The fact that the name Alan Jarvis now rings few bells in Canada is one reason that Bringing Art to Life, a stylish and beautifully researched biography by Andrew Horrall, is so important.
Jarvis – a curator, art educator, sculptor, and bon vivant – was a Toronto wunderkind who everyone simply presumed would accomplish extraordinary things. He went to Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar in the 1930s. Kept out of the army by colour blindness, he served the war effort through innovative cultural work. He got to know T.S. Eliot, Kenneth Clark, Graham Sutherland, Noel Coward, Laurence Olivier, and Vivien Leigh. But the English persona he adopted became a handicap when he returned home in the 1950s. Cracks began appearing in his performance, in his charisma, and finally, in his self-assurance.
His appointment as director of the National Gallery in 1955 made him one of Canada’s most recognizable cultural personalities, but he was fired before his five-year contract was up, his effortless charm having led to careless badinage that got him into trouble. What’s more, as Horrall points out, “the exigencies of running a government department had smacked up against the insouciant emotional shell that prevented him from asking for help and support when he most needed it.” More obviously, he was sandbagged by John Diefenbaker and some of the gravy-stained government yahoos who were furious over major purchases of Renaissance masterworks (not to mention contemporary non-figurative art).
Horrall’s calm but compassionate account of what happened next makes heart-wrenching reading. Jarvis, he writes, at first “appeared confident, witty, and happy, though long-time friends saw a diminishing reflection of what he had been in his prime.” Before turning 50, he already “had systematically deceived or disappointed everyone who had extended their hand to help.” He died at 57 in 1972, a slow suicide by alcohol.
Horrall’s book is rich in subtle understanding. The transatlantic bisexual milieu of which Jarvis was part, the intramural workings of the federal civil service, the very texture of both public and private life in the period 1935–55 – all these elements work together perfectly through Horrall’s careful and graceful prose. This book deserves to be nominated for the Charles Taylor Prize or an equivalent award.
Joan & Goodridge: My Life with Goodridge Roberts is a much more modest affair but has value as a primary document. The author, now 87, was the second wife of the landscape and figure painter Goodridge Roberts (1904–74). Roberts was the visual-arts scion of the famous New Brunswick poetry clan: son of T.G. Roberts, nephew of Sir Charles G.D. Roberts, and cousin of Bliss Carman. As many have observed, his style owed a debt to Matisse as well as to his own friend and mentor John Lyman of Montreal.
Roberts’ career was at its height in the 1940s and ’50s. After that he was laid low by chronic depression from which he never recovered. The saddest moment in this memoir describes Roberts rallying himself each day to dash off one small piece of art as part of his occupational therapy. His heart was no longer in it.
Joan & Goodridge’s unambiguous prose and one-foot-after-another chronology make it read like an affidavit. Many people are mentioned but few described, and there is almost no dialogue. The only times we hear Roberts’ voice are in a few brief excerpts from his letters. Even the many family snapshots fail to add much. What the book does quite well, however, is to reveal Roberts’ methods and materials, and his relationships with teachers, students, and gallery owners – and also the author’s strategies in managing her husband’s legacy and estate.