A gift to last: The Ottawa Art Gallery highlights the Firestone collection

Brenda Firestone stands beside Lawren Harris's painting Mount Thule, Bylot Island, one of the important Group of Seven paintings in the Firestone Collection. It can be seen in the Firestone Gallery in the Ottawa Art Gallery. Photo: Peter Robb

Forty-five years ago an Ottawa family made a important decision.

They gave a treasured collection of art to the public. Today that collection is the centrepiece of the new Ottawa Art Gallery.

The Firestone Collection of Canadian Art features more than 1,600 works by some of the most important Canadian artists of the 20th century. Included are pieces by Lawren Harris, Emily Carr, Paul-Émile Borduas, Marian Scott, Jean-Paul Riopelle, Rita Letendre, and Franz Johnston.

The Firestones collected from the early 1950s to the mid-1980s. The collection was given to the Ontario Heritage Foundation in 1973 and passed to the City of Ottawa in 1992. It was then transferred to the Ottawa Art Gallery for exhibition and conservation in 1993.

This staircase was in the Firestone family home. Today it is in the new Ottawa Art Gallery. Courtesy OAG.

This past week Brenda Firestone, the daughter of O.J. and Isobel Firestone took part in a talk at the new gallery with OAG director Alexandra Badzak. To get to the event, people ascended a teak, brass and marble stairway rescued from the Firestone’s legendary modernist home to the heavenly gallery that now houses the collection.

The talk was a chance to know more about the important contribution the Firestone family has made to the cause of Canadian art in the city of Ottawa. But it is more than that, as Badzak said.

“The new Ottawa Art Gallery has picked up many themes from the Firestone family home beyond the warmth of the wood and the marble and the brass.

“We have gained inspiration from the way they collected. They were not just interested in the masterpieces although there are plenty of those. They also were interested in the process. They collected preparatory sketches as well and we have found a lot of inspiration from that.

“Also we really loved the way they have connected art to people.” That is a central purpose of the new OAG, she said. But it is more than that.

Brenda Firestone told those in attendance about her mother and father.

Isobel Firestone grew up in the Jewish community in Lowertown. She was born in 1913. Her parents had come to Ottawa running from the pogroms of Russia. Isobel had a passion for music and often gave piano concerts in the city. She also taught music.

O.J. Firestone was born in Austria in 1913.

“My father was always very private about his experiences in Europe. He lived in Vienna with his parents and his brother and sister. My father grew up in Vienna. He lived there through the 1930s and the rise of Adolf Hitler and Nazism, Brenda told the crowd.

O.J.’s family was in Vienna when the Anschluss happened in 1938 and the Germans marched in.

“It is an amazing miracle that they managed to get out of Vienna. My father and his brother got out first. The family lost everything of course. When my father and his brother got to England they got their sister and parents out. My father was also instrumental in helping other Jews leave Europe at that time,” she said.

O.J. Firestone’s life in Vienna is an important part of his later passion for collecting, Brenda believes.

“His experience growing up in Vienna really informed him. It was a cultured city. He was living there when Sigmund Freud was in Vienna. There were all those amazing artists. He was going to the opera and seeing the best art. I have always felt that experience informed his life when he came here.”

Her father never talked about his life in Europe, she said, “so I have had to piece it together over the years.”

Like many who came to Canada then, Brenda said her father “was very proud to be Canadian.”

Brenda said she was moved to speak publicly about her father’s early years because, today, all around the world, borders are closing and walls are going up.

“Last October when I was visiting Ottawa, before I moved back to the city, I went to the Holocaust Memorial,” she said.

“I walked through it. There were panels with information about the Jews and what happened during the Second World War and on the final panel it said from 1933 to 1945 only 5,000 Jewish refugees were admitted to Canada. My father was one of 5,000. I was very overwhelmed. That was a small number and many were turned back.

“Now we know it is so important to have compassion and to open our doors.”

O.J. Firestone did not have an easy passage to Canada. When he landed in England he was interned for a time because he was a German speaker. Then he was offered a chance to go to either Australia or Canada. He chose Canada where he was interned again for a time.

He eventually landed in Montreal where he went to McGill University for a post-graduate degree in economics.

He went on to a job with the Canadian government and moved to Ottawa where, among other things, Brenda said, he worked on the reconstruction of post-war Europe.

He also started collecting art.

“He had a passion for the arts. When he married my mother, they put their interests together and began to collect.”

Along the way, they created a sort of salon scene in 1950s Ottawa, a city that then could generously be described as a conservative small town.

Eventually the collection outgrew the family’s modest home. Brenda said paintings were literally falling out of the closets.

So they decided to build a home that would allow the collection to be displayed in all its variety.

“The home was large enough to showcase the collection and to also entertain in. My parents would have musicians come. They had a lot of parties. My mother especially loved parties. She would play. People would come and eat and someone would perform.”

The paintings were everywhere in the new home, Brenda said, except her bedroom and her sister’s bedroom.

One brother’s room was full of paintings by Arthur Lismer; another was the Jackson room. A third was the A.J. Casson room.

Brenda says her father’s collecting began, she believes, as a way to understand his new country.

In a book he wrote about A.Y. Jackson, O.J. Firestone talked about going to the National Gallery which was then in a building on  Elgin Street and looking at the art.

“He immediately connected to Canadian art particularly to the Group of Seven. He was new to the country and I think he thought that was the way he was going to learn about the country … through the artists and their work.”

The couple started buying. They would visit artists in their studios and pay for the art on payment plans.

“When my father would go to studios, it was almost as if he was doing research. He would see a pile of drawings. He wouldn’t just look at the top one. He’d pull something out from the bottom and say ‘Tell me about this work’. My father and mother were sincerely interested in the process of creating art. It wasn’t just about the finished product.

“That is why they ended up buying a lot of sketches and drawings as well.”

A tribute to A.Y. Jackson inside the Ottawa Art Gallery. Courtesy OAG.

The family would become close friends with A.Y. Jackson. The artist was often in the Firestone home.

“He came to our house. I knew him as Alec. I wasn’t aware enough at the time of his significance. I remember he was very kind. He was always very appreciative of coming over for lunch on a Saturday.

“My dad and A.Y. would talk and dad would take handwritten notes and eventually that turned into a book.”

O.J. and Isobel decided to give their collection away in the early 1970s.

“My parents realized how large and significant the collection was and they wanted to keep it together. They also were thinking of their legacy.”

They also wanted to give back. Each child got 12 small pieces from the Group of Seven, Brenda said, who collects art modestly.

“It is all about beauty and elevating your world … whether it’s a sculpture or a painting or beautiful music, it elevates you.”

When the collection was put on display in Arts Court in 1993, Brenda said she would cry every time she walked into the gallery.

“There was an association with the home and everything that went along with it. It took a long time to be able to be in the room and embrace it and not feel sad.

“But looking back now, I am so grateful that we made the decision to give the collection. We wanted it to remain in Ottawa and I’m so grateful that it has finally come to the new gallery. I think it is what my parents would have wanted.”

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.