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visual art

James W. Morrice’s Canal in Venice.

One of the country's most passionate collectors of and advocates for Canadian art is donating 50 paintings by James W. Morrice to the National Gallery of Canada, it was announced Tuesday in Ottawa.

The gift, valued at more than $20-million, comes from Ash Prakash, 69, of Toronto who, especially in the past 20 years, has become one of the best connected, most dedicated and most scholarly of collectors and dealers in blue-chip Canadian art.

The Morrice donation, timed to mark the 150th anniversary of the painter's birth in Montreal, was hailed by the NGC as "one of the finest philanthropic gifts in its 135-year history." In recognition, the gallery hosted a gala black-tie dinner Tuesday evening in Prakash's honour in its Scotiabank Great Hall. Some 150 well-wishers from arts, culture, business and political circles attended. The NGC also used the occasion to announce the inauguration of the Ash K. Prakash Room in its Canadian Art Wing. The room will carry that name for the next 25 years.

"[It's] an unprecedented honour and I'm just humbled and crushed with gratitude," Prakash said in an interview. "It's beyond words. What has taken place, I was merely going to do what I had committed to do a number of years ago when I started my own long journey … I just hope my gesture inspires others in our society to think of giving back a bit more than we take from this magnificent land we are fortunate to call home."

Morrice, who died at 58 in Tunisia in 1924, may not have the name recognition enjoyed by Lawren Harris, Tom Thomson, Alex Colville or Emily Carr among Canadians. In part, this is because as the well-off, peripatetic son of a textile merchant, he spent much of his time outside Canada, particularly in France, Italy, Spain and North Africa. Henri Matisse, Pierre-Auguste Renoir and J.M. Whistler numbered among his friends and acquaintances, Matisse describing him as "the artist with the delicate eye." Morrice never lived in Canada after departing for France in late 1889, but he regularly returned at Christmas to Quebec where he painted numerous, now much-sought winter scenes. Today his stature as Canada's leading proponent of Post-Impressionism remains unassailed.

The India-born Prakash, who last year donated $100,000 to the NGC and is now a director of the gallery's fundraising foundation, began acquiring Morrices in the early 1980s after returning to Canada from a posting with UNESCO Paris.

He'd first come to Canada in 1968 following studies at the University of California, Berkeley and the University of Michigan, soon embarking on a successful bureaucratic career that eventually saw him advising the cabinet secretariat of prime ministers Pierre Trudeau and Brian Mulroney and becoming an officer of the Privy Council. He exited Ottawa for Toronto in the mid-1990s to devote himself to philanthropy and to all aspects of visual arts connoisseurship – collecting, dealing, advising, writing. (His most recent book, the 800-page, full-colour Impressionism in Canada: A Journey of Rediscovery, published last year, was a national bestseller.)

Prakash's first big expenditure on a Morrice, $40,000 for a small Venice scene, occurred at auction. ("I loved it – it was so intricate and suggestive," he told an interviewer in 2012.) And auctions are where he's been a frequent participant, albeit a low-key one, acting for himself or on behalf of other well-heeled collectors.

A sale held in November, 2011, by Sotheby's Canada saw him bid $1.5-million (fees included) for a lovely medium-sized Venetian beach scene Morrice completed around 1905. Such outlays have not been uncommon: Six years ago, he paid more than $3.51-million (fees included) at a Toronto auction for a small 1926 Lawren Harris oil sketch, The Old Stump, Lake Superior – a record at the time for a Harris of any size. The work is currently on loan to the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles where it's part of a Harris exhibition curated by actor/writer/collector Steve Martin.

Built over more than three decades, Prakash's Morrice holdings were, until their donation, the most significant collection of the artist's output still in private hands. Katerina Atanassova, newly appointed NGC senior curator of Canadian art, lauded their "scope and depth," noting the collection's subject matter encompasses all of Morrice's favourite painting locations.

The NGC has its own long and substantial attachment to Morrice: It was the first public institution to acquire a Morrice canvas – this was in 1909 – and, even before the Prakash gift, its 282 paintings and works on paper represented the single largest cache of Morrices in the world.

Observed NGC director Marc Mayer: "[The Prakash gift] is extraordinary not only for the number and the rarity of these works but for the tremendous capacity it provides for comprehensive research and programming."

A display of a dozen of the gifted paintings is now up at the NGC. In the meantime, NGC is planning to reinstall and relaunch its Canadian permanent collection galleries in time for the country's sesquicentennial in 2017.

The A.K. Prakash Collection: J.W. Morrice will be part of that, with space devoted to the display of all 50 paintings. Also in the works: a major Morrice retrospective in 2019, with expectations of an international tour after its Ottawa showcase. Should that tour include the Dulwich Picture Gallery in south London no one would be less surprised than Prakash: He was a major sponsor of two successful Canadian-themed exhibitions there in, respectively, 2011-12 and 2014-15, Painting Canada: Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven and From the Forest to the Sea: Emily Carr in British Columbia.

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