Old St. Andrews



The Van Horne Paintings



A story which ran parallel to the general Island auction but which had a somewhat happier ending concerned the fate of Sir William's own paintings.

In 1975 Langdon had sold 15 of these paintings to A. N. Dennigar, an art dealer in Belfast, Maine. In 1976 Robert Manuge, an art dealer in Halifax, Nova Scotia, heard about them and arranged to buy them from Dennigar through Langdon for $18,000. Manuge considered this a bargain hardly to be believed. He made other trips to Minister's Island, attended the auction, and picked up not only other paintings, some for as low as $300, but also Sir William's easel. In the fall of 1976 Manuge hosted an exhibition of the paintings at his Halifax art gallery with Pierre Berton as guest speaker. They had been restored by local artist Dusan Kadlec.

The paintings didn't really attract much attention until, just before the auction, it was revealed that having failed to interest the New Brunswick government in them, Manuge was planning to ship his 21 Van Horne originals to England for sale at the York International Railway Festival and Auction of Railwayana. But preferring that they stay in Canada, he offered to sell them as a group to the Province of New Brunswick for $200,000, later lowering the price to $105,000. "I don't think such a rare treasure, created by a great Canadian, is available for purchase anywhere else," said Manuge. "This is not a suit of his clothes or a hat; this is a remarkable achievement in excellence by a world-renowned figure whose zeal matched that of any of the French Impressionists." According to Kadlec, "They were done by a very artistically learned man, a great man, and it is a pity that we have so few of them. He had an inner quality. He looked at things in a special way and interpreted what he saw in a powerful manner, and he was a genius in composition."

The auction put powerful pressure on the New Brunswick government to secure these paintings, at least partially to make up for the debacle of Minister's Island generally. The story dragged on well after the 1977 purchase of Minister's Island from Langdon. In 1978 the Province hired Robert Percival, Head Curator of Art at the New Brunswick Museum, to take a trip to Halifax to appraise them. Mr. Percival's assessment, unfortunately, was rather negative. "Van Horne was what you would call a Sunday painter," said Mr. Percival. "The paintings have historic value but very little creative value." He thought that Mr. Manuge was afraid of being stuck with them. For him the paintings had little or no value outside New Brunswick because Van Horne was not known as a painter. "The National Art Gallery wouldn't be interested in them even if they were offered for free and yet Mr. Manuge is asking the kind of money you would only pay for a Group of Seven painting collection."

Government decided not to purchase.

There was a happy ending, however. In August, 1979, Imperial Oil bought the 21 paintings for approximately $180,000 with plans to donate some of them to the New Brunswick government, others to provinces with historical Van Horne ties, and three to its permanent art collection. A spokesman said the decision to purchase was made not because the paintings possessed any great artistic merit, but because they belonged to an important and unique era in Canadian history, and there was a danger of their leaving the country. In September of that year five of the paintings were presented to the Province of New Brunswick, and Premier Hatfield affirmed that they would eventually find a permanent resting place in their rightful home on Minister's Island, promising also that the Province would soon have enough of the old furniture to refurnish the house. In the spirit of the affair, a Van Horne painting of birches originally presented to Senator Robert MacKay, a wealthy summer resident of St. Andrews, by Van Horne in 1906, was donated to the St. Andrews public library in 1978. Restored by Saint John artist Fred Ross, it hangs there still.

Finally, in 1982, the year in which the Province took complete possession of Minister's Island, Imperial Oil very generously returned all of the Van Horne paintings to the Province, and every summer they adorn the otherwise mostly bare interior of Covenhoven.