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Paul Mitchinson is a part-time writer and a full-time father of two. He writes when he can. » more about me

Cashing in, the Canadian Way

National Post, 27 March 1999

Book Review
The Consummate Canadian: A Biography of Samuel Edward Weir, QC, by Mary Willan Mason
Natural Heritage/Natural History Inc., 311 pages

When hockey star Alexei Yashin announced his million-dollar donation to the National Arts Centre last year, was I the only one who got a little misty-eyed over the news? (Or who felt betrayed when the offer was rescinded?) Think of the Medicis, the Carnegies — the Western world’s great patrons of culture and the arts. No matter how desperately reliant our culture is on government grants and corporate sponsorship, it is the individual patron who acts and inspires us, who reminds us of our common humanity across all differences in wealth and social class. The best among them give not because a committee has passed a resolution, or (just) because a tax-deductible donation to a major arts organization makes good business sense. The individual patron sends another message: Art, not material wealth, is the supreme achievement of humanity, and the best that we can hope for is to bask in its reflected glory.

So this reviewer, anyway, is inclined to feel a little warmth toward someone such as Samuel Edward Weir (1898-1981). A lawyer from London, Ont., he spent his life (and much of his fortune) acquiring hundreds of artworks and books dedicated to Canadian historical subjects. His home and final resting place — River Brink, in Queenston, Ont., — has been transformed into a lovely little museum. There’s even enough of the Canadian patriot in me to be stirred by the title of Mary Willan Mason’s book, The Consummate Canadian. (Well, perhaps it does sound just a little too much like the famous “most boring headline” devised by The New Republic: “Worthwhile Canadian Initiative.”)

Trouble is, Sam Weir was no Lorenzo de Medici. “He was a man of many parts,” writes Mason, “of incisive wit and great intelligence,” with a deep “passion” for art. But there’s strikingly little evidence of this. How did Weir develop an appreciation of art? What books influenced him? Mason doesn’t tell us. Indeed, the book is frustratingly weak in psychological insight or historical context, despite the author’s prodigious research. The mantle of the benevolent cultural nationalist rests uneasily on Weir’s shoulders, and his letters reveal a rather different figure: selfish, sexist, socially inept, and, dare I say it, quite un-Canadian.

But what of his artistic legacy? When Weir purchases his first painting in 1920 — Laura Knight’s watercolour Ballet Girls — neither Mason nor Weir himself in his letters illuminate what the author calls an “uncharacteristic purchase.” Weir’s favourite acquisition, according to Mason, was Homer Watson’s (1855-1936) Lothian Hills, yet we are never told what this painting meant to him. In one letter that Mason quotes, Weir simply observes laconically of the Watson that it “was my first purchase other than the wash drawing of Laura Knight’s.”

No, something much more fundamental than mere aesthetics or patriotism seems to have guided Weir’s artistic choices. Weir himself writes in May, 1963: “The picture market is boiling. Prices are rising so rapidly as to make one’s head ache . . . when I was in England in 1955, I made a very few purchases, but I am kicking myself now that I did not step in and buy a truckload.” This was the empty husk of Weir’s artistic philosophy and, indeed, the philosophy of art collectors throughout the 1970s and 1980s who fed an obscenely overheated art market. As Weir wrote in 1969: “My bank manager told me when I asked him for some money to pay for a painting, that he guessed it was alright because I had appeared to do better in art than in stocks and bonds.”

Even Weir’s few personal relations with artists were sullied by his obsession with the financial value of his artistic investments. As Mason points out, Weir liked to deal with artists personally because he could cut out the dealer/middleman, enabling him to drive a much harder bargain. After Homer Watson’s death in 1936, Weir negotiated the “lowest possible price” for a Watson painting from the artist’s sister Phoebe, now near destitution. In one particularly distasteful episode, Weir visited the great Canadian novelist, Frederick Philip Grove at his home in Simcoe, Ont., in 1946. Now ageing, poor, virtually unknown, and recovering from a stroke that had partially paralyzed his right side, Grove shakily initialled copies of his books with his left hand for Weir. Weir left with his investments much enhanced in value, commenting to a friend that Grove seemed to be a “bitter” man.

Of course, it’s still possible to walk through the rooms of River Brink and enjoy the rich collection of Canadiana — fine works by Tom Thomson, Emily Carr, Cornelius Krieghoff, and even Paul Kane are beautifully reproduced in the book — without dwelling on the character of the man who assembled it. But stop to consider this: Samuel Weir, the “consummate Canadian,” was plotting in his later years to re-establish his art holdings in Bermuda or the Cayman Islands, the better to foil Canadian tax authorities.

“I am tired of paintings and tired of everything else,” he sputtered in 1971. “The Canadian government now has an act on the boards to prohibit export of any painting from Canada of the value of $5 or more without a permit. I think it is time to move out of Canada.” Thus foiled, he resigned himself to leaving his Canadian collection in Canada, while transferring as much of his remaining wealth out of the tax collector’s reach as possible. On his deathbed, he earned his final and perhaps most fitting tribute: a call to the Cayman bar. Judging from recent letters to the editor of the National Post, perhaps Sam Weir is more “consummately Canadian” than I’d care to admit.