Historicist: Sir Edmund Walker

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Historicist: Sir Edmund Walker

How a boy from Hamilton became a banker, an art collector, and a museum founder.

Disclosure: An academic version of this article appeared in the Journal of Canadian Studies, Winter 2006

The Royal Ontario Museum on August 29, 1935. Photo from the City of Toronto Archives Fonds 1231, Item 682.

The Royal Ontario Museum on August 29, 1935. Photo from the City of Toronto Archives Fonds 1231, Item 682.

It’s true: The Royal Ontario Museum wasn’t built in a day. Three pivotal figures were all key to the success of the ROM. The first, Sir Edmund Walker, conceived of the ROM, the second, Charles T. Currelly, presided over its early years, and the third, George Crofts, proved instrumental in filling that museum space with art objects that back its claims to international standing.

Each of their stories can stand on its own, but they all fit into one bigger story of how Toronto came to be the culturally vibrant city that we now know and treasure.

This story is about about something more than another tale of individual achievement. It is about cultural transmission, about the fact that much of what we have achieved attains meaning through the efforts of those we have inspired or aided, even though what those successors achieve played no role in our own vision or planning.

Sir Byron Edmund Walker (1848–1924) is the man who conceived and pushed through the establishment of the Royal Ontario Museum, The Art Gallery of Ontario (originally the Art Gallery of Toronto), the National Library of Canada (now Library Archives Canada), and founded the Champlain Society (a tireless reprinter of Canadian historical documents). Walker was a banker who started his career in August 1861 at his uncle’s foreign-exchange firm. As time proceeded, Walker dropped his first name, and stuck with the name of Edmund, or Sir Edmund, after receiving his knighthood in 1910. He spent his childhood in Hamilton where his father was an amateur geologist and his mother, Fanny Murton, seems to have given her son an individualistic streak. As a relative claimed, she was the “only woman west of Toronto who can play a harpsichord.” His dad was notable amateur geologist at a time when people like him were slowly gathering the data that would shift the western world’s cultural axis from religion to science, and Edmund Walker retained a lifelong interest in arrowheads. His mother had fostered the young man’s aesthetic leanings, the lifelong interest in art, literature, and music that would mark his life and give him a unique distinction among the bankers of his time.

He had arrived in finance just in time to confront a huge hiccup in the currency market of his time. America’s Civil War had broken out. How to evaluate the currencies issued by the secessionist states? How to evaluate the federal currency? How to cope with inevitable bank failures stemming from a nation in profound crisis? How to respond to the greenback dollar that the feds would issue during Walker’s time? He must have performed well under trying circumstances, moving to the managership of a Montreal exchange house in 1868, when ill health moved him back to the Hamilton area. And there he joined the newly hatched Canadian Bank of Commerce, which he would one day head.

Our banking system is not organized along the lines of a free-for-all among a plethora of banks, but rather as a small group of centrally organized banks who command a widespread network of small branches. As in any imperial structure, workers rising in the ranks move closer to the centres of power even as they strut their stuff in provincial outposts. Walker’s rise was speedy.

The Canadian Bank of Commerce location at Queen and University on September 18, 1928. Photo from the City of Toronto Archives Globe and Mail fonds, Fonds 1266, Item 14905.

The Canadian Bank of Commerce location at Queen and University on September 18, 1928. Photo from the City of Toronto Archives Globe and Mail fonds, Fonds 1266, Item 14905.

Think for a moment about his work in the change houses. The work involved him in the ceaseless gathering of information and the subsequent evaluation of that news. Which broker’s paper could be trusted? What Union victory or defeat was going to alter the figures quoted for the dollar? What bank had a strong enough hold on its cotton futures, offered as collateral on its loans, to withstand the crisis in liquidity that wartime engenders? You make your decisions and learn to live with them. Can we see these skills aiding Walker’s remarkable qualities as an art collector?

After reaching the top of the Bank of Commerce in 1907, and even before that, he had widened his skills as a collector to include Old Master drawings. He had grasped the fact the North American millionaires, had sucked dry the market for Old Master paintings that a collector like Walker could afford. Rather than acquiring an extensive number—as the Canadian Pacific Railroad’s Sir William van Horne had done—of boring Dutch landscape studies awash in Van Dyke brown (all those everlasting windmills!). Walker took a position (as they say in financial circles) in drawings. There the market was cheaper, and the subtleties of drawing demanded a sharper eye on the part of the purchaser than the more visible and colourful effects of pigment on canvas. And the drawings in the Walker collection at the AGO, where the drawings he gathered during his lifetime ended up, and the high esteem in which they are held demonstrate what an eye the banker had for his material, and what a shrewd sense of evaluation he possessed for the work that he was acquiring.

Edmund Walker. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Edmund Walker. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

The second effect of his banking career on his role as cultural transformer comes to light when we consider his management skills at the Bank of Commerce. Working in an organization with a central decision-making structure can be challenging. You are like a centurion patrolling Hadrian’s Wall. You experience the restlessness of the people on the other side; you know in your guts that they are getting up to something, but either your reports to home office have been filed away in the dead box or some whipper-snapper from headquarters has paid a flying visit, and on the grounds that he didn’t get an arrow in his gullet has reported back to upstairs that you have no need for those reinforcements you keep whining about. And when they decide to come over that wall, you can console yourself with a firm “I told them so” when an arrow wings into your gut.

Walker was chairman of the board, but didn’t hesitate to get involved with matters that seemed beneath him and he was aware of the importance of good staff. A security guard at the R.O.M. named Worthington was about to be fired. He could be lippy to his superiors. Worthington was a fine candidate for dismissal, and the pink slip he has earned was bumped up to Sir Edmund Walker for final approval.

Convocation at the University of Toronto with Edmund Walker (right) on June 8, 1923. Photo from the City of Toronto Archives Globe and Mail fonds, Fonds 1266, Item 863.

Convocation at the University of Toronto with Edmund Walker (right) on June 8, 1923. Photo from the City of Toronto Archives Globe and Mail fonds, Fonds 1266, Item 863.

Walker stayed the executioner’s sword. He remembered that Worthington was instrumental in discouraging a prominent Toronto society dame from hanging around the museum’s display cases of ancient jewellery. Worthington had discovered that whenever she lingered too long at a display, objects seemed to disappear. So the knight of finance had saved a man-at-arms who had interfered with a thief, when nobody else seemed to have remembered that action.

Walker was willing to reach his hand down into the wheels of the administration’s data-grinder and rescue the job of a security guard. The Walker papers in the University of Toronto’s Thomas Fisher Rare Books Library contain many a note from one Arthur Such, a workman who regaled Walker with tales of the injustice he was enduring at the hands of museum officials. Whether or not Walker chose to act on them is unclear. But he did read and keep them. He was a general who obviously liked knowing what the grunts out there in the field were thinking, and actually made an effort to find out. David Kimmel’s excellent Dictionary of Canadian Biography entry on Walker tells us: that long before his time as CEO of the Central Bank of Commerce, Walker circulated among his peers a weekly “gossip sheet” (as he called it). That is, a report on local conditions. Those reports formed the basis for his annual surveys, ex cathedra pronouncements that earned him the nickname of “the pope of Canadian banking.” What those reports demonstrate is Walker’s attempt to get around the centre/periphery a-symmetry that plagues imperial systems of organization.

He attempted to foster local initiative while adding to the accumulated wisdom of central control. Walker’s wisdom on banking was a byword in Washington; he drew large and attentive professional audiences for his remarks in Yokohama. He sat atop a pinnacle of information-gathering and evaluation and best of all, knew how to make use of it. What Walker seems to have understood was the fine art of balancing information with executive action. And those are skills that are easily transferred to the establishment and administration of cultural institutions. After all, cultural institutions easily fall prey to a disconnect between highly skilled, opinionated, and individualist professionals and the management-trained and oriented administrators attempting to exercise control.

So what was he doing in the culture business anyway? What were the forces priming him, even forcing him to play so major a founding role in our cultural institutions? He believed that Canada had been called to a higher destiny than that of material growth and progress. In line with many of the proponents of Canadian imperial nationalism of his time, Walker believed firmly in the British Empire as a force for good in the world. Within that empire, Canada would flourish as a beacon: a North American state built upon British institutions, a cultural and economic powerhouse, as we might put it today. Thus, he put the Bank of Commerce firmly behind the development of Ontario’s north, the “New Ontario” as it was known then. This cultural and economic interest in the north would later lead to the development of the Group of Seven, whose paintings brought the rugged beauty of that resource-rich landscape squarely before its southern public.

The Group of Seven often painted scenes of the North in Algonquin Park (pictured here). Photo by  Alex in the Torontoist Flickr Pool.

The Group of Seven often painted scenes of the North in Algonquin Park (pictured here). Photo by Alex in the Torontoist Flickr Pool.

In a manner that has left him vulnerable to our present-day cynicism, Walker found no conflict between capitalist development and cultural exploitation. Resources could be viewed at once as both mineral and imaginative. Thus, his 1899 presidential address to the Canadian Institute for the Advancement of Science (now the Royal Canadian Institute), concludes with a rhetorical flourish pulling together the two sides of his life. His unwieldy title, “Canadian Surveys and Museums and the Need of Increased Expenditure Thereon,” expresses his “firm belief that the future of Canada depends to a degree not generally recognized, upon our liberality in spending money to exploit our country.” His linkage of surveys and museums, his coupling of cultural development with the industrial, demonstrates that, as cultural historian Maria Tippet has pointed out, Walker is speaking the only language that the Canadian business elite of his time could have followed. In a country whose business was business, he deployed his rhetoric to convince a wider audience that Canada’s national prowess could not be calculated by the bottom line alone.

This may seem to us today the sort of tightrope act that fundraisers for the arts have to perform when they pitch their wares to some corporate board awash in boredom and the bottom line. Yet it expresses a truth that not many in Walker’s time could grasp. Allan John Fletcher, a B.C. academic has shown that the Group of Seven’s shift in their painting country from Algonquin to the Algoma country, even farther north, in some fashion follows the thrust of Bay Street’s interest in the mineral-rich North.

That personal, visionary commitment to a Canada greater than its role as a hewer of wood and drawer of water played a primal role in Walker’s urge to establish cultural institutions in general. A second, more personal drive propelled him in his efforts to establish the ROM, a drive analogous to what I spoke of earlier, the drive to manage by walking around. Walker and his wife had lived and worked in New York from 1881-86. There he had witnessed the institutional and cultural growth that was transforming that one-time trading post into a cultural centre. The vast accumulations of capital coming from the commercial earthquake occasioned by the Civil War had resulted in the founding of such cultural repositories as the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Metropolitan Opera.

Edith Wharton, opens her masterpiece The Age of Innocence with a scene set at a performance of Faust at the old Academy of Music. Its supersession by the Met and its new home caused old money types such Wharton to sniff at the vast vulgarity of the new money and the cultural capital it displayed. To awestruck new and temporary residents like the Walkers, who partook freely of the city’s cultural attractions, all this was evidence that commercial riches could be used to found and endow cultural fortresses. In fact, such structures, especially museums with impressive collections housed within impressive buildings, were getting to be the hallmark of cities that counted. Walker and others had come to understand that establishing grand cultural institutions benefitted the host city and made it attractive to investors and made the founders feel they were contributing to the glorious cultural and commercial future of the metropolis.

The waning force of religion called for the erection of new cathedrals expressing the new faith. Banks would morph their head offices into business centres with vaulted ceilings and pillared aisles, businesses would ensure that the detailing on their new structures gave a dignity and grandeur to their work. Leading Toronto architect Frank Darling would design a jewel box of a structure for the Bank of Montreal that would in time come to house a shrine to the closest thing Canada possessed to a civic religion: hockey. These new structures were all instances of a new spirit of civic pride and self-assertion.

The Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto. Photo by -Astin- in the Torontoist Flickr Pool.

The Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto. Photo by -Astin- in the Torontoist Flickr Pool.

Walker’s New York walkabout was more than an instance of a yokel from the provinces craning his neck greedily as he wondered how he could bring some of that back home. After all, he had come by his training as a culture vulture honestly. His father’s absorbing interests in local geology and prehistoric cultural objects such as arrowheads had left their mark upon the man, as had his own mother’s—the west’s sole harpsichordist—abiding aesthetic commitments. He came to New York with the eye of a connoisseur of art objects, especially of Old Master drawings. He was not some figure out of pop fiction, a man with calloused hands who, all awash in all this artsy stuff that the womenfolk loved, hired a long-haired city slicker from Europe to get out there and buy him some masterpieces. He was a cultured and successful banker, soon to leave New York to assume the general manager’s role at head office in Toronto.

It has been difficult to find a thorough biography of Walker, possibly because of no writer has been able to tackle his double interest in finance and art with the depth that Walker was able to. His role in founding the ROM sprang from his uniqueness, his interest in cultural matters, coupled with his obsessive interest in observing and motivating subordinates. He knew the buttons that drove people, and he knew also the ins-and-outs of the high culture that he wanted to impress upon Toronto, the provincial capital that had become his home. Walker was one of the leaders of the financial forces that would in time lead Toronto to wrest away the nation’s financial leadership from Montreal. He belonged to the city’s inner circles of power. He was one of the Toronto Eighteen, “an inter-locking structure” as a historian terms it, “of banking, transportation, insurance, manufacturing and other related interests.” Walker, we might say, not only knew Toronto. He reigned there.

Edmund Walker residence on 99 St. George Street on March 28, 1924. Photo from the City of Toronto Archives Globe and Mail fonds, Fonds 1266, Item 2276.

Edmund Walker residence on 99 St. George Street on March 28, 1924. Photo from the City of Toronto Archives Globe and Mail fonds, Fonds 1266, Item 2276.

The Walkers had built a splendid mansion, Long Garth, along St. George Street in the UofT’s backyard. The site, long since demolished by the university in its role, as historian William Dendy put it, as not the least among the city’s architectural vandals, was crammed with objets d’art. Walker could scarcely have avoided watching the disastrous 1890 fire that had nearly destroyed the university. President Sir Daniel Wilson had talked Walker into heading the restoration effort; his presence and support assured that other pockets of wealth and power would be picked. Walker had long preached to his audiences the central importance of higher education to national development. He had built Long Garth at a site about what is now one long city block, from that of his friend and associate Joe Flavelle’s mansion, now the site of the UofT’s Law School.

Chancellor Edward Blake had drawn Walker into surveying the university’s financial situation. Walker came to serve on the royal commission of 1905-06 that had reorganized the governance of the institution, a commission that Flavelle chaired. [slides] Walker would himself serve as assume the chair of the board of governors from 1910 to 1923. He considered the university to be “the most important institution in Canada apart from the Government itself.” In 1918 the Minister of Education, Henry John Cody, elaborated on Walker’s views: “He believed in the value and power of education in the whole life of the Province and Dominion. Education is at once the key to efficiency and the safeguard of democracy…The universities…can render an incalculable service both to the higher life of our people and to the commercial and manufacturing interests of the country.” Again, the union between capitalism and culture is foregrounded.

As the Dictionary of Canadian Biography entry on Walker points out, one of the recommendations of the royal commission on which Walker served and which had brought him so firmly into the academic orbit was the creation of a museum. Other major universities, including Harvard and Yale, had founded noteworthy museums, so it’s no surprise that UofT would want one of its own. Architect Frederick Cumberland’s masterpiece structure, would include features of Oxford’s museum in its structure.

Interior of the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, United Kingdom. Photo by David Iliff in Wikimedia Commons.

Interior of the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, United Kingdom. Photo by David Iliff in Wikimedia Commons.

Walker served on the UofT’s governing board at a time when that body took a far more hands-on approach to academic management than it later did. As the university grew, academic professionals came to dominate the teaching staff, and then to demand a greater share of governance of the institution that their efforts shaped and enhanced. But Walker served on the board under a system in which he got to know the details—probably far too many—of how an academic institution operated. It’s likely that he got to know many of the university’s leaders and middle managers who came to speak to before the board’s various committees. If Walker’s museum was to function at least initially as an outgrowth of the university, then he had come to know how the supporting institution actually conducted its business; he came to understand not only what the institution said it did, but what it actually did and how it did it.

The ceiling of the rotunda at the Royal Ontario Museum. Photo by bodi bold in the Torontoist Flickr Pool.

The ceiling of the rotunda at the Royal Ontario Museum. Photo by bodi bold in the Torontoist Flickr Pool.

It will come as no surprise that Walker’s ROM project succeeded mightily. Centrally located near the seat of Ontario’s government, the museum also stands at the centre of Toronto middle-class culture. Growing up in Toronto still means Saturday morning classes and/or school field trips to the ROM. Daily, 2,500 people pour through its majestic entrance (soon to be reinstated), with its art deco evocation of the arts of all mankind, and purchase their tickets in the rotunda aglow with allegorical mosaics. Eager docents beckon from the sides as one enters the main exhibition hall. The impossibly tall totem poles jack a visitor’s gaze upward at a neck-wrenching angle for four storeys. Student artists cruise with folding canvas stools in hand as they navigate their copyist assignments.

Summer and winter, the school buses and their screen of sidewalk vendors idle in the Avenue Road parking quay, the day camp kids with their matching T-shirts chirp their way inside, and every corridor (even in the behind-the-scenes chambers where the recreational workshops take place) throbs with excitement. The ROM has been building its future public almost from its start—its founding director, Charles Trick Currelly (1876-1957), an early adherent of the concept of the child-centred museum, planned it that way. Any lone adult found in that country is obviously a tourist; any Toronto middle-class parent can describe in detail every inch of the dinosaur exhibits. Toronto’s most celebrated writer, Margaret Atwood, set her novel Life Before Man (1979) in the ROM, testimony to the institution’s importance.

One of the strongest features of Walker’s his legacy was his ability to pick the right person to head up the new institution, and then that person’s skills at bringing in talent to grow the project.

The next instalment of the story of Sir Edmund Walker’s new institution and the men whose personalities shaped the ROM will appear next week.


Additional material from: Edmund Walker papers, Fisher library, University of Toronto; Lovat Dickson, The Museum Makers (1986); Allan John Fletcher, “Industrial Algoma and the Myth of Wilderness,” MA thesis, UBC 1983; David Kimmel, “Sir Byron Edmund Walker,” DCB. Barbara Ruth Marshall, “Sir Edmund Walker, Servant of Canada,” MA thesis, UBC 1971.


Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.

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