For many, describing something as "Canadiana" usually conjures up visions of the hand-made, the folkish and the twee – things like duck decoys, Ookpiks, tattered snowshoes, souvenir china and Hudson's Bay blankets.
But then there's Canadiana of an altogether more serious and significant sort. Like the 40 or so prints and paintings on view through Thursday afternoon on the third floor of Toronto's Gardiner Museum of Ceramic Art. This art was for decades part of the famous Winkworth Collection in London, named after Peter Stephen Winkworth, son of a Canadian mother and English father, who spent more than 50 of his 76 years assiduously accumulating thousands of artifacts related to the colonial/first-contact history of Canada.
If the name rings a bell, it's probably because of the much-discussed sale Winkworth made, for about $6-million in 2002, of 3,300 prints, 700 watercolours, eight oils and assorted ephemera to what is now Library and Archives Canada. The single largest and most important acquisition in the archive's history, it was followed by the sale of another 1,200 paintings, sketches and prints to Library and Archives Canada and the National Gallery for $4.5-million in 2008, three years after Winkworth's death.
Now, following the death of Winkworth's widow Franca in 2013 and the sale of the Kensington mansion that housed the collection, Christie's auctioneers in London has been tasked with selling the collector's remaining treasures. A total of 325 lots, carrying an estimate of $1.7-million to $2.5-million, are going on the block April 1 at Christie's offices on Old Brompton Road. The works at the Gardiner are being presented as a sort of preview/appetizer for that sale, which includes much art, of course, but also clocks, furniture, china, maps, jugs, journals, stereoscopic photographs and tomahawks. Nicholas Lambourn, Christie's head of department, topographical pictures, noted this week: "We've been through every nook and cranny of Campden Hill Place [the Winkworth residence] looking for things."
Two of the auction's most valuable lots are displayed at the Gardiner. One is a watercolour on paper, An East View of the Great Cataract of Niagara, painted in 1762 by the young British soldier Capt. Thomas Davies. According to Christie's, this arresting panorama represents both "the very first view of Niagara Falls taken on the spot and the first accurate view," one that "radically corrects earlier fanciful descriptions." Its presale estimate is $77,000-$115,000. The other preview highlight is a superior oil on canvas by Cornelius Krieghoff, titled Quebec Farm, painted in 1856. The bloom has been off the Krieghoff resale market for more than two decades – indeed, the record for a Krieghoff at auction was set in 1994 when Donald Sobey paid $440,000 for an 1859 canvas, Early Canadian Homestead, now in the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia. But with Quebec Farm the auction's highest single estimate ($115,000-$154,000), Christie's clearly believes it can, at least in this one instance, revive Krieghoff's fortunes.
The preview of The Winkworth Collection: A Treasure House of Canadiana in London is at the Gardiner Museum of Ceramic Art, 111 Queen's Park, Toronto. March 3 until 6 p.m. ET, Mar. 4 (10:00 a.m.-6:00 p.m.) and Mar. 5 (10:00 a.m.-2:00 p.m.).