Library and Archives: New exhibition examines our prime ministers and their impact on art and artists

This sketch of Mackenzie King and his dog Pat was done by Arthur Lismer, a member of the Group of Seven. Courtesy Library and Archives

We know prime ministers mostly by their public political lives. Sometimes we find out more and learn about personal quirks, or more intimate matters, but rarely do we see Canadian leaders as art lovers and art influencers, even though they are often the subject of artists.  

That is the purpose of a new exhibition at Library and Archives Canada (LAC), which offers an insight into Prime Ministers and the Arts: Creators, Collectors and Muses.

The Library holds massive amounts of documentary heritage left by prime ministers and buried in the stacks are a slew of artworks, artifacts, documents, objects, portraits and photographs. These feature our first ministers, some more than others, save for the current PM, Justin Trudeau. His time will come 

The exhibition, curated by the Library’s Madeleine Trudeau and Meaghan Scanlon, includes art reviews, contained in letters written by Sir Wilfrid Laurier, poems by Mackenzie King and a portrait of Lester B. Pearson by the Indigenous artist Carl Beam.     

There is a special part of the show that features material from the library of Mackenzie King, who left much of his personal property to the people of Canada. He also appointed literary executors to oversee the disposition of his papers and books.

The idea for the show started with King, the co-curators said.

Scanlon said she was sifting through King’s library looking for inscriptions and notes to add to our knowledge of the country’s longest serving and weirdest PMs. 

“He kept a diary. And I would search for the titles of the books in the diary to see when he was reading them. Basically I realized the library tells a story of King. Then I became interested in prime ministers’ libraries in general and I thought it would be interesting if we could do some thing with prime ministers’ book collections. I told Madeleine that and she said…”

“… I said that is really fascinating. LAC also happens to have King’s art collection which is extensive and it also reflects his personality. With those things we realized we had the start of a great idea for an exhibition.”

So they started pushing it further and they realized King wasn’t the only PM for which LAC had this kind of material.

George Walker woodcut featuring Pierre Trudeau’s famous Walk in the Snow. Courtesy Library and Archives.

There are three sections to the exhibition. Muses — essentially how prime ministers have inspired artists, Patrons of the arts and artists and Creators. Each section has a figurehead prime minister who symbolizes the intent of the section.

The figurehead for the Muses section is a bit of a surprise. Sir John Thompson, who died in office on a visit to London in 1894.

He was well-regarded, Scanlon said and his early death ended a promising career.

The centrepiece of the Thompson ‘tribute’ are three paintings by Frederic Marlett Bell-Smith. 

Bell-Smith painted the canvasses on spec hoping they was land him a commission, Trudeau said. He even went to London and convinced Queen Victoria to sit for him. The first canvas shows the queen at Thompson funeral in London. There are important historical figures including Abdul Karim, Victoria’s Muslim servant and confidante.

The second painting captures the arrival of Thompson’s coffin in Halifax aboard a British warship the HMS Blenheim. The ship was painted black in tribute. The painting was lost in the fire that destroyed the Parliament buildings in 1916 show the exhibition has a photo of the painting. The third painting shows the funeral in Halifax.

Sadly, Bell-Smith did not get his commission.

“It kind of got lost,” Trudeau said. “For awhile LAC didn’t know we had them.” About 20 years ago, they were discovered and restored and Bell-Smith is finally getting his moment.

Sir Wilfrid Laurier is the central figure in the Patrons section.

“He was a patron of the arts, Scanlon said, and supported a number of Canadian artists including Marc-Aurèle de Foy Suzor-Coté, the poet Pauline Johnson (Tekahionwake) and Eva Gauthier, a world famous opera singer, who was born in Ottawa in 1885.

Laurier had a long writing relationship with Suzor-Coté, Trudeau said. He also visited the artist’s studio and bought works from him.

One time, Suzor-Coté was submitting a painting of Jacques Cartier that he wanted to see hanging in the Senate.He sought Laurier’s help.

Laurier did advocate for the purchase of the work but he also told Suzor-Coté that he felt the figure of Cartier was “too handsome,” Trudeau said.

“He waded right in and didn’t hesitate to give his opinion on art matters,” she added.

A portrait of Sir Robert Borden. Courtesy Library and Archives

In the exhibition, there is a Suzor-Coté portrait of Robert Borden and of course there are portraits of many other PMs including one of Lester Pearson by the Indigenous artist Carl Beam.

There is also a sketch of Mackenzie King and his dog Pat by the Group of Seven artist Arthur Lismer, that captures “the essence” of King. “It’s brilliant little treasure,” Trudeau said. (King by the way is the figurehead of the Creators section).

One prime minister posed a bit of a conundrum for the curators.

“You could easily do a whole exhibition on Pierre Trudeau,” Scanlon said. “He is in all sections. We have a Karsh portrait of him. We have some of his old school textbooks. There are a number of literary works inspired by Trudeau. We have a magazine called Fuddle Duddle and a woodcut engraving by George Walker for a graphic novel about Trudeau’s life called Trudeau: La Vie En Rose (Porcupine Quill).

The show also includes Stephen Harper’s famous turn on the piano in the NAC playing A Little Help From My Friends with Yo Yo Ma and several photographs of Jean Chretien including one of the PM playing the trombone with Dan Aykroyd and there is the famous photograph of Kim Campbell, apparently nude, holding up a strategically placed robe.

The exhibition that runs from Feb. 7 to Dec. 3 at 395 Wellington St.


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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.