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culture

One Hundred Years of Art at the Grange

The Art Gallery of Ontario marks a century of exhibits at its current site.

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Portraits of Harriette Boulton Smith and William Henry Boulton, two of the few pieces shown in 1913 that are still exhibited at the Art Gallery of Ontario. Images courtesy of the Art Gallery of Ontario.

“Toronto some day may have an art gallery equal to Tate’s or the National in London, that is, if the plans of the Art Museum should materialize,” the World observed on June 5, 1913. The paper, along with most of Toronto’s media, was confident that the art exhibition that opened that day in the Grange was the seed from which a great institution would grow.

Grow it did. Tomorrow marks a century since the first exhibition was held on the site that became the Art Gallery of Ontario. It wasn’t the institution’s first display, though. Founded in 1900 as the Art Museum of Toronto (AMT), the gallery held shows in various locations before settling into a temporary space in the original Toronto Reference Library, at College and St. George streets (now the Koffler Student Service Centre).

In 1902, AMT president Sir Edmund Walker convinced Grange owner Harriette Boulton Smith to will her historic home to the institution. Following her death in 1909 and the passing of her second husband—journalist and intellectual Goldwin Smith—in 1910, the house was renovated and wired with electricity to prepare it for its new role. AMT officials saw the Grange as a starting point for building a larger gallery, and began acquiring land to the north along Dundas Street (then known as St. Patrick Street) for future expansion.

The space’s first exhibition centred on the Smiths’ art collection, some of which was acquired by Harriette’s first husband, William Henry Boulton. The chair he used during multiple terms as Toronto’s mayor during the mid-19th century was one of the main attractions. Goldwin Smith’s additions included copies of European paintings like Thomas Gainsborough’s Blue Boy, a series of watercolours depicting Reading, England (his childhood home) and portraits he commissioned of dour 17th-century Puritans.

Source: the Toronto Star, June 6, 1913  Image courtesy of the Art Gallery of Ontario

Source: the Toronto Star, June 6, 1913. Image courtesy of the Art Gallery of Ontario.

Around 550 visitors passed through the Grange on opening day between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. Works were displayed in the hallway, dining room, drawing room, and a space on the second floor converted into a print room. Dignitaries on hand included Mayor Horatio Hocken, AMT Vice President Sir Edmund Osler, and Ontario Lieutenant Governor Sir John Gibson. Hocken hoped the home’s name would be retained as the museum’s. As the World declared: “Other cities can have art museums, but only Toronto can have ‘The Grange.’”

Newspapers predicted great things for the gallery. The Telegram felt it would be one of “the most interesting show places in the city.” The Globe saw its location as “a bulwark against the upward sweep of business” from the south. The World foresaw a time when it would be regarded as “a national treasure house.”

To mark the centennial of its first on-site exhibition, the AGO will display and provide guided commentary on three of that show’s paintings tomorrow near Walker Court. Restoration efforts on a Klaes Molenaer work from the 17th century will be shown in the Grange (which still exists as an exhibit space). Throughout the month, the gallery will offer tours that will celebrate the growth of the AGO’s collection and offer visitors glimpses at the work of artists who were active in 1913. Hungry visitors can buy cookies made from a recipe taken from 1913’s most popular cookbook, the Five Roses Flour Cookbook.

Additional material from the June 6, 1913 edition of the Globe, the June 5, 1913 edition of the Telegram, and the June 5, 1913 and June 6, 1913 editions of the World.

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