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The Gardiner Museum of Ceramic Art

A passion for collecting.

Looking every inch the man of influence, George Gardiner gazes out from his portrait at the large chattering crowd of Toronto’s “empty bowls” enthusiasts. The elegant lounge is filled with those who have come to pick their original ceramic bowls from a bevy of too-hard-to-decide beauties while sampling delicious soups dreamed up by ten culinary superstars—Jamie Kennedy, Michael Stadlander and their like—at one of the Gardiner Museum of Ceramic Art’s most popular annual events.

But I think the fascinating man, whose name is attached to one of the most exquisite collections of fine porcelain and pottery in the world, and to this unique museum built by him to house it, would approve. George Gardiner had a passion for life. His interests were eclectic—everything from ice hockey, vintage wines and thoroughbred horses to delicately decorated ceramics. Generous as well, he liked sharing these pleasures with others, for which Toronto and, in fact, all Canada are richer.

As director of the museum, though I never knew George Gardiner personally, I determined early on that I must discover how he and his wife Helen became captivated by ceramic art. Only Helen could reveal the amazing story. Over tea in what was once her pale pink office, she mused, “It all began with George’s aversion to ‘knick-knacks’ of any kind.

“We had moved into a new house on Old Forest Hill Road and my husband decided we should collect something unique to make our house look lived in. George didn’t want to go out and buy a truckload of knick-knacks or ask our decorator to do so. As with anything we acquired, he wanted it to have quality, individuality and his personal stamp.”

According to people who knew him best, George was brilliant as well as intuitive, and his rare sense of business acumen is the stuff of legend. George Gardiner was a successful financier, former chairman of the Toronto Stock Exchange (1962-64) and founder of Gardiner Group Capital, Canada’s first discount brokerage firm. He was also responsible for bringing Kentucky Fried Chicken to Canada, and was one of the famed Silver Seven, the hockey committee that gained control of Maple Leaf Gardens in 1957, home of the Toronto Maple Leafs and then a thriving entertainment centre.

Without knowing where or how to begin, George and Helen made the decision to collect ceramics. Upon the advice of friends, they subscribed to decorative arts catalogues published by Christie’s and Sotheby’s, and made their first purchases by submitting auction bids through the mail.

“In the beginning we were extremely naive,” says Helen, “but that soon changed.” George brought his academic orientation and insatiable thirst for knowledge to the task and Helen applied her extraordinary eye for beauty. Together they began to collect ancient American pottery for their recreation room, as well as yellow ground porcelain and harlequin figures (George was a director of Harlequin Books) for their living room. To increase their knowledge of ceramic art and its history, they avidly read everything they could find.

In the late 1970s, inflation had moved into double digits. George came across an article that ranked various investments as hedges against inflation. To his surprise and delight, Chinese and European porcelain out-performed stocks, bonds and real estate. George’s business instinct told him now was the time to graduate from decorator to collector. As he and Helen had spent two years learning about ceramics to decorate their home, they knew more about this art form than the average buyer, and George thought it prudent to leverage their new knowledge and protect their estate by investing a percentage of their capital in ceramic art.

One of the jewels in the Gardiner collection is a yellow ground tea and chocolate service manufactured in 1740 by Meissen, the first European hard-paste porcelain factory. This fifty-piece service once belonging to the Rothschilds is complete, exquisitely decorated and in its original leather travelling case crafted more than 250 years ago.

The purchase of this Meissen service marked the moment when the Gardiners became serious ceramic collectors, as well as the beginning of a long-standing relationship formed with Robert Williams, a London dealer who guided them in establishing one of the world’s great collections of ceramic art. Upon the advice of a porcelain expert from Sotheby’s, Helen Gardiner visited Bob Williams’s shop—Winifred Williams Antiques on Bury Street in London—to view the service. She left the shop and convinced George to make time during his business trip to examine the porcelain. George purchased it. Being a woman of intuition, Helen had known he would find the Rothschild treasure irresistible.

George brought his academic orientation and insatiable thirst for knowledge to the task and Helen applied her extraordinary eye for beauty.

At that time, Christie’s offered a year-long course in the decorative arts in London, and George encouraged Helen to enrol. Thus she embarked on one of the most exciting periods of her life and immersed herself in the new world that was unfolding.

Part of the couple’s strategy was to make sure they met everyone who was anyone in the ceramics world, and to make them family friends. As Helen possessed keen intelligence, enthusiasm and a passionate interest in ceramics, she was quickly embraced by the community. Bob Williams frequently invited her to lunch at his shop, setting a table for two in the basement, serving smoked salmon and a split of Champagne. At these delightful encounters, there was always a ceramic objet d’art on the table, which they would discuss in detail. To this day, Helen remains grateful to Bob for mentoring her. “Bob taught me how to really look at things. He was generous with his knowledge and showed me how to identify artists and factories by the distinctive characteristics of their work.”

The Gardiners were introduced to Du Paquier, the second factory in Europe to produce hard-paste porcelain in the 18th century, and to Hausmaler, a term used to describe ceramics decorated by studio artists who painted or redecorated porcelain produced by factories such as Meissen or Du Paquier. They decided to collect Du Paquier because it was undervalued at the time, and the artists employed by this factory had a much freer hand. The Hausmaler created a staggering variety of pieces with unique, individualized charm, especially when compared to the beautiful, but controlled and precise work done by Meissen.

Rather than relying on impulse or visual appeal, George’s choices were cerebral. “We collected Hausmaler since the style of painting was so distinct that we could easily distinguish one artist from another. Then there was the intrigue and corporate espionage behind this particular tradition—the undecorated wares were acquired by studio artists in a number of interesting ways—but that’s another story!”

Italian maoilica, renowned for its lush, sensual colours and painterly decoration, is prized among collectors around the world. The Gardiners were no exception. All it took was the rapturous introduction to maoilica during Helen’s course at Christie’s, her staging of a visit to the Victoria and Albert Museum’s famed collection, et voilà! both Helen and George were hooked. Coincidentally, maiolica was enjoying a relative lull in the marketplace, and George was quick to take advantage. In a relatively short time, the Gardiners established one of the most magnificent collections of Italian maiolica in North America.

Timothy Wilson, Keeper of Western Art, the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, describes the Gardiner Museum as one of his favourite places in the world because of its Renaissance maiolica: “This world class collection was formed with single-minded focus, with flair and dynamism, and with money. And I make no apology for mentioning the M word.”

Judiciously, these now confirmed collectors identified objects of interest, scrutinized them, then evaluated their condition and historical significance, before taking action. The Gardiners consulted with Bob Williams and other dealers to establish the price-point they would not exceed at auction. Attending auctions personally when they could, they also bid by phone or through their dealers in London, Rome, Paris, Monte Carlo, New York, and Geneva.

Soon the Gardiner home became literally crammed with ceramics—some on display, others stored all over the house in the most unusual places. The Gardiners had purchased their first objects in 1977, acquired the famed Meissen service in 1979, and in an astonishing four years owned over 2,000 pieces of ceramic art.

Many people collect art, but few decide to found a museum to house their collection. Such a momentous decision requires courage, confidence, perception and drive, as well as the means—and George Gardiner had them all. At the age of sixty-three, Gardiner chose to share this priceless ceramic collection with the people of Canada during his lifetime, when he could have the pleasure of being part of the process.

To realize this dream, Gardiner knew he had better seek expert advice. He called Aaron Milrad, a prominent cultural properties lawyer, and offered him a job. It was an offer Milrad will never forget. “I picked up the phone and a distinctive voice said, ‘This is George Gardiner, I want to establish a museum and I need you to help me.’ George had very few conditions: ‘When I call you, you answer the phone; when I need to see you, you come. In exchange, your fees will be paid within 24 hours of receiving a bill.’”

In 1981 the Ontario government unanimously passed Bill183 to establish The George R. Gardiner Museum of Ceramic Art as an independent, public institution. The biggest challenge was finding the right location. Many possible sites were investigated—property in Yorkville, an historic home (George Brown House on Beverly Street) and the Power House (now The Power Plant) at Harbourfront. None of these proved satisfactory: they were either too remote, too small, or unable to showcase the Gardiner Collection in its entirety.

The Gardiners had purchased their first objects in 1977, acquired the famed Meissen service in 1979, and in an astonishing four years owned over 2,000 pieces of ceramic art.

Fortune smiled when George’s friend Dr. Murray Ross, then President of York University suggested the tennis courts opposite the Royal Ontario Museum. Owned by Victoria University at the University of Toronto, the site was a prime location. What could be more ideal? It was set in the heart of the city, at Queen’s Park and Bloor, accessible by public transit, and across from one of Canada’s largest museums.

Dr. Ross helped George and Helen successfully negotiate with Victoria University. The tennis courts were much loved by staff and students at Vic, and this made the proposal contentious. A deal was reached when George offered to pay half a million dollars to Victoria University for the creation of new courts elsewhere on campus.

The Gardiner Museum, opened to the public in 1984, was the culmination of a dream. Created by architect Keith Wagland and designer Robert Meikeljohn, the $30 million museum fulfilled the Gardiners’ desire to create a jewel-like setting for their stunning porcelain and ceramic collection. Like such private Canadian collectors as Sonja Bata and Max Aitken, the Gardiners set a public-spirited example for others to follow.

On the strength of its founding collection and its expanding role in the community, the museum has since attracted several major collections, including the Hans Syz collection of German porcelain, the Robert Murray Bell and Ann Walker Bell collection of Chinese blue and white porcelain, and the Aaron Milrad collection of 20th century Canadian, American and British ceramics.

The Gardiner continues to expand its horizons. Recent exhibitions including Miró: Playing with Fire have drawn thousands of people, attracted national and international media coverage, and helped position ceramics as a fine art medium. Originated by the Gardiner Museum, the spectacular exhibition of ceramic art by the renowned Spanish modernist Joan Miró—the first public showing of his work in this medium in North America—confirmed the growing stature of this institution in the international museum world.

This fall, Harlequin Unmasked: Comedy Transformed takes the stage at the Gardiner Museum. Certain to delight lovers of theatre, opera, and comedy, the exhibition is centred around the museum’s extraordinary 100-piece commedia dell’arte sculpture collection. Original, never-before-displayed 18th century costumes from the Czech Republic, Sweden, and Italy, bejewelled masks, amusing props such as the slapstick used by Harlequin, will bring these comedic characters to life. The show will be presented September 22, 2001 through January 20, 2002, in Toronto only.

“The wily character of Harlequin enchanted my husband and me from our first encounter,” says Helen Gardiner. “This exhibition reminds me of how we got started, and how our collection transformed our life.

“I encourage anyone with the inclination to collect. The process is so rewarding. If you are passionate about what you are collecting, it introduces you to a new milieu, interesting people, stimulating ideas and unanticipated pleasures. Who could ask for anything more?”