallery commissions on sales and rentals. There was one frill: regular one-man shows offered to the artist for about half the real cost, plus fifteen percent commission as opposed to the standard thirty to fifty percent. Carl Schaefer was given the first one-man show.

The Society lost two hundred and fifty dollars the first year, which Duncan made up out of his own pocket. By and by he found himself running the whole enterprise by default and has done so ever since, to proportionately the same fiscal effect. He bound his last book in 1949 and since that time has been a full-time cultural backroom boy.

Like all proper backroom boys he is an enigma to the outsider and a character in his own right to those who know him. He is best known for a disconcerting habit of hunkering down suddenly in the midst of whatever conversation he is carrying on. He says he does it partly because, being six-foot-two, he gets tired of looking down on his vis-à-vis’ head all the time, partly because it pulls his muscles pleasantly, and partly because it allows others to look past him to the picture on the wail. He wears his clothes till they are out-at-elbows and looks, according to one friend, “as though he were dressed by the Neighborhood Workers." Till very recently he drove a rusted old Buick convertible with the torn rear windscreen held together with diaper pins. Both at the Picture Loan and at home in the family mansion where, except for Paris, he has always lived, he has a tendency to put things down wherever he happens to be when he’s holding them. His sister, Frances, once riffled through the top layer of detritus beside his armchair and found three letters to her from friends, readdressed to her in Paris in Duncan’s hand, but not mailed. They were nine years old. He has a passion for sweets — Laura Secords, fudge sundaes, milk shakes — and largely lives on them.

On weekends he climbs into his convertible with two fruit baskets and a trowel and scouts the Ontario countryside for wildflowers; he is particularly keen on wild orchids and has identified thirteen varieties, none of them rare.

In the summer he heads north to the Muskoka Lake district to the cabin he built with his own hands; it is complete with pipes and plumbing fixtures but the pipes have never been connected. There he takes photographs, swims, basks in the sun, lays planks into a nearby swamp to go after Showy Orchis, and attacks the underbrush with secateurs. He once drove two hundred and thirty miles out of his way to show some friends a particular view, and has been known to make an extempore evening trip from Toronto to Lake Eric just to look at the effect of moonlight on the sand dunes.

Some of his friends are afraid that he may dwindle from backroom boy to back number, now that the art world has gathered its own organized, commercial momentum.

Certainly many of his artists leave him, after a time, for one or other of the new commercial dealers with an exciting contemporary image and a streamlined accounting system. Certainly the hip new generation of collectors goes where the crowd goes, and can afford to buy pictures outright in any case.

But a genuine amateur with a business address will always have a place in the art world, it seems. Eight years ago an apple-cheeked boy from Larder Lake saw the weekend Picture Loan ad, wandered in with a portfolio of paintings and said his name was Cecil Troy. Duncan said the paintings were terrible but told him to keep at it. Finally, a year ago, Duncan told Trov he was ready for a show and gave him one. Half the show sold the first day, including one painting, to Johnny Wayne, and three quarters was sold by the end of two weeks. (Troy thinks this would come to about $1,350; Duncan has actually given him $300, but has made Troy his latest assistant.) “Douglas," says Alan Jarvis gleefully, “has obviously backed another winner.”

Looked at the other way round, Troy may be just the ticket for Duncan: he used to earn his living as a banker and, by his own account, has a very orderly mind.

As a start he’s got a sign on the door and the hallway dusted.