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Beaverbrook: The flamboyant man behind the art

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Cathy Dobson

Editor’s Note: In three weeks the doors will open at the Judith and Norman Alix Art Gallery on an exhibition billed as the most important art event in Sarnia’s history, the only Ontario stop for the internationally-acclaimed Masterworks of the Beaverbrook Art Gallery. This is the first in a series of articles explaining the significance of the works, starting with the fascinating man who assembled the collection.

Lord Beaverbrook, the great Canadian philanthropist who gathered the masterworks and built a world-class art gallery for them in Fredericton, New Brunswick, was as colourful and controversial as his art collection.

Beaverbrook, or Sir William (Max) Aiken, was an aggressive, complex man who inspired harsh criticism from his enemies and deep admiration from friends. He was one of the most influential politicians and business tycoons of his time, and lived among the rich and famous his entire adult life.

His friend Sir Winston Churchill famously said Beaverbrook was a “man of altogether exceptional force and genius, who is at his very best when things are at their very worst.”

Beaverbrook’s wealthy friends’ interest in art rubbed off, and he is said to have hired a variety of international art experts shortly after the First World War to seek out good deals. But he insisted that he see and approve every addition to his collection.

Beaverbrook was born in Maple, Ontario in 1879, the son of a Presbyterian minister. A year later the family moved to New Brunswick.  No matter where he travelled throughout his life, Lord Beaverbrook returned regularly home and, once he accrued wealth, showered New Brunswick with huge gifts to finance a university, a hotel, a playhouse, the Beaverbrook Art Gallery and more.

When made a baron at the age of 38, he chose the name of Beaver Brook Station, a little New Brunswick community, as a sign of enduring love of home.

Early on, Beaverbrook proved he had a talent for making money. By age 30, he was a millionaire, having done well in the financial sector, most notably with a merger of several cement plants when construction in Canada was booming.

Author H.G. Wells, another friend, wrote: “If Max ever gets to Heaven, he won’t last long.  He will be chucked out for trying to pull off a merger between Heaven and Hell after having secured a controlling interest in key subsidiary companies in both places, of course.”

Such was his reputation in the business world for sometimes questionable moral conduct.

He moved to England as a young man and built a newspaper empire, launched the Sunday Express and purchased the Daily Express and London Evening Standard.  He won a seat in the House of Commons and held various jobs as Minister of Information and Minister of Aircraft Production during the Second World War.

Beaverbrook returned to Canada in the early 1950s and, in 1959, at the age of 80, built the Beaverbrook Art Gallery to hold his first-rate collection. At the time, it included 323 paintings, mostly British and Canadian works from the 15th to 20th centuries. It also featured an extensive number by Cornelius Krieghoff donated by Toronto businessman James Boylen. In 1963, the year before his death, Beaverbrook remarried following the untimely death of his first wife – and mother to his three children – many years before.

His new wife Lady Dunn, a fabulously wealthy woman in her own right, donated three works by Salvador Dali to the Beaverbrook collection. The iconic El Grande by Dali is among the 75 paintings coming to Sarnia.

It is said Beaverbrook derived more pleasure from establishing his art gallery than anything else. For all his accomplishments, he was convinced the gallery would be how he’s remembered.

Following Beaverbrook’s death in 1964, two disputes erupted over the collection. They dragged on for years and cost tens of millions of dollars in legal fees.

The conflict pitted the gallery against the Beaverbrook UK Foundation and the Beaverbrook Canadian Foundation. In both cases, the foundations argued Beaverbrook had loaned the collection, not given it to the gallery.

Both cases went to arbitration and some paintings were awarded to the gallery and some to the foundations. The Canadian case was settled only a year ago.

In 2013, Masterworks from the Beaverbrook Art Gallery featuring 75 historical paintings by renowned artists such as Gainsborough, Reynolds, Constable, Freud, Dali, Carr and Krieghoff, was assembled for the collection’s first international tour.

It opens at Sarnia-Lambton’s public art gallery Oct. 2 and runs till Feb. 7, 2016

Lord Beaverbrook was an aggressive, complex man who never forgot his Canadian roots. Submitted Photo
Lord Beaverbrook was an aggressive, complex man who never forgot his Canadian roots.
Submitted Photo


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