BlogMarch 1, 1994

My Recollections Of A.Y. Jackson

A.Y. Jackson was living in Manotick near Ottawa when I visited him at least once every month. I had not had as much contact with him before in Toronto but after he left to live near his niece, he encouraged me to visit him frequently. His routine had developed over the years and rarely varied. Several sketching trips every year, in spring until the last snow to the Lower St. Lawrence, summer Georgian Bay or arctic, sometimes both. In winter he painted up canvases from his sketches. Sketching was fun, he always said. He felt he should not even charge money for the sketches. Painting the canvases was work. Although he was 72 years old, he was strong and powerfully built. One day I went by appointment only to find that A.Y. was not at home. His house was on a hill and I decided to wait. When I saw a man turning the corner at the bottom of the hill and charging up at a great speed carrying a large parcel, I said to myself "This cannot be A.Y., this must be a young man." Sure enough, it was he and when I told him why I thought it could not have been, he said: "You were right, I am only a young fellow." He had bought a large supply of groceries and had not realized that I would be quite so punctual.

About twenty sketches would be neatly displayed along a shelf in his dining room and he would say to me that if I liked any, I could have five. I always liked most of them and would have liked to buy more. He allowed me to pay $100 for each sketch and I often asked him if I could not pay more and also get more sketches. His answer was always the same. "You can pay me only $100 and I don't care how much you sell them for." I always had people waiting for them. He told me that his friends pay him only $75. Some friends! One ended up with about 200 sketches worth at least $6,000 each today!

 

A. Y. Jackson, Port Joli, Que, 1927, oil on panel, 8 1/8 x 10 in.

 

A.Y. was a marvellous person to know. Quite apart from the great artist he was, he had exceptional qualities of character. Great kindness, good sense of humour, always considerate of others. He always encouraged other artists and never had anything unkind to say about anyone. There were only two exceptions that I can remember and his critical remarks were always accompanied by a chuckle. As a young man exhibiting with the Royal Canadian Academy, he had been asked by the rather pompous president Horne Russell whether Russell should hang his own painting in the centre of one wall or the centre of the other. A.Y.'s painting ended up "skyed", in a corner near the ceiling. When he recounted this to me, A.Y. had become one of the most celebrated Canadian artists and Horne Russell had just about been forgotten. The other disparaging remark concerned Frank Johnston, one artist Jackson did not particularly like. There must have been some disagreement which led to Johnston resigning from the Group of Seven of which he had been a founding member. Apropos of Johnston, one year, visiting the McMichael collection at Kleinburg, I was astonished to see the names of the seven founding members inscribed in large letters on the wall of the entrance. Johnston's name had been replaced by that of A.J. Casson who had joined the Group upon Johnston's resignation. I asked McMichael what kind of joke this was since everybody knew better. This inscription was subsequently changed.

A.Y. often talked about his trip to Baffin Island in 1930 when he was accompanied by Lawren Harris. It had been a milestone in his career. A friend of mine with whom I had done much mountain climbing in the Canadian Rockies and with whom I had often shared a tent at the Canadian Alpine Club climbing camps was at that time organising an expedition to Baffin Island and asked me to come along. It was to be a one month expedition rather than the usual two weeks of climbing in the Rockies and I had other commitments that year. I happened to mention this camp to A.Y. just as I had in previous years often discussed my climbing experiences with him. He had been to the Rockies with Jim MacDonald and Harris, but had decided that he preferred painting in the Foothills rather than too close to the mountains. Also, they had to rough it. They had to back-pack all food, and the heavy panels and tubes of paint made it impossible for these artists even to carry a tent. They slept under the sky, sometimes in the rain. I knew what that must have been like and often the nights are cold. By comparison, we Alpine Club climbers enjoyed a soft life. The Club set up our camps with good tents and there was a staff to cook our meals. Baffin Island has many attractions for climbers and painters. Spectacular mountains rising from sea level, huge glaciers and, of course, 24 hours of daylight in the summer, allowing for climbing and painting around the clock. A.Y. asked me to assert my influence with my friend, Col. Pat Baird, so as to persuade him to take him along. This proved easier to accomplish than I had anticipated. A medical doctor from Ottawa who was also an artist already had signed up for the trip, and Jackson's niece Geneva was going to accompany her uncle so that he was well looked after. Pat was a geographer at McGill with special interest in the arctic. I heard much about this 1965 expedition later. A.Y. was in fine form and painted many sketches. Every evening when the climbers came back to camp they visited A.Y.'s tent and inspected the latest works. Most climbers, including several Americans, put their initials on a sketch for later purchase for $75. However A.Y. wanted to exhibit them together in Montreal before distributing them and asked me if I could hold his exhibition. I agreed with enthusiasm, of course. A.Y. hesitated, though, saying, "Walter, with nothing for sale this would be an expensive venture for you." I explained that the publicity and prestige of this show would amply repay me for the expense of the vernissage, printing and mailing of notices etc. But A.Y. was not a person to accept a favour without doing an even greater one in return. He insisted on painting ten small canvases especially for me from the Baffin Island sketches, and letting me buy them at the price he had set at that time which was $300. I would have been lucky to get one under different circumstances. An added touch of romance -Pat Baird later married A.Y. Jackson's niece whom he had met on their Baffin Island trip.

A.Y. hated all business dealings in connection with his work, and he was not equipped to pack and ship sketches to all the purchasers, many in the U.S., requiring customs declarations and forms to fill in. I offered to do this for him and add a little note to the recipient as a reminder to send $75 to the artist. This money was meant to defray expenses which had been considerable for himself and his niece's travel and camping in Baffin Island. Inquiring after several months largely to make certain the sketches had been received, I learned to my dismay that several people had not sent their $75. The market value at that time was easily four times this price. I volunteered to A.Y. to send a reminder and ask for payment on his behalf. He chuckled and told me not to bother. If they wanted to cheat him, let them do it.

 

A.Y. had received a commission from the Toronto Board of Trade to paint a large canvas of a Georgian Bay subject. He needed a suitable early sketch which he had never "painted up" and I knew of a good one which I had sold recently to a McGill professor. I was rather forceful in arranging the loan of the sketch which the owner let out of his house with some trepidation and only for a few weeks. Unfortunately, the work dragged and A.Y. said to me repeatedly that he would never again undertake so large a canvas. The owner of the sketch became very impatient and there even was some unpleasantness. However, I did not and would not urge A.Y. to make greater efforts to hurry the work. When the painting was finished, I believe he even packed it himself and shipped it to Toronto. The next day he suffered a serious stroke which pretty nearly ended his painting career and came close to terminating his life.

 

After his first stroke A.Y. recovered fairly well and was painting again. He had moved from his house to an apartment in Ottawa and always appreciated very much if I could bring him early sketches to paint from. This I did whenever possible. I knew many collectors, some of whom were willing to lend their sketches. When A.Y. suffered an even more severe stroke I had left two sketches with him. It was clear that A.Y. would need more nursing care and eventually he went to live with the McMichaels in Kleinburg. Dr. Naomi Groves,A.Y.'s niece, made arrangements in Ottawa for the move, but my two sketches could not be found. Eventually, to my great relief both sketches were found when Dr. Groves was beginning to remove the books. A.Y. had hidden them as had been his custom of late. Other people appeared to have acquired keys to his apartment and he thought "he saw some things that were missing".

 

I had to make a quick trip to Paris in 1967, one of these tiring trips, leaving one day and returning the next. I think I was to look at a painting offered to us or in an auction, but it turned out not satisfactory and the trip was a waste of time, money, and effort from this point of view. However, since it was EXPO year, Paris had declared a "Canada Week" and shop windows were full of Canadian things. In one of the galleries whose owner I knew and had done business with, I spotted a lovely early Jackson sketch, a snow scene near Baie St. Paul of the most desirable type. It bore an inscription by the artist, "given to my friend Jules Leger as memento of our trip", date, etc. Leger at that time was Canadian Ambassador to France and M. Urban told me that this was the source of the sketch which was given him by an embassy employee for sale. The price was reasonable and I bought the sketch, giving a cheque which is usually requested in France before delivery.

My wife met me at the airport in Montreal and l told her that although the purpose of my trip had not been achieved, I still had not been entirely without success because the lovely Jackson sketch I had bought would at least pay for my expenses.

 

It happened that the following day A.Y. was to be given an honorary degree from McGill University. He came for the convocation and dropped in at the Gallery. I showed him the sketch and he told me about his trip with Jules Leger, who later became our Governor General. As we spoke, I was called to the telephone to answer a call from Paris. Urban, sounding very upset, told me that a terrible mistake had been made. The sketch had been given on loan only. The embassy official had made a mistake, the price was for insurance only. Would I return the sketch? I agreed to do this knowing that had the shoe been on the other foot I would have been told the sketch is under offer or had already been sold. I told A.Y. that the sketch is to be sent back to his friend.

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