Few Canadians were as steeped in the brew of their country’s culture and arts as Vincent Massey Tovell. Throughout his long life, he was a presence in the nation’s music, its visual arts, theatre, dance and, above all, broadcasting. Mr. Tovell carried the reputation as the CBC’s “most consciously intellectual producer.”
He was a man of charming Edwardian manners and a scion of the patrician Massey family (he was named for his mother’s first cousin Vincent Massey, Canada’s first native-born governor-general and founder of Massey College) and he possessed a beautifully mellifluous CBC voice that identified him from one end of the country to the other.
An ardent nationalist, Mr. Tovell was named an officer of the Order of Canada for his advocacy and exploration of Canada’s cultural identity.
He directed and produced television documentaries ranging from a complex postcolonial scrutiny of the country with scholar Northrop Frye and a penetrating 1967 centennial-year examination of Canada’s environmental, technological and political future – the environmental segment, titled The Earth is a Very Small Spaceship, was a prescient look at Earth’s ecological capacity – to eclectic inquiries into sand, concrete architecture and space.
Among his many projects, he co-authored and produced a scholarly historical drama for television about the Earl of Durham, the early 19th-century governor-general of British North America famous for simultaneously recommending the smothering of French culture in Canada and the establishment of Canadian democratic self-rule.
For reasons unknown, his name was used as a nom de brosse by Glenn Gould’s lover, the German-American painter Cornelia Foss. After leaving her husband, composer Lukas Foss, to take up with Mr. Gould in Toronto in 1967, she signed her work “K. Torell,” which those in the city’s high-culture set all knew referred to Mr. Tovell.
The celebrated Canadian pianist was a close friend of Mr. Tovell and one of their many CBC-broadcast conversations was labelled “stunningly intimate.”
He mentored former governor-general Adrienne Clarkson when she began her CBC broadcasting career in 1965.
He walked off the job with his fellow producers when the government of then-prime minister John Diefenbaker pressured the public broadcaster to make programming changes. He created a hullabaloo when he brought the then-controversial avant-garde composer Igor Stravinsky to Toronto to perform.
Mr. Tovell’s influence, however, extended far beyond the CBC. He was instrumental in the founding of the Canada Council of the Arts and Toronto’s Design Exchange. He played pivotal roles at the National Theatre School, the National Ballet School, the Canadian Conference of the Arts, the National Gallery and Massey College in the University of Toronto, where he was deeply engaged as a senior fellow and benefactor.
An art aficionado, Mr. Tovell donated pieces of his collection (among them a Gauguin and an exquisite work by the fin-de-siècle French sculptor Raymond Duchamp-Villon) during his lifetime to the Art Gallery of Ontario. An internationally known Egyptologist dedicated his doctoral dissertation on the reign of Pharaoh Seti I to Mr. Tovell.
He dismissed Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro as “boring,” but was a fanatic Wagnerian and knew the Ring Cycle and all its recordings inside out.
He had a rich spiritual life and a belief in the importance of rituals – yet, having meticulously planned his funeral, decided at the last moment not to have one.
Vincent Tovell died in Toronto, the city of his birth, on May 6 at the age of 91.
He was born in 1922 and grew up with his three brothers and a raft of cousins in the Massey family compound of Dentonia Park, the 80-hectare model farm in the Danforth and Victoria Park avenues area of Toronto’s east end.
The farm had been created in 1897 by his grandfather, Walter Massey, president of both the Canada Cycle and Motor Co. (bicycle maker CCM) and Massey-Harris Co., the largest manufacturer of farm implements in the British Empire.
Named for his grandmother, Susan Marie Denton Massey, Dentonia Park had architecturally designed buildings, a large family residential enclave, facilities designed for “sport, scientific experiment and cheerful piety,” imported Jersey cattle and a laboratory for the production of prescription milk – leading to the establishment in 1900 of the City Dairy Co. Ltd., one of the first suppliers in Canada of pasteurized milk.
(A substantial portion of the farm was donated to the city as parkland in 1926 and is now a three-hole golf course.)
The Masseys’ daughter Ruth met Harold Tovell, a radiologist, through her first cousin and close friend Vincent Massey and later married him. The couple had four sons: Walter Massey Tovell, a geologist and subsequent director of the Royal Ontario Museum; Freeman Massey Tovell, a diplomat and historian; Harold Murchison Massey Tovell, a gynecologist and obstetrician, and the youngest, Vincent.
During extended travels with her husband in Europe – where her sons were partly educated (Vincent learned his French in Belgium and spent the summers of 1937 and 1938 at the home of the French cubist painter Jacques Villon) – Ruth Tovell became interested in Renaissance Flemish art and published a book in 1950, Flemish Artists of the Valois Courts, considered the first work on art history printed in English in Canada on a non-Canadian subject.
She subsequently wrote a successful murder mystery set in the Parisian art world, The Crime in the Boulevard Raspail.
Her husband was also interested in art and became an early and influential collector of Canadian painting, particularly the works of the Group of Seven.
Young Vincent, immersed in music, literature, drama, painting and sculpture and dance from an early age – as a boy he wanted to be a ballet dancer, said legendary CBC producer Eric Koch – continued his education at Toronto’s Upper Canada College and then went on to obtain bachelor’s and master’s degrees at University of Toronto.
He was rejected for military service in the Second World War for medical reasons. His love of the arts took him to the CBC as a part-time employee in 1942, beginning a love affair with the corporation that stretched over half a century.
John Fraser, the master of Massey College, said, “In the last decades of his life, from 1988 to 2014, Vincent Tovell was probably the single most influential senior fellow of Massey College. … He was influential in promoting projects in astrophysics, the Canadian Opera Company and almost anything that furthered contact between the brilliant junior fellows [graduate students] of the college and the wider world all around them.”
Margaret Lyons, another of CBC’s iconic producers, who was among Mr. Tovell’s friends and visited him regularly at his retirement residence, recounted how young CBC hopefuls and graduate students were bringing scripts and manuscripts to him for assessment and approval until the end of his life. “He was such a flattering person to talk to if you were young,” Ms. Lyons said.
Senior AGO curator Katharine Lochnan and her architect husband George Yost gave an English high tea for Mr. Tovell – “like the Dentonia days,” Dr. Lochnan said – at their Toronto home shortly before he died. People flew in from around the continent. Said Dr. Lochnan: “It was a startlingly young crowd.”
He never learned to type, refused to use a computer and filled many of his friends with something approaching dread when their telephones rang and that lovely CBC voice said hello.
Mr. Tovell was a marathon talker, a practice he developed in his early years as a producer. “He would try out ideas on the phone,” said Mr. Koch. “He didn’t expect you to respond.” That’s how he thought. He talked.
And the ideas were so often rich.
He leaves his sister-in-law Rosita, wife of his brother Freeman, and nieces and nephews Denton, Susan, Marianne, Rosemarie, Pat, Peter, Christopher and Daniel. “In many ways we were his children,” Rosemarie Tovell said.
A celebration of his life will be held June 11 from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. at Massey College, 4 Devonshire Place, Toronto.
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