Treasures in your attic ? Ask Mr. Stevens

JACK BATTEN February 20 1965

Treasures in your attic ? Ask Mr. Stevens

JACK BATTEN February 20 1965

Treasures in your attic ? Ask Mr. Stevens

The rage for Canadiana is recent, but already its devotees are learning to look for expert guidance to Gerald Stevens, museum researcher and devoted connoisseur of the good old 19th-century days when Canadian craftsmen turned out furniture and utensils as durable and decorative as any in the world


THE ASSORTED CITIZENS who begin arriving in midmorning at the Sigmund Samuel Building of the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto on most Tuesdays in the year are embarked on a pilgrimage of sorts. They bear with them relics that, at least to them, approach the status of holy objects—an assembly of ancient crockery, a nineteenth-century flintlock rifle, a photograph of a one-hundred-year-old carved pine armoire—and they are there to present themselves before a man who is, to them and to a growing number of Canadians, equipped with superior knowledge and powers. The man is Gerald Stevens. His official title at the museum is research associate of the Canadiana Department, and it’s his visitors' fervent hope that when they leave Stevens' presence he will have pronounced their humble relics to be. in fact, pieces of authentic Canadiana.

Canadiana is, of course, the term that embraces the furniture, glass, pottery, wrought iron, pewter, books, firearms and assorted other useful and decorative items produced by craftsmen of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries who practised their special skills in the colonies and provinces that became Canada. In the past dozen years Canadiana has become the subject of an intense movement, fed partly by nationalistic pride, partly by fashion and partly by a love of things simply for their age, a movement that has seen, for instance, the price of an early Quebec commode. purchased from a convent near Montreal for two hundred dollars, skyrocket to a selling price of tw'enty-five hundred dollars a year later at the annual Toronto Wimodausis Club antique sale, and that has seen the appearance across the country in the past decade of more than a hundred new shopkeepers whose specialty is Canadian antiques — and of at least as many ingenious forgers whose specialty is bogus Canadian antiques.

The movement to Canadiana is probably near its peak today, but this does not mean that it is due for a decline. It’s just a question of how much more feverish the passion to possess can become and what astronomical heights the prices can reach. The interest is indeed largely sincere and deep-rooted. And Gerald Stevens, for his part, occupies a key role. He is one of the handful of scholarly Canadiana enthusiasts—along with such others as Marius Barbeau of the National Museum of Canada, the late F. St. George Spendlove. former curator of the Royal Ontario Museum’s Canadiana collection, and Jean Palardy, author of the monumental study. The Early Furniture Of French Canada—who have encouraged, documented and. in a real sense, presided over the rage for Canadiana.

Stevens’ share in the documentation and encouragement has come, among other instances, in the five books he has written on various manifestations of Canadiana, in his exhibitions of his personal collections, in his voluminous correspondence with collectors, and in the Tuesday sessions at the Sigmund Samuel gallery. which houses the Ontario museum’s cache of Canadiana. When Stevens took up his post at the gallery last spring, he publicized Tuesday among Canadiana enthusiasts as a day set aside for evaluating their private treasures, or for just talking Canadiana. The day has been a great success.

Taken together, all of Stevens’ activities — which, beginning on page 30 of this issue of Maclean's, now include a column of advice to Canadiana collectors and answers to their queries—imposes a heavy burden of expertise and of tact. Stevens exhibits both to an astonishing degree. On a recent Tuesday afternoon, he chatted with (and apparently satisfied) a highschool teacher of woodworking who wanted to talk about the quality of Canadian woods; a group of young people who hoped to become Canadiana collectors; an archaeologist who discussed digging techniques; and a collector bearing what he believed to be an early Ontario dish with the coveted maple-leaf design, for which he’d paid a three-figure sum. Sadly, on consulting with Stevens, the collector learned that his dish was neither very old nor very Canadian, but Stevens let the collector down so gently that the man departed barely aware that one of his private dreams had just been shattered.

The priceless cache of Canadiana that surrounds Gerald Stevens at left belongs to the Royal Ontario Museum, but on page 30 of this issue Stevens begins a column of answers to Maclean's readers who think — or hope — that they are stockpiling pieces just as valuable in their own attics. The museum treasures shown here include a pair of hundred-year-old Tole weathervanes from Quebec; an early-] 9th-century stained coffer; a carved pinewood mantel from 18th-century Quebec; and. in Stevens’ hand, a glass sealer made in Montreal 50 years ago

Stevens carries the attributes of the true connoisseur. His lifetime has been devoted to the cherishing of objets d’art, and it shows in his bearing and in his style. He is a slender, faultlessly groomed and tailored man in his late fifties. His conversation is anecdotal and witty, his manner courtly and deferential. He presents, in short, an aspect of elegance, one that is appropriately set off when he is seated in his apartment entirely surrounded, except for an anachronistic television set, by his collection of old Canadian furniture and paintings.

In a sense, Stevens began to store up his collection, his elegance and his expertise before he was born. His family has grown for four generations in Canada and each generation has been employed in decorating the Canadian scene. Stevens’ great-grandfather was a cabinetmaker and had a hand in designing the large ornate pulpit in the original Notre Dame Cathedral in Montreal. His grandfather was also a cabinetmaker, in Athens, Ont., and in Montreal. One of the grandfather’s advertisements, which survives in Stevens’ collection, promises expert workmanship in everything wooden, “from cradle to hearse.” Stevens' father was associated for several years with Scott & Son, then the oldest art house in Canada, where one of his specialties was rugmaking. He designed the art schemes for the mammoth rugs that had to fit the great Westmount mansions of Montreal’s rich, and then farmed out the weaving to tribes of North African Arabs. Later, in the 1930s, Stevens senior opened an art gallery of his own on Drummond Street in Montreal, near the Ritz-Carleton Hotel.

Stevens thus grew' up in a world of art. His father was an early champion of Canadian painters and Stevens knew and moved naturally among them and their work. As a young man, instead of academic subjects, Stevens studied the intricacies of restoring paintings, evaluating them, appreciating them—he learned everything about pictures, in fact, except how to paint them. He calls himself a “failed painter,” but he did develop a talent for understanding and enjoying color and design.

With his father, whom he joined in the Drummond Street gallery, Stevens pioneered in exhibiting Canadian artists, the men who preceded the nonobjective painters—Horatio Walker and Frederick Coburn, and later, J. E. H. MacDonald and the Group of Seven. “What the gallery accomplished,” says Stevens’ wife Edith, a partner in his interests, “was to take Canadian paintings out of the upstairs hall, where people used to hide them, and hang them in the drawing room.”

Stevens didn't always find his pioneering work lucrative. Paintings were the first pieces of Canadiana to be swept up in the rage for Canada's past, but Stevens' memories are of the days before the prices for a Jackson or a Varley began to take off. In 1942 Stevens was still selling Tom Thomsons for thirty-five dollars, with the frame thrown in, and in 1945. when he mounted Canada's first Krieghoff one-man show, he pegged at twenty-two hundred dollars—the highest price in the show'— an oil called Portage whose present owner, a private collector, turned down an offer for it last year of twenty-five thousand dollars. For that exhibition, Stevens displayed forty-three Krieghoffs, pictures worth a fortune on today's market, but he had trouble selling even a handful.

In 1946 Stevens abandoned Montreal and his gallery and retreated all the way back to the grass roots of Canadiana. He and his wife bought a century-old stone house on fifty acres of land near Mallorytown, Leeds County, in the eastern triangle of Ontario. In their fifteen years’ residence there, the couple made a conscious effort to live life as it might have been in the early nineteenth century. They bought shrewdly at auction sales and antique shops in the area to fill their house entirely wdth ancient Leeds County furnishings. They cooked on a wood stove, grew their own fruit and vegetables, put up preserves, raised chickens and guinea hens, hunted pheasant, and sat on their front stoop watching the mechanized world go by. It was a pleasant, if occasionally onerous, countrified life, and Stevens has written of it in the first of his books, called simply The Old Stone House.

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While Stevens was settled at Mallorytowm his interest in Canadiana led him to an historic find. In the summer of 1953, after some intensive detective work and archaeological research, he unearthed in a farmer's field fragments of glassware manufactured by the Mallorytown Glass Works in the early nineteenth century. Until that discovery, the existence of a distinctive and attractive school of Canadian glassmaking had hardly been taken seriously. But, beginning with the Mallorytown find, Stevens has in the past ten years pursued his study of early Canadian glass and has put together a matchless collection that provides convincing evidence of the artistry of Canada's early glassmakers.

Is our Canadiana Canadian?

“Fifteen years ago, nobody thought that our glass or our furniture or our carving was much good,” Stevens says. "Nobody took much pride in Canadian pieces. If they showed skilled workmanship, people automatically assumed they were imported. Now Canadians are giving some thought to our past and to our craftsmen, and the great job we're faced with now is to find documentary evidence that all these pieces of Canadiana really are Canadian.”

Stevens has assumed the task of rehabilitating Canadian glass and has published a couple of books on the subject. But he has also written a study of other branches of Canadiana, called In A Canadian Attic, that serves as an expert guide to any Canadian who has puzzled over the meaning and value of the junk in his upstairs storeroom.

A problem that worries Stevens these days, after he's established the veracity of a piece of Canadiana. is how to keep it in Canada. Ever since Henry Ford bought up the Farrar pottery of St. Johns, Que., forty years ago and transported it to Dearborn, Michigan, under a new label, "Early American Pottery,” Americans have been ransacking eastern Canada for valuable and distinctive native pieces. Stevens is meeting this problem by constant proselytizing for Canadiana among its Canadian owners and, when he has the opportunity, by gently advising American curators that those pieces of “Rhode Island Chippendale” in their galleries were actually turned out of the shop of a cabinetmaker in nineteenth - century Athens, Ont.