About 35,000 schoolchildren a year troop through the McMichael Canadian Art Collection in Kleinburg, Ont. Until recently, a white-haired woman with a taste for artistic scarves would often greet them. Sometimes, she'd stoop down to pick up after them - whisking away stray candy wrappers as scrupulously as if the gallery were her own house.
Once, it was. Signe McMichael was one half of the couple who created the collection of works by Tom Thomson, Emily Carr, David Milne and the Group of Seven, and Inuit and Woodland art and sculpture. She and her husband, Robert, donated 200 paintings to the public in 1965, along with the house that contained them - known as Tapawingo (Place of Joy) - and the forest in which it sits, about 40 kilometres northwest of Toronto.
"The sense of home that pervades the place today is due to her," said Tom Smart, director of the McMichael. "That kind of feel is her legacy."
"Without this remarkable couple, there would be no gallery," wrote author Pierre Berton, a lifelong friend and defender of the McMichaels, in a letter to The Globe and Mail in 1981. "[They]gave the best years of their lives to the fulfilment of that dream. And when the dream was complete, they turned it over to the people of Ontario - everything - the astonishing collection of paintings, the unique log building in which they were housed, and the setting itself - perhaps the most valuable piece of rural real estate in the province."
Mr. Berton, the champion, invoked the ghost of Canada's first prime minister and aimed his lance directly at Queen's Park, which had decided to close the gallery and the estate, which was also the McMichael's home, for two years.
"In the light of the ludicrous and contradictory statements being made on behalf of the gallery's board and the Government, it is pertinent to question the real motives of the bureaucrats," Mr. Berton wrote. "For none of the arguments has been convincing. As Sir John A. Macdonald once said, in a different context, 'It won't catch the blindest.' The suspicion lingers that the civil servants are trying to get rid of the McMichaels. The public, surely, will not stand for this shabby treatment. Every Canadian who has spent an afternoon at this unique and splendid gallery owes a debt to Robert and Signe McMichael."
The McMichaels were always ready to skirmish with anyone they sensed who wanted to move the collection or the institution away from its founders' vision, with Robert doing the talking, and Signe frowning and nodding vigorously in the background.
Her family, the Sorensons, immigrated to Canada from Denmark in 1927. They arrived when Signe was 6, settling in the Peace River district of Alberta. Her mother, Anna Tera, died shortly after, leaving Soren Sorenson to bring up his three daughters, Astrid, Signe, and Helen, in the approaching Depression. Yet Signe always spoke of a happy childhood, with a pony, a dog cart and explorations on cross-country skis.
A good scholar with a prodigious memory, she graduated from Alberta College in the opening days of the Second World War and was hired into the communications branch of the Royal Canadian Air Force. With demobilization, she took jobs in commercial radio in Edmonton, Vancouver - and then Toronto, where she met a tall, confident salesman who told her he was building a business that offered bridal photography services.
"When I first met her, Signe Sorenson was employed as a continuity writer at [Toronto's]radio station CKEY," Robert McMichael wrote in his autobiography, One Man's Obsession. "Impressed with the care and attention she gave to writing and scheduling the brief, inexpensive bridal commercials I purchased, I found that I was also personally attracted to her. In spite of the small salary I could offer, I was able to lure her to work at my photographic studio."
This passage is one of the longest Mr. McMichael wrote about the woman who would become his loyal wife for the next 54 years.
"The title of his book tells it all," said Geoffrey Zimmerman, who was Ms. McMichael's legal representative on the McMichael gallery board. "But the thing that always struck me was what a complementary partnership it was. Bob was full of bravado, he could bully or charm; Signe was quiet but methodical."
"I always felt he kept her under a basket," said Dennis Reid, senior curator of Canadian art at the Art Gallery of Ontario. "And I always liked her sweet disposition and gentle heart."
The pair married in 1949. Two years later, Robert went to see some bush land outside Toronto on the Humber River (and here his prose becomes genuinely romantic): "My pulse quickened and I knew I was falling in love at first sight; an affair that would last a lifetime. That evening, as I tried to describe the forests and hills above the yawning valley with its twisted river … Signe smiled at me and, I could see, was making allowances for gross exaggeration."
But she fell in love, too, and they bought six hectares. As Robert's photography business morphed into packaging products targeted at the newlywed market, he travelled the continent, leaving Ms. McMichael to handle the construction of their new house. Soon, they were wealthy enough to fill it with Canadian landscape art.
By the late 1950s, Tapawingo had become famous for paintings and parties, with neighbours such as the Bertons, and surviving members of the Group of Seven, a group of landscape artists who, in the 1920s, had melded the influences of European Impressionism together with the harrowing experiences of the First World War to provide fresh and vigorous interpretations of the Canadian wilderness. Still among the best known Canadian painters in history, they were Franklin Carmichael, Lawren Harris, A..Y. Jackson, Frank Johnston, Arthur Lismer, J..E..H. MacDonald and Frederick Varley. Tom Thomson was friends with most of the members but died before the group was formed. Later, the group expanded to include L..L. FitzGerald, Edwin Holgate and A..J. Casson.
As it happens, Jackson and Varley lived out some of their final years at Tapawingo, and some members of the group are buried on the property.
In 1965, the McMichaels convinced the provincial government to take over Tapawingo's operating costs and create a public gallery. In return, they were given the unusual right to live on-site, all expenses paid, and to occupy two of the five positions on the gallery's board. In 1968, after more McMichael lobbying, the gallery won Crown status, which meant that gifts could be written off against donors' income - a precedent for all art patrons in Canada.
One who gave to the McMichael was Colonel Sam McLaughlin, president of General Motors of Canada. "I doubt that but for Signe's friendship with Isabel McLaughlin that the colonel would have given his collection," Mr. Zimmerman said.
By 1980, the gallery had become a conservationist's nightmare. The couple was ousted so the building could be fireproofed, repaired and expanded. In 1981, Ontario taxpayers paid $298,544 to buy them a big new house in nearby Belfountain, but it wasn't the same. They were unhappy to be away from home. "We'd still rather have Tapawingo," Mr. McMichael said.
Another festering issue was the gallery's mandate. According to the original deal, it was to collect works by artists "who have made contributions to the development of Canadian art." But what is "Canadian art"? In 1996, after curators installed a modernistic steel-and-concrete sculpture by John McEwen on the long entrance drive where the couple had once planted saplings by hand, the landscape-loving McMichaels sued Ontario for breach of contract. In June, 2000, they won. Ontario passed legislation that restored their board positions and reaffirmed that the gallery's mandate lay predominantly in realistic imagery.
This was the art loved by Ms. McMichael, in particular. John Ryerson, now director of the Varley Gallery in Markham, Ont., chatted with her about the collection in the 16 years he worked at the McMichael. "She was the more knowledgeable," he recalled, "though profoundly overshadowed by Bob."
Mr. McMichael died in 2003. "He was the love of her life," Mr. Zimmerman said. "After, she was preoccupied with her memories."
But for as long as she could, he said, despite knee surgery, she would go to the gallery to greet the schoolchildren.
Signe Kirsten Sorenson McMichael was born Feb 10, 1921, in Sandersig, Denmark. She died of heart disease in Toronto on Wednesday evening. She was 86. She is survived by her older sister Astrid Wright. She will be buried at Tapawingo beside her husband, amid the graves of the Group of Seven. The graveyard was created by the Province of Ontario and is restricted to members of the Group of Seven, their wives and the founders. The graves are laid out in a circle, and their headstones are rocks from the Canadian Shield. Members of the group not interred in the graveyard are Franklin Carmichael, L..L. FitzGerald, J..E... MacDonald and Edwin Holgate.
The funeral will be held at the gallery in Kleinburg, Ont., at 11 a.m. on Monday.